English league soccer will go on a brief two week hiatus after January 4ths Tottenham-Chelsea game. In a run up of English Football madness since Boxing Day, many teams will conclude the weekend’s affairs with having played three games in seven days. Instead of rest and rehabilitation, many of the top teams will be competing in English FA Cup. This is the particular stretch of the schedule English football managers have expressed their displeasure with. It will be interesting to see how the second half of the year in the EPL shapes out to be like. While many have given Chelsea the proverbial crown as early as late November, Bookmakers have Liverpool +500 & Manchester City +500 to take the cake at the end of May. Chelsea is roughly -175 to close the show on top. Ask any Liverpool or City fan, and they will argue the only reason Chelsea is ahead is because of their early season cupcake schedule. Only time will tell on that front. Before we get into overseeing the last few Premiere League matches of the year. I wanted to appreciate the pause in action for most of Europe’s other leagues by highlighting some unique unfolding in competitions not nicknamed Barclay’s.
Real Madrid closed the first half of the season in La Liga on top with 37 points. The defending Champions League and La Liga club put in a strong first six months of futbol. Three points clear of Barcelona, the Spaniards played to a draw at Camp Nou in the first leg of El Classico. The 1-1 finish that almost feels like a win thanks to Sergio Ramos’ 90th minute bagger. The two sides will meet again on April 23rd at the Bernabeu in what might play out to be the match of the year across all of soccer. Barcelona's first half woes have been fairly well documented, but with Atletico Madrid nine points off the pace with 28. Only Sevilla with 33 points is equipped to challenge the two giants at topping the table. After winning the treble in 2014, Messi and company have come up empty in both domestic and European competitions in what could be two years in a row. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico, and Sevilla will all feature in this years Champions League knockout stages. Barca has drawn ailing French giant PSG while Real meets Napoli for the first time ever Atletico got paired with an underperforming Bayer Leverkusen side while Sevilla dances with last years EPL darlings Leicester.
Real Madrid to win at the end of the year stands at -210 in the futures markets. Barcelona is priced to attract at +160. Being only 3 points back of Real means this bad boy is in play until the very end. It’s hard laying -210 for four months with only one game in hand on your fiercest rival. A random Real Madrid draw and Barca winning El Classico is a very real possibility. The Catalonians played an overall disappointing first half of futbol. I highly doubt that carries over into the New Year. While Athletico are priced at +2800, they have a very real shot at winning the Champions League at +900. Last year’s defeat to Madrid was a stinger and with piles of debt being stacked on the club, this may just be their last chance to contend abroad before Atletico blows up their roster and sells the big money stars. The real treat in La Liga for 2017 will be the play of Sevilla. At +6600 to win it all this club can beat anyone on any given day. Sevilla is rock solid at home and the team is a snake in the grass, only four points back of Real Madrid for first. Spain's top 3 all have pressure to deliver on the Champions League front that may distract them from league play. The back to back to back Europa Cup winners have no worries in the Champions League. Priced + 4000, the books are giving this team a better shot to win all of Europe rather than their own domestic table. I don’t know if that should be taken as an insult of a compliment. If Sevilla focuses their efforts on the home front, at +6600 and four points off the lead, this team could steal the show at seasons end.
French Ligue 1
It’s a good thing PSG isn’t spending Christmas atop the Ligue 1 table. A major knock on French football is that as of late it’s been PSG, then everybody else. It’s nice to see Nice ringing in the New Year in first place with 44 points. Sexy vacation spot Monaco trails by two with 42 points while trouble in the capital has Paris St. Germain cozy in third, ending the first half with 39 points. Five points clear of fourth place Lyon who has 34. Besides the changing of the guard up top, there is trouble down below. 90 year old French favorite Lorient, who has been in the top flight since 2006. Has a mere 15 points through 19 games and find themselves four points in the relegation hole. An academy focused club who has produced the likes of Andre Gignac and refined, repackaged, and resold many of Europe’s top talents, may find themselves demoted at year end. This is a big deal based on the new TV revenue sharing deals many of the top leagues newly signed. The financial impact of relegation will be harder on Lorient’s budding world class Academy than it will be on current first team players.
When it comes to talking top dog in Ligue 1 this year, Books are banking on big money PSG to right the ship and land victorious atop the table. The Paris based club has already brought in Julian Draxler during the brief winter transfer window. That move along with hope of a second half resurgence finds PSG -175 to win the League. Current table toppers Nice are a disrespectful +375 while Monaco is a tempting +330. I don’t think this year will be one for PSG. Missing Ibra clearly hurts them but so does not having ex gaffer Blanc. I bet ownership wishes they had that sack back. Verratti may be high tailing out the door back to native Italy which will truly leave the capital club without an identity.
Nice has played fantastic ball at home and will be a nuisance for the remainder of the year. I just don’t think the club has the depth to seal the deal. When you play as good of futbol as Nice has played, your players start garnering interest. It makes sense for Nice to use this time in the spotlight to inflate some player pricing and take the opportunity to offload some talent. The net-seller aspect has me staying away from the + 375. The diamond in the rough is surely Monaco. This club arguably has the best talent in all of Ligue 1. I wouldn’t be surprised if they advance further than PSG in Champions League too. After years of reckless spending and underperformance, Monaco’s owners are finally starting to feel the benefit of playing world class futbol brings when it comes to revenue. Monaco feasts on this year’s Ligue 1 spoils, +330.
Russian Premiere League
While many associate Russia with hockey. This eastern European country is steeped in long standing soccer tradition. Like many of Europe's early clubs the soccer that was played directly represented the people that founded those clubs. Dinamo was the police, CSKA the army, and in 1922 Spartak was founded by the unions. Quickly dubbed “the Peoples Club” Spartak Moscow is arguably Russia’s most winningest club of all time. The club is also considered home of true Russian pride, with a supporters size that dwarfs that of Zenit or CSKA. It’s the Spartak, Zenit, and CSKA Ultra’s you read about in the papers when reports of “international Russian soccer violence” makes the news. While Spartak won every Russian championship except one from 1992 until 2001, the team hasn’t tasted domestic glory since.
Second half play in Russia doesn’t resume until February but when it does, Spartak will wake up from winter hibernation to a five point lead in the table. Clocked in with 40 points through 17 games, Zenit sits second holding 35 points while CSKA has collected 32. The last time Spartak won the league, a Republican was in office in the US. There is a good chance that scenario happens again.
English Championship League
For all the attention the Premiere League gets, it seems nobody outside of England pays attention to the Premierships baby brother, the Championship League. The table where this year’s winners become next year’s Premiere League losers. This is also the spot where this year’s Premiere League flunkies will play next year, 46 games to remind themselves “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
Last year’s Premiere League sacrifices are faring with mixed results in the lower ranks. Aston Villa and Norwich seemed lost in mid table translation while Newcastle is playing like a team looking to get back what they lost. The club is currently second with 49 points, six points insulate Newcastle from Reading for the Championships final rebirth back to glory. Tony Blooms Brighton Albion has had an absolutely phenomenal year. Indestructible at home, the team has amassed 51 points through 23 games. They are playing a cut above the competition and truly deserve first class promotion.
English favorites Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday six fourth and sixth respectively. Both clubs are in the money for a playoff spot with a chance to gain promotion. Personally, it would feel good to see Leeds promoted back to the top flight. Years of financial struggles and organizational mishaps hopefully behind them, old Swansea manager Gary Monk has tapped into something special and reignited the old Leeds faithful. While the fanfare is usually directed at which first tier clubs are going down, I’ll be steadily keeping my eyes out for which are heading up. I hope to see Brighton, Newcastle, and Leeds on NBCSN next fall.
We’re finally nearing the first half finish line when talking the EPL. Most clubs end the year facing two games in five days and seven games in a month. That’s a lot of football. From 12-30-16 to 1-4-2017 alone, there’s 20 matches. My advice is to tread carefully with mindfulness played on the Draw bet. Last week only saw one EPL match draw while the season average is roughly 22 percent. Swansea sacked Bob Bradley and after they hire a third new gaffer this year, the club will be on the hook for paying three different managerial salaries. Big Sam has inherited a Crystal Palace team that’s two points clear of the relegation zone. I expect the Eagles to start the year guns blazing. Meanwhile over at Leicester, Santa Claudio has been given $30 million dollars to spend on January transfer presents for the club. Leicester ends the year at home against a streaking West Ham team then away in the New Year at ‘Boro. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Foxes steal a quick six before the league play resumes on January 14th. The Foxes are three clear of relegation with 17 points. For all the fear Chelsea has instilled across league football, Jurgen Klopp is smiling in the corner somewhere knowing his team has a run and the squad to contend come year end. Like I said at the end of October, Sunderland will not get relegated. In fact, I think my Kitties can claw their way to low mid table. As a Black Cats fan, I’d be elated with 13th, besides that number seems fitting.
Article by Christian Cianci