‘Big five’ head for photo finish

Race for titles in top European football leagues set to be one of closest in years.

Bordeaux are chasing back-to-back titles after seven years of Lyon wins [AFP]

Manchester United are top in England, Bordeaux are first in France.

Real Madrid hold sway in Spain, and Bayern Munich head the pack in Germany.

And despite their best efforts to throw it away, Inter Milan are still in the lead in Italy.

With Bordeaux the slight exceptions, it may seem like business as usual in Europe as the perennial winners canter to the title once more.

But the top five domestic leagues on the continent have rarely been so closely contested.

Four points separate the top three in the English Premier League. In France’s Ligue 1, just five points separate the top six.

Inter are a point ahead of AC Milan and four ahead of Roma in the Italian Serie A.

A single win separates Bayern from third-placed Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, with Schalke 04 in second.

Swapping the lead

Real Madrid and Barcelona are playing swapsy at the top of the Spanish Primera Division, with Barca again able to retake the lead on Wednesday.

Manchester United may claim their fourth title in a row. Real and Barca are the dominant teams in Spain. Bordeaux won the French title last year, Bayern are the bully-boys of German football and Inter have won the scudetto for the past four seasons.

But unusually, nobody is running away with any of the leagues.

Top of the leagues

Spanish Primera Division

1 Real Madrid P27 Pts 68
2 Barcelona P26 Pts 65
3 Valencia P27 Pts 50
4 Real Mallorca P27 Pts 46

Italian Serie A

1 Inter Milan P29 Pts 60
2 AC Milan P29 Pts 59
3 Roma P29 Pts 56
4 Palermo P29 Pts 47

French Ligue 1

1 Bordeaux P28 Pts 56
2 Montpellier P29 Pts 56
3 Auxerre P29 Pts 55
4 Marseille P28 Pts 53
5 Lille P29 Pts 51
6 Lyon P29 Pts 51

German Bundesliga

1 Bayern Munich P27 Pts 56
2 Schalke 04 P27 Pts 55
3 Leverkusen P27 Pts 53
4 Dortmund P27 Pts 48

English Premier League

1 Man Utd P31 Pts 69
2 Arsenal P31 Pts 67
3 Chelsea P30 Pts 65
4 Tottenham P30 Pts 55

“I don’t think anyone’s getting away,” said United boss Alex Ferguson of the challenge posed by Chelsea and Arsenal in England.

“We are all opening doors.”

United grabbed the initiative in England at the weekend with their 2-1 win over Liverpool, leaving them with their destiny in their own hands as Chelsea drew at Blackburn.

They are two points ahead of Arsenal, having played 31 games with seven remaining, and four ahead of Chelsea, who have played 30.

With the Serie A title race hotting up like the Italian spring weather, Inter host bottom side Livorno on Wednesday having been given a huge let-off at the weekend.

Long-time pacesetters Inter drew 1-1 at Palermo on Saturday, the sixth time they have failed to win in their last seven league games, but second-placed AC Milan wasted the chance to seize top spot with a 1-1 home draw with Napoli.

Milan, who travel to inconsistent Parma on Wednesday, are a point behind with nine games left while Roma have a date with Bologna.

“This is an atypical championship for several reasons, one is that a team (Inter) have won the league several times in a row now,” Milan coach Leonardo said.

“Milan are back and have the chance to fight. Roma have produced a great string of results and like us are trying to battle right until the end, but the ball is always in Inter’s court given their general strength.”

Shot in the foot

Milan have made up eight points on Jose Mourinho’s Inter since February but the Rossoneri shot themselves in the foot against Napoli.

Bayern, meanwhile, can either move closer to three titles or miss out on them completely in the coming “weeks of truth”, their coach Louis van Gaal said on Monday.

Bayern, still top of the Bundesliga table despite their shock 2-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday, are playing second-placed Schalke 04 on Wednesday in the German Cup semi-finals before facing in-form Stuttgart in the league.

They then meet Manchester United in the European Champions League quarter-final first leg before playing Schalke again in the league, the second leg in Manchester and third-placed Bayer Leverkusen.

“This is the best that can happen to us, the best for any player and it is also wonderful for a coach,” the Dutchman said.

“We are top of the Bundesliga, we are in the German Cup semi-finals, we are in the Champions League quarter-finals, who else in Europe can boast of such a record?”

Van Gaal said his team were still favourites to win the league title.

Stomaching defeat

“We know we can stomach a defeat because the others cannot deal with the pressure,” he said, after both Leverkusen and Schalke failed to win and go top over the weekend.

Ibrahimovic has yet to convince at Barca [AFP]

Lionel Messi’s brilliance has helped Barcelona keep pace with La Liga leaders Real Madrid in recent weeks but the champions are still waiting for striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic to justify his expensive price tag.

Messi netted a second hat-trick in a week in Barca’s 4-2 win at Real Zaragoza on Sunday, taking his tally to 11 goals in five matches, before generously allowed Ibrahimovic to take a late penalty that ended the Swede’s month-long scoring drought.

Ibrahimovic moved from Inter Milan at the end of last season in a swap deal with Samuel Eto’o that valued him at around $89 million but before Sunday had not scored in the league since mid-February and has 13 league goals to Messi’s 25.

Barca, who are level on 68 points with Real but have an inferior goal difference, can go three points clear at the top with a win at home to Osasuna on Wednesday.

Bordeaux, who won the French title last year after seven years of dominance by Lyon, recovered from a goal down to beat Lille 3-1 and recapture the lead in Ligue 1 on Sunday.

The Girondins, who had gone three league matches without a win, suggested their lean spell was over four days after knocking out Greek side Olympiakos to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League – where they will face Lyon.

The team from the wine capital, who have a game in hand, top the standings on goal difference from surprise package Montpellier, 2-1 winners over Valenciennes.

Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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