GENEVA — European domestic leagues resume this weekend, after a pause for World Cup qualifying games, with two especially stellar matches in a pair of tense title races.
Champions League winner Bayern Munich travels to German rival Leipzig while Paris Saint-Germain, the beaten finalist last August, hosts French counterpart Lille on Saturday.
Those matchups kick off an intense run-in after a congested season of pandemic-era soccer with almost no fans in stadiums to see it.
Tense title races are also unfolding in Spain and Turkey, while standout teams have left their rivals trailing in England, the Netherlands and Portugal.
Sporting Lisbon, meanwhile, is one of several unbeaten clubs who are aiming to extend their streaks through the entire season.
Here’s a look at some title races in a unique season for European soccer:
BEST TITLE CHASES
In Germany, Bayern has won the last eight Bundesliga titles and the margin was 13 points last season. PSG won France's Ligue 1 in a procession the past three seasons.
It’s different this time.
Leipzig can cut Bayern’s lead to one point Saturday by beating a team that expects to be without prolific goalscorer Robert Lewandowski throughout April.
PSG had not topped its league since January until Lille lost at home to lowly Nîmes in the last round before the international break.
The lead is still only on goal difference heading into a genuine top-of-the-table clash Saturday at Parc des Princes.
It’s more than a two-horse race with Lyon and Monaco, the 2017 champion, also within four points.
In Spain, Atlético Madrid was cruising at the top through January. Losing at Real Madrid was the only blemish in a streak of 15 wins in 16 games.
Barcelona is now just four points back before Atlético resumes Sunday at fourth-place Sevilla. Barcelona hosts Atlético on May 9.
Both challengers are out of the Champions League and able to focus on La Liga for what is shaping up to be a tense 10-game run to the May 23 climax.
Turkey’s Süper Lig has been fascinating all season. At one point Istanbul rivals Besiktas, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray were locked atop a league that has had three different winners in the past four seasons.
Besiktas now leads by three points from Galatasaray with a game in hand, and Fenerbahçe is two points further back. Only the top two will enter the Champions League qualifying rounds.
Manchester City might be the best team in Europe right now, but no one said that in late-November when the team languished in the bottom half of the Premier League.
A run of 13 straight wins fueled City’s surge to be 14 points clear now of second-place Manchester United.
Other dominant teams in the standings Friday are Ajax, 11 points clear in the Dutch Eredivisie, Club Brugge, which is 16 points ahead in Belgium, and Olympiakos, in front by the same margin in Greece. Ferencváros is also 13 points ahead in Hungary.
All played in the Champions League group stage this season, earning tens of millions of euros (dollars) in prize money.
Inter Milan’s lead in Serie A is just six points, though it has a game to spare over long-time leader AC Milan. The nine-year title streak of third-place Juventus looks over.
Sporting Lisbon is having one of the most impressive seasons in all of Europe’s 54 top-tier leagues.
Sporting is unbeaten, 10 points clear of second-place Porto, and heading to its first league title for 19 years. It was no better than third in the past four seasons.
Red Star Belgrade has won 26 games and drawn just two in the Serbian league. Red Star was boosted by getting around 40 million euros ($47 million) in Champions League prize money over the past two seasons.
Slavia Prague is surging to the Czech Republic title and starts a Europa League quarterfinal against Arsenal on Thursday.
Rangers was beaten by Slavia in the previous round after becoming the first team to clinch a European domestic title in the September-to-May leagues.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE NEXT
Sporting is heading to the Champions League group stage for the first time since the 2017-18 season. Rangers enters at the third qualifying round, needing to beat two opponents to rejoin the 32-team elite after a 10-year wait.
Alongside the usual European powers, the mid-ranking countries whose champions qualify direct to the group stage are Belgium, the Netherlands and Ukraine.
That should mean Club Brugge and Ajax, while Dynamo Kyiv is seven points ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukrainian league.
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Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press