Make the most of the barmy Premier League title race - trends suggest it won't last
Are you a big fan of Bavarian processions? If you are, then may FourFourTwo suggest you get yourself over to Mainz on Saturday afternoon to enjoy one the most impressively huge examples you’ll ever witness.
We may still be stuck in March – with daylight saving time, BBQs and Tim Sherwood’s sacking still frustratingly out of reach - but Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich are wasting no time in their bid to get their mits on the 2013/14 Bundesliga title before April Fools' Day is upon us.
In a title race that has become a leisurely spring stroll, Bayern moved 23 points clear of their nearest rivals with victory over Bayer Leverkusen last weekend – second-placed Borussia Dortmund now resemble a pin-prick on the horizon – and victory over Mainz on Saturday could spark one of the earliest title parties in European football history.
Their 2-1 triumph over Leverkusen was their 50th unbeaten Bundesliga match in a row – a record which incorporates only two draws in their 25 league matches so far this season. Little wonder their goal difference is a stratospheric 62, a figure which comfortably dwarfs the best that the Premier League has to offer, currently Manchester City’s 44.
If you feel the beer is a little flat at the Munich title party, though, then fear not. Only an autobahn separates you and another European title knees-up, this time in Salzburg where Roger Schmidt’s men are preparing to pop open the heavily branded energy drinks (on the pitch, in the stands and presumably anywhere else Red Bull fancies).
Salzburg may have done something that Munich have failed to do this season, namely lose a match (or in their case, two) but they’ve also scored 93 goals – and conceded just 20. They’re a staggering 27 points ahead of their nearest rivals, SV Grodig, in the Austrian Bundesliga. Grodig's goal difference is just two.
And if it’s five-goal humpings that get your blood pumping, then you’ve just landed in utopia. The goal-hungry Austrians have scored five or more goals on eight different occasions so far this season.
What was in their festive turkey is anyone’s guess, but since their return from the Bundesliga Christmas break, they’ve scored 35 goals in seven matches. They, like Bayern, can seal the title this weekend with over a full month of the season remaining.
So what does this tell us? Well, apart from the fact that Austrians are as competent at defending as Brits are at cross-country skiing, it appears to suggest that the difference between the best and the rest in Europe is as wide as it has ever been. And is getting wider.
You only have to look at results in the last 16 of the Champions League to see the evidence.
None of the sides who finished runners-up in their group progressed to the latter stages of the competition. Of those, only Zenit and Olympiakos managed to beat more esteemed opponents in the knockout phase.
Zenit beat Dortmund in what had already been rendered a meaningless fixture as a result of them handing out a 4-2 hiding to the Russians in their own backyard in the first leg. And Olympiakos did what most teams have managed to do this season – beat a Manchester United side desperately low on quality and confidence.
That was all forgotten at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, of course, but what shouldn’t be overlooked is the fact that in the opening eight matches of the knockout round of 16, there were six away wins with an aggregate goal difference of +16.
Like the Austrian and German Bundesliga, Champions League surprises were as short on the ground as thriving Greek businesses or humorous members of the Tory party.
The teams that have made it through to the last eight are, by and large, the eight that pretty much most of us would have predicated after a group stage draw that pitted Manchester City against Bayern Munich and threw Arsenal into a group that contained Dortmund and Napoli.
Both eventualities rendered it likely that the pair would struggle to top the group and would come up against top quality opposition in the first knockout round. The Champions League may boast being the best club tournament in the world but it’s rapidly turning into one of the most predictable.
Since 2007/08, only six different teams have contested the final and of those, Manchester United and Bayern have been there three times and Barcelona twice.
Compare that to the six seasons before and the difference is stark. Between 2001/02 and 2006/07, nine teams fought for the right to be crowned Champions League, erm, champions. Of those, only Milan (three times) and Liverpool (twice) made it to the final more than once.
The unbalanced nature of European football is made ever clearer by domestic leagues which are now serving as an equivalent of shooting practice for the likes of Bayern, Salzburg, Madrid and Barcelona.
It will take a remarkable dip in form for Bayern to fail to beat the points record in the Bundesliga over the coming weeks. That record currently stands at 91 and was set by Bayern when they won the league last season.
It’s a similar story in France where PSG are closing in on the Ligue 1 points record after amassing 70 points in their opening 29 matches. With 10 matches to go in the Serie A season, Juventus must also harbour hopes of smashing the points record of 97, set by Inter in 2004/05. Eight wins from their last 10 matches would see that record broken.
In contrast, we should be thankful that we’re witnessing such a tense run-in to the Premier League season, although the trends set across the Channel are very much in evidence here too.
Witness Manchester City’s golden run between early November and mid-December when they stuck seven past Norwich, six past Spurs and another half-dozen past Arsenal. Title chasing Liverpool have also scored five on four separate occasions in the Premier League so far this season.
It would be churlish to deny that there have also been a large number of thrilling, close matches involving sides at the top and sides who have no hope of ever competing for the title – Liverpool’s 4-3 win over Swansea, for example.
But as Bayern prepare to celebrate the Bundesliga title earlier than any other team in history – it was April 6 when they won it last season, another record – there must be fears that European football is becoming as predictable as the Eurovision Song Contest. And no amount of Red Bull is going to redress the balance...