How things stand in Europe's top leagues ahead of the World Cup:
Arsenal looks like the real deal after building a five-point lead atop of the Premier League. Few saw Mikel Arteta’s team as a credible title challenger before the season but 12 wins from 14 games have set a pace that even Manchester City cannot match. Not even Erling Haaland, with 23 goals in 19 appearances in all competitions, has been able to fire City to the summit. Still, Pep Guardiola’s reigning champion remains the favourite to retain the trophy and is well-positioned in second place to step in the second half of the campaign. Newcastle has also confounded expectations by rising to third. Further investment in January could lead to a serious push for Champions League qualification. Graham Potter’s early Chelsea reign has hit its first crisis after three straight losses in the league. New owners Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital have already dispensed with one manager in Thomas Tuchel, and the latest results will be a test of their patience. Erik ten Hag survived a torrid start at Manchester United but despite growing optimism on the pitch, he has a Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped problem off it. It is hard to see Ronaldo remaining at Old Trafford beyond January, but there are few clubs that could come up with a financial package to offer him an exit. Liverpool is showing signs of recovery after an unconvincing start and, along with United, is chasing fourth-placed Tottenham. At the other end of the table, Julen Lopetegui needs to make a flying start after taking over at bottom club Wolves.
Barcelona has flopped in the Champions League group stage for a second straight season since the exit of Lionel Messi. But at least its bet to sell some of its television rights and other club assets to buy new players is paying off domestically. Barcelona enters the World Cup break at the top of the Spanish league, two points ahead of defending champion Real Madrid. While newcomer Robert Lewandowski failed to come through in Europe’s elite tournament, he has been tearing through his new Spanish rivals with a competition-high 13 goals. Barcelona’s defense has also proved particularity stingy with only five goals allowed in 14 rounds, compared to the 12 it conceded in six Champions League matches. Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid, the only Spanish club to reach the Champions League knockout rounds, was ahead of Barcelona until it dropped points in two of its last three games. Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema missed the last four rounds as he recovers from what Madrid calls “muscle fatigue” ahead of the World Cup, where the striker will help France defend its title. The powerhouses appear to have already made it a two-team title race. Atlético Madrid, the 2021 champion, is fifth and trailing Barcelona by 13 points. Basque rivals Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao have excelled and are in third and fourth respectively, but Sociedad is 11 points off the lead. Sevilla, which mounted an outside title challenge last season before finishing fourth, will spend the six-week hiatus in the relegation zone. Honorable mentions for strong starts to the league go to Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano. The modest sides are in seventh and eighth respectively.
Paris Saint-Germain has reigned supreme to build a five-point lead after 13 wins in 15 rounds. The Qatari-backed team is unbeaten in all competitions and advanced to the Champions League round of 16 for an 11th straight season. PSG's formidable trio of attackers, Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Lionel Messi, have been in stunning form. Neymar has been the most impressive, with 11 goals and nine assists. Only second-placed Lens has been able to keep pace. Lens has been revitalized by coach Franck Haise, who took over in February 2020 to build an entertaining and attacking team led by Belgium international Lois Openda. “It’s quite exceptional to have this number of points (36) at this stage," Haise said. Lens secured a fifth consecutive league win at the weekend and is bidding for a first Champions League qualification since 2002. Behind Lens, Rennes and Marseille will also be fighting for the runner-up spot. Rennes is third after an undefeated run of 11 matches while Marseille is fourth, 11 points behind bitter rival PSG.
Seeing Bayern Munich on top of the Bundesliga isn't a surprise — it has won the last 10 titles after all — but how the team got there certainly is. Julian Nagelsmann's side spent much of the last few months chasing the likes of Union Berlin and Freiburg in the standings. After Robert Lewandowski left for Barcelona, Bayern didn't sign a direct replacement as Nagelsmann tried to fit Bayern's forwards, including new signing Sadio Mané, into a fluid new approach without a traditional striker. That didn't really work and by mid-September Bayern was winless in four league games and five points off the lead. Enter an unlikely savior. Lewandowski's longtime backup, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, gave Bayern a much-needed focus in attack and the 33-year-old Cameroon striker went on a prolific scoring run. Since his first league start on Oct. 16, he has six goals in as many Bundesliga games, all of them Bayern wins. Freiburg is four points off Bayern in second and Leipzig is third after being rejuvenated under new coach Marco Rose. Borussia Dortmund is a disappointing sixth after failing to find any consistency following Erling Haaland's exit. His replacement, Sebastien Haller, was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and unable to play. Bayer Leverkusen was on the edge of the relegation fight for much of the last two months but new coach Xabi Alonso has won his last three games in charge and lifted the team to 12th.
An eight-point advantage. Eleven straight wins in Serie A and fewer of its players going to the World Cup than either of its two closest challengers. Napoli is in prime position entering the 7 1/2-week break. And in a position that virtually nobody expected before the season. Napoli supporters protested before the season after seeing captain Lorenzo Insigne, all-time record scorer Dries Mertens and defensive stalwart Kalidou Koulibaly leave. But the southern club replaced Insigne with Khvicha Kvaratskhelia on the left wing and Georgia's dribbling wizard has been perhaps the biggest breakout player in Europe. Giovanni Simeone and Giacomo Raspadori have made up for Mertens’ departure with important goals off the bench, while center forward Victor Osimhen tops the league chart with nine goals. And, in defense, South Korea center back Kim Min-jae has proven just as reliable as Koulibaly. Napoli is aiming for its first Serie A title since 1990 when Diego Maradona led the club to its second championship. Defending champion AC Milan is eight points back and Juventus is third, 10 points behind. Juventus has 11 players going to the World Cup, Milan has seven and Napoli just five. After struggling for most of the season, Juventus recently welcomed back Federico Chiesa from injury and is hoping to have Paul Pogba return from knee surgery after the break. Maurizio Sarri’s Lazio has exceeded expectations and is fourth, while Jose Mourinho’s Roma has struggled and is seventh. Serie A resumes on Jan. 4.
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The Associated Press