Recent years’ forecasts of “mega-clubs” cementing their place atop their domestic leagues until they secede into a European “super league” look increasingly silly with each glance at the top five European league tables. Chelsea’s new competitors show how the domestic leagues are far from static.
Membership in the Premier League’s “big six” just ain’t what it used to be. It doesn’t even come with the perk of being in the top six any more, for Pete’s sake. After 25 games, Chelsea are eight points behind third place Leicester. The only larger gap between two adjacent teams in the table is the ridiculous one separating Liverpool from Manchester City. On the other side, the Blues have four points on Tottenham. You have to scroll down to ninth-place Wolves to find another similar margin: they have a four point margin over the four clubs vying for the last spot in the top half of the table. The only other gap of four or more points is between the bottom two teams.
Two non-“big six” teams are currently in the top six. One of them – Leicester City – is all but guaranteed to finish there, and is only slightly less certain to finish in the top four.
Five teams have 35-37 points, fighting for the two Europa League places, if not to nip the Champions League berth Chelsea currently occupy. Sheffield United – a newly-promoted club instead of a “big six” club – is in the top six on goal differential. The others include Manchester United, Wolves and Everton.
Everton have been trading off their expired status as a “major club” for nearly a decade. With Carlo Ancelotti, they have their first coach in recent memory with history of top finishes and European qualification and trophies. The Toffees have joined the race for next year’s Europa League by winning three and drawing two of their last five games. Only Liverpool have more points in that stretch.
This picture means it is possible for only three “big six” clubs to finish in the top six. Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea could be in there with a newly-promoted club, the resurgent Cinderella of four years ago, a resurrection project (Everton) or however you’d like to describe Wolves.
That scenario would leave the biggest club of them all, Manchester United, last year’s Champions League finalists Tottenham and the to-this-point-unmentioned-because-they-are-a-distant-10th-place Arsenal out of Europe.
Arsenal have the most ground to cover to regain European qualification, and would need the teams above them to fail. Manchester United are a hot mess in every way, but they may be able to gather together enough pride to push their way into Europe’s junior tournament. Tottenham are the most likely to be the fourth “big six” team in the top six, not only on the current standings but because they have Jose Mourinho.
The situation is similar in some of Europe’s other top leagues.
Bayern Munich is atop the Bundesliga for only the second week this season, and that could change by the time you’re reading this. RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach are currently all within three points of Bayern, who could finish the weekend in second on goal differential.
Serie A, meanwhile, is a duel between two former Chelsea managers. Juventus’ streak of eight consecutive scudetti started with three under Antonio Conte. He is now trying to end that streak by winning the title with Inter Milan. After Juventus lost to Hellas Verona, Inter could return to first with a Milan derby win on Sunday.
Spain has settled into the usual two-way race after the first half of the season built some suspense. And France is as predictable as ever, although second-place Marseille may be ready for a title challenge next season under the guidance of Chelsea legend Andre Villas-Boas.
The domestic league picture around Europe is not just about parallels with the Premier League and interesting fodder for conversation.
Teams like Bayern Munich and Juventus are truly competing on 2-3 fronts for league title, domestic cup and Champions League. They will need to play their best XI’s in all competitions in the hopes of securing any silverware, including the trophies that normally come easily. This puts them in the same boat as the English teams, such as Chelsea.
Chelsea face Bayern Munich in the Champions League Round of 16. The Blues are significant underdogs, but RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach are doing them a favour.
Munich’s schedule is much friendlier than Chelsea’s heading into the Champions League games, though. Munich face Paderborn and FC Union Berlin – both promoted teams currently in 18th and 11th, respectively – immediately before playing the Blues. Chelsea, on the other hand, have Tottenham and Aston Villa.
Even so, Bayern Munich will not be able to fully rest their side ahead of the ties because they must ensure three points in every domestic fixture.
Control for Liverpool’s monstrosity of a season and the Premier League is still the most competitive league in the world. This season is forcing the “big six” clubs to realize that there is no such thing as permanent membership in the top six or the top four, the only classes that matter.
Chelsea have much more to contend with than just the usual, traditional rivals for a Champions League spot. That’s the best argument against fear-mongering about splinter leagues and super clubs.