The Lead

We all know the point of football is finishing first on your domestic table. Aside from all the hyperbole about the importance of the Champions League, it’s a little midweek celebration, a reason to skip work and make wildly declarative statements about the absolute value of your club/country because they beat a side from Germany with two starting players injured on away goals over two legs.

It’s still just the bit of sugar on your cereal, the cereal being the grinding, sometimes hopeless business of league fixtures.

That of course is the real reason for football: getting up early or midday on the weekend, trucking out to some godawful ground or the one pub you know will open early, and inhaling reams of fixtures like Norwich v Wigan and Getafe v Osasuna. Why? Because if the Champions League is art, domestic league football is science.

Sure, you can wiggle your way through a knockout competition against some of the best teams of last season through a fairly arbitrary draw and an equally arbitrary knockout route to the final.

But after 38 home and away fixtures against the other 19 best clubs in your nation, we’re going to know something of what your team is all about. That’s a nice sample size, big enough to make some definitive judgments about a club, but small enough that it’s prone to error and luck to make things interesting.

This year, sadly, things on the business end of the European domestic leagues just aren’t very interesting. In Spain, Barcelona are nine points clear of Atletico Madrid, and 13 points clear of Real. Bayern are 9 points ahead of Bayer Leverkusen, but 12 points in front of ostensible ‘title contenders’ Dortmund. Juventus are a far more interesting 7 points clear of Inter. Man United are in relative squeaker with Manchester City, but are still six points clear on top of the table.

Not all of these leads are unassailable, and some are down as much to objective superiority as they are to incredible shot conversion rates, a reflection in some cases (Lionel Messi) of skill beyond skill. But all of them involve an uphill climb on the part of their nearest likely challenger (France is still pretty cool, with three teams tied on 35 points on top spot, but then again, it’s Ligue 1).

It would be unwise to draw any strident conclusions from these patterns, but for narrative reasons it’s pretty much balls, despite the lies we tell ourselves about Champions League spots and relegation battles.


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