Bill Connelly’s 15 things to watch
Financially, the Premier League has distanced itself from the pack in European football thanks to its media rights deals, and in 2022-23 you can’t say those rights holders aren’t getting their money’s worth.
The title race is almost 50-50 between the annual champion (Manchester City) and a surging former power (Arsenal). There are at least five other teams with a semi-realistic chance at a top-four finish (Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle, Liverpool and Brighton) and at least three more beyond that with a semi-realistic chance at playing in the Europa League or Conference League next year (Chelsea, Fulham, Brentford). Meanwhile, there are nine teams within three points of the relegation zone.
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It has been a magnificent season in England, with the product as tight and tense as it could possibly be. That said, Europe is still a pretty big place and there are still lots of title hunts, Champions League positions and relegation spots up for grabs. The Premier League might lead the way, but there’s a delightful amount of drama to keep up with as we enter the season’s home stretch. It feels like there’s even more than normal, though there’s a chance I feel that way every year.
Here are my 15 favorite races and/or team-specific storylines to follow.
(Note: Odds below refer to FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings, found in their entirety here.)
1. Premier League title race
Relevant 538 odds: Arsenal 54%, Manchester City 46%
Key remaining matches: Arsenal at Manchester City (April 26)
How good did City look during Tuesday’s resounding 7-0 Champions League win over RB Leipzig? Their SPI rating increased enough to change their EPL title odds from 41% on Monday to 46% on Wednesday. RBL came into Tuesday ranked ninth overall, and City absolutely trounced them. Any time Pep Guardiola’s team plays like that, they’re going to win big against virtually anyone in Europe.
City flirted with a draw with Crystal Palace just three days earlier, however, and they’ve dropped points to Nottingham Forest and Everton since the World Cup restart. They have had an inconsistent streak this season, and thanks to both that and Arsenal’s recent dramatics — two stoppage-time goals to win at Aston Villa on Feb. 18, a last-kick-of-the-match goal to beat Bournemouth after a 2-0 deficit on March 4 — City still trail by five points. They could get three of those back with a head-to-head home win in April, but Arsenal will still be in control of its destiny heading into the late-March international break.
This race has been a damn delight to follow. Arsenal aren’t exactly a scrappy underdog — they’re top 10 in the Deloitte Football Money League, they’re owned by the Kroenke family (who own the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and NBA’s Denver Nuggets, to name just three), and they’ve got 13 English top-division titles to their name. But they haven’t won one since 2004, and it has been easy to get wrapped up in the delight of their dramatic wins and their frantic coach, Mikel Arteta, on the sideline.
If you want to continue assuming City will surge ahead at some point, you’ve got plenty of evidence to support that. But there’s still a solid chance that this race goes down to the wire.
2. Premier League relegation race
Relevant 538 odds: Southampton 71%, Nottingham Forest 48%, Everton 45%, Bournemouth 44%, Leeds United 29%, West Ham 21%, Wolves 17%, Leicester City 15%, Crystal Palace 10%
Key remaining matches: There are 24 matches remaining between these nine teams, including six April 22-25 and five on the season’s final two matchdays. Each of the nine threatened teams plays at least four matches against the others — starting with Leeds at Wolves on Saturday — and Palace plays everyone else on the list. This thing could have so many twists and turns remaining.
Due solely to the money at stake, you could call the Premier League’s relegation battle the most anxious of them all. This year, it’s also the largest. It felt like each of the nine teams involved had steered themselves briefly to safety at some point — and lord knows most of them spent all the money they possibly could to do so as well — and yet the weekly slog of competitions has sucked them all back into danger. In just the past month alone, Southampton has beaten Chelsea and drawn with Manchester United, but a meek loss to Brentford on Wednesday made them the most likely relegation team by a comfortable margin.
The number of remaining battles against relegation contenders is a bit of a tell. That Palace has eight such matches remaining tells you that they have been playing everyone else in recent weeks and falling in the table because of it. That Southampton, Everton and Forest have only four such matches remaining — and eight each against teams ranked 11th or better — tells you that some of their best opportunities to save themselves may have already come and gone.
Regardless, this battle will remain heated and fascinating. If uncertainty of result is one of the draws of sports, there might be no bigger draw than this.
Relevant 538 odds: 6% top four, 9% fifth place, 16% sixth, 23% seventh, 46% eighth or worse
Key remaining matches: Unless their 15-point deduction is overturned, winning the Europa League is the only particularly realistic path for reaching the Champions League next year
There’s not a lot of uncertainty in Serie A right now. Napoli lead the league by 18 points with 12 matches to play. The other three Champions League bids will likely come from a four-team pool of usual suspects Inter, Lazio, AC Milan and Roma. And even at the bottom, Sampdoria and Cremonese are almost guaranteed to go down, while Hellas Verona are five points from safety.
Juve’s existential uncertainty is making up for the lack elsewhere. Years of what we’ll call “creative accounting” led to the current point deduction, and while they have looked brilliant of late — they are the hottest non-Napoli team in Italy, with five wins in their past six Serie A games — they’re 10 points back of the top four. They can afford to drop three or four more points at most in 12 remaining matches.
Barring a few more Europa League wins, then, they could miss the Champions League for the first time since 2012, and this drama comes at a bad time: six players from among Juve’s current minutes leaders — Adrien Rabiot, Manuel Locatelli, Angel Di Maria, Alex Sandro, Juan Cuadrado and Marseille loanee Arkadiusz Milik — are all on expiring contracts, potentially hitting free agency in July. The roster could need remodeling, and now would be a bad time to lack the promise of either Champions League minutes or Champions League money.
Can they pull off a miracle, either on the pitch or in the appeals process?
4. Bundesliga title race
Relevant 538 odds: Bayern Munich 84%, Borussia Dortmund 12%, RB Leipzig 3%
Key remaining matches: Borussia Dortmund at Bayern Munich (April 1), RB Leipzig at Bayern Munich (May 20)
Last week may have been a turning point in the Bundesliga race, and as tends to happen, it turned toward Bayern.
Borussia Dortmund had won their first 10 matches of 2023 and were even on points, but after a frustrating 2-0 loss to Chelsea eliminated them from the Champions League, they suffered an almost equally frustrating 2-2 draw at Revierderby rival Schalke. Combined with Bayern’s wild 5-3 win over Augsburg, the challengers fell two points behind.
About three weeks ago, when BVB and Union Berlin were both tied with Bayern on points, Bayern’s title odds were down to 75%, per SPI. Now Union are mired in a run of draws, BVB have finally dropped some points, and Bayern are back up to 85%. The numbers always thought it was their race to lose, and now reality is catching up.
The race isn’t over yet, though. Bayern seem to be saving their best form for the Champions League — they allowed three more goals to Augsburg in 90 minutes than to Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and PSG in 180, after all — and could drop a few more points here and there. But it might take BVB’s first road win over Bayern since April 2017 to turn this into a true neck-and-neck battle down the stretch.
5. LaLiga relegation race
Relevant 538 odds: Elche >99%, Almeria 49%, Real Valladolid 35%, Cadiz 30%, Getafe 28%, Espanyol 22%, Valencia 15%, Sevilla 10%, Girona 6%, Mallorca 4%, Celta Vigo 2%
Key remaining matches: As with the Premier League, there are too many to list. Let’s just say they’re all important, starting this weekend with Cadiz at Almeria and Sevilla at Getafe
LaLiga has lacked a couple of important things this season. Goals, for one. They’ve fallen by 18% in Spain since 2016-17, and the league is easily the lowest-scoring of Europe’s big five. A title race, for another. Barcelona saved all of its disappointing performances for European play and has rolled to a nine-point lead over Real Madrid.
That said, Spain is still among the world’s leaders in soccer anxiety. With just two months left in the season, every team in LaLiga has at least a 2% chance of either relegation or a top-four finish. Fourteen have at least a 10% chance of one or the other. Mallorca currently sit 10th in the table, just six points out of a European spot… and just six out of the relegation zone. Recent Champions League teams Sevilla and Valencia have even been sucked into the morass.
As rare as goals may be at the moment, almost every single goal has an impact not only on the team that scores or allows it but on about half the rest of the league, too.
6. Premier League top-four race
Relevant 538 odds: Arsenal and Manchester City >99%, Manchester United 74%, Tottenham Hotspur 34%, Newcastle 33%, Liverpool 28%, Brighton 25%, Brentford 3%, Chelsea 2%
Key remaining matches: Liverpool at Manchester City (April 1), Manchester United at Newcastle (April 2), Brighton at Spurs (April 8), Arsenal at Liverpool (April 9), Spurs at Newcastle (April 23), Manchester City at Brighton (April 23), Manchester United at Spurs (April 27), Spurs at Liverpool (April 30), Arsenal at Newcastle (May 6), Brighton at Arsenal (May 13)
Manchester United have felt like a pretty safe No. 3 for a while, but they did lose 7-0 to Liverpool less than two weeks ago. Tottenham Hotspur have been top four for much of the season but failed to build appropriate distance and now must play four fellow top-four contenders down the stretch.
Newcastle recently dropped consecutive 2-0 defeats to Liverpool and both teams in Manchester, but they have two games in hand and an easier remaining schedule. Brighton are nine points behind Spurs, but they’ve got three games in hand, and over the past two months they’ve posted the league’s third-best points-per-game average and by far the best xG differential. They’re in outstanding form.
It’s fair to wonder if the newcomers to this race (Brighton, Newcastle) will fade down the stretch; Newcastle might have already begun to. But right now, this battle has almost no clarity. Beware the days following the international break, though: There are 10 key matches listed above, and four of them take place April 1-9.
7. Tottenham Hotspur
Relevant 538 odds: 34% top four, 20% fifth place, 19% sixth, 15% seventh, 12% eighth or worse
Key remaining matches: at Newcastle (April 23), Manchester United (April 27), at Liverpool (April 30)
There is so much at stake for Spurs down the stretch and into the summer. The marriage with manager Antonio Conte seems increasingly likely to end in the coming months. Harry Kane will turn 30 in July and is approaching the final year of his contract; if the club is to bring in a huge transfer fee for him, now’s the time. (Choosing to keep him two summers ago instead of accepting Manchester City’s huge offer has not paid off in any huge way… and it also contributed to Erling Haaland landing at City this season.)
Son Heung-Min is 30 and has actually looked his age lately. Hugo Lloris is 36, Ivan Perisic is 34 (though he still doesn’t play like it) and Eric Dier and Ben Davies are 29. Dejan Kulusevski has battled injury and iffy form just as the club are deciding whether to make his loan deal into a permanent transfer. There’s a 1-in-3 chance they’re playing in the Champions League next year, and there’s a nonzero chance they fade and miss every European competition.
Tottenham will have a lot of decisions to make even if the season ends well, but if it doesn’t, their offseason will grow even more fascinating. They play three top-four contenders (Newcastle, Man United, Liverpool) in an eight-day span next month; that could be as consequential a week(ish) as the club have seen for quite some time.
8. Bundesliga top four race
Relevant 538 odds: Bayern Munich >99%, Borussia Dortmund 96%, RB Leipzig 86%, Union Berlin 54%, Freiburg 37%, Eintracht Frankfurt 18%, Wolfsburg 4%, Mainz 3%, Bayer Leverkusen 2%
Key remaining matches: Eintracht Frankfurt at Union Berlin (March 19), RB Leipzig at Freiburg (May 6), Freiburg at Union Berlin (May 13), Wolfsburg at Freiburg (May 20), Freiburg at Eintracht Frankfurt (May 27)
Not too long ago, there were six teams within six points of the Bundesliga lead. Bayern and BVB separated themselves a bit, but there’s still quite a logjam: three teams are tied for third (RB Leipzig, Union Berlin and Freiburg), with defending Europa League champion Eintracht Frankfurt still just five points back.
There’s still a chance that Mainz (nine points out of fourth), Wolfsburg (10) or Bayer Leverkusen (11) could surge back into the race, but with 10 matches to go, it likely comes down to these three to four teams. (Depending on Thursday’s results, Union Berlin, Freiburg and/or Leverkusen could advance to the Europa League quarterfinals, keeping hope alive for a Champions League bid via that path.)
Look again at the key matches above: Freiburg is involved in four of them, and they take place in the last four matchdays of the season. Christian Streich’s team will have an oversized role in determining who lands in the top four.
9. Women’s Super League top three race
Relevant 538 odds: Chelsea 97%, Manchester United 82%, Arsenal 67%, Manchester City 53%
Key remaining matches: Chelsea at Manchester City (March 26), Manchester City at Arsenal (April 2), Arsenal at Manchester United (April 23), Arsenal at Chelsea (May 21), Manchester City at Manchester United (May 21)
Chelsea’s nip-and-tuck 1-0 win over Manchester United over the weekend reestablished some distance atop the table for the Blues. They now lead both Manchester clubs by two points with a game in hand, and they’re up five points on Arsenal. Their current title odds are 70%, with the three others at 5-15%.
Also interesting: that result only magnified the race for second and third. There are basically four great English teams and they all have a greater than 50% chance of snaring a spot in next year’s Women’s Champions League, but only three will do it. And there are five matches remaining between the four.
The primary question remaining could be whether Arsenal can keep up. The Gunners began the season in torrid form, with eight wins in nine league matches and a 5-1 torching of defending champion Lyon in the Champions League. But star Beth Mead tore an ACL in November, Vivianne Miedema did the same in December and the team predictably grew a bit glitchy.
League losses to City and United have dropped them to fourth, but League Cup wins over City and Chelsea suggest they might still have the requisite firepower.
10. LaLiga top four race
Relevant 538 odds: Barcelona and Real Madrid >99%, Atletico Madrid 94%, Real Sociedad 56%, Real Betis 29%, Villarreal 11%, Athletic Club 4%, Rayo Vallecano 2%, Osasuna 2%
Key remaining matches: Real Betis at Atletico Madrid (April 2), Real Sociedad at Villarreal (April 2), Real Sociedad at Athletic Club (April 16), Real Sociedad at Real Betis (April 26), Real Betis at Athletic Club (May 3), Athletic Club at Villarreal (May 14), Real Sociedad at Atletico Madrid (May 28), Atletico Madrid at Villarreal (June 4)
If Real Madrid don’t win at Barcelona this weekend, the title race is just about settled. Atletico Madrid’s recent form has made them a favorite for third place, too, even if they’re still only six points clear of fifth. But even if Atleti is safe, the battle for fourth place between Real Sociedad, Real Betis and perhaps Villarreal or another long shot should be outstanding.
Both Real Sociedad and Real Betis are attempting to end lengthy Champions League droughts (nine and 17 years, respectively), and the odds are strong that one of them will do so. But who? La Real have won only one of their past nine matches in all competitions, but recent funks from not only Real Betis but also Villarreal and Athletic Club have kept them in fourth.
The schedule is beautifully back-loaded here, as most of the major contenders for the top four must still play each other. Buckle up!
11. Wrexham vs. Notts County
Key remaining matches: Notts County at Wrexham (April 10)
It’s one thing to use Hollywood to get attention; it’s another to parlay that attention into something magnificent.
As anyone who has watched “Welcome to Wrexham” knows, Wrexham AFC fell out of the Football League and into the English fifth division in 2008, remaining there ever since. But after the club’s purchase by actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney in 2021, they leaped to second in the National League last season, missing out on promotion with an upset loss in the playoff semifinals.
This season, Wrexham and an even prouder club, Notts County — aka the oldest professional football club in the world, the inspiration for Juventus’ black and white kits and a member of the English top division as recently as the 1990s — have lapped the field, generating 91 and 90 points, respectively, with third-place Woking way back at 68. The clubs have been at a full-on sprint for first place and automatic promotion, and along with its thrilling run to the FA Cup fourth round, Wrexham recently took the lead. (They have a game in hand, too.)
Whoever finishes second risks another playoff upset, and while that currently looks like it’ll be Notts County, there’s still time for another Hollywood-style plot twist or two, whether triumphant or tragic, over the final nine matches.
12. Bundesliga relegation race
Relevant 538 odds: Schalke 54%, Hoffenheim 45%, Bochum 44%, Hertha Berlin 43%, VfB Stuttgart 24%, Augsburg 5%, Koln 2%
Key remaining matches: Hertha Berlin at Hoffenheim (March 18), Schalke at Hoffenheim (April 2), Stuttgart at Bochum (April 9), Hertha Berlin at Schalke (April 14), Stuttgart at Hertha Berlin (May 6), Bochum at Hertha Berlin (May 20), Hoffenheim at Stuttgart (May 27)
As recently as late January, this race felt pretty straightforward. Schalke, in its first season back in the top flight, was sitting on just nine points and had just been pounded 6-1 by RB Leipzig. Their odds of relegation were 82%, and it seemed the second auto-drop spot would be decided between Hertha (14 points), Bochum (16) and Stuttgart (16). But Schalke haven’t lost since, combining two wins with five draws to climb out of last place. They’re 11th in the league since the January restart, and they’re nearly out of the relegation zone altogether.
Currently only three points separate 14th-place Bochum (22 points) from 18th-place Hoffenheim (19). Because of the depths of their early-season performance, Schalke still has the worst SPI rating in the league and therefore the highest odds of going down. But their form is better than any of the other relegation contenders at the moment, and Hoffenheim, with eight straight losses in all competitions, might be in the worst shape.
13. St. Pauli
Relevant 538 odds: 3% chance of automatic promotion to the Bundesliga, 2% chance of promotion through playoff
Key remaining matches: at third-place Heidenheim (April 8), at second-place Hamburg (April 21), at first-place Darmstadt (May 7), fifth-place Dusseldorf (May 14)
Whoever finishes 16th in the Bundesliga takes on the third-place finisher in the second division in a relegation playoff. That probably isn’t going to be Hamburg or St. Pauli, but damned if they aren’t making things interesting.
Thanks to draws and some poor bounces, everyone’s favorite subversive second-division club was stuck near the bottom of the table late in 2022. But they replaced manager Timo Schultz with Fabian Hurzeler during the break and haven’t lost since. They haven’t even drawn since, winning seven in a row to charge up to seventh place. They’re still nine points back of third-place Heidenheim with three other clubs to pass in-between, but everyone above them dropped points last weekend, and hey, if they never lose again, their odds of going up are solid, yeah?
There are actually quite a few fascinating stories among this year’s promotion hopefuls. Heidenheim have never played in the first division. Second-place Hamburg are attempting once again to jump back to the top flight after four straight narrow misses. Sixth-place Kaiserslautern won the Bundesliga twice in the 1990s, but were stuck in the third division until last season. Still, no one does “fascinating” like the buccaneers of St. Pauli.
14. English Championship promotion playoff
Relevant 538 odds: Burnley >99% chance of promotion, Sheffield United 79%, Middlesbrough 40%, Luton Town 29%, Millwall 20%, Norwich City 8%, West Brom 8%, Blackburn 6%, Coventry City 4%, Watford 4%
Key remaining matches: Millwall at West Brom (April 1), Sheffield United at Norwich City (April 1), Burnley at Middlesbrough (April 7), Luton Town at Millwall (April 7), Sheffield United at Burnley (April 10), Norwich City at Middlesbrough (April 15), Middlesbrough at Luton Town (April 22), West Brom at Sheffield United (April 25), Norwich City at West Brom (April 29)
Vincent Kompany and Burnley are all but promoted, but the two other tickets to next season’s Premier League are up for grabs. Sheffield United have about a 2-in-3 chance over Middlesbrough for second place and auto-promotion, while Luton Town and Millwall are safe-ish bets to make the playoff as well. That fourth playoff spot could go to any of about six teams.
There’s an interesting dichotomy here: there is a clump of recent EPL teams still benefiting from parachute payments (Burnley, Norwich, Sheffield United, West Brom), and there are the more long-term absentees desperate for a trip back up. Middlesbrough has been in the top flight for just one season since 2009, while former champion Blackburn hasn’t been up since 2012. Coventry City was last up in 2001, Luton Town in 1992. Millwall spent its only two seasons in the top division in 1988-90.
Regardless of who gets promoted, it will be a neat blast from the past for England’s top flight.
Relevant 538 odds: 19% chance of automatic promotion from Serie B, 23% chance of promotion from playoff
Key remaining matches: at fourth-place Sudtirol (April 10), at fifth-place Pisa (April 22), at second-place Genoa (May 19)
One of the 15-20 most historically successful clubs in Italy, Bari have played only two seasons in Serie A over the last 20 years (2009-11). Since being relegated 12 years ago, they’ve had one of the most eventful and dramatic periods you’ll ever see, even by Italian standards. They were still competitive enough to reach the promotion playoff in 2014, 2016 and 2018 despite bankruptcy in ’14, but they were forced to drop to fourth-division Serie D in 2018-19 because of their ongoing financial disaster.
Now renamed SSC Bari (they were FC Bari 1908 and AS Bari before that), the club was promoted to the third division in 2019, then to the second last spring. In their first season back in Serie B, they’re currently unbeaten in seven matches and find themselves in third place, just three points from second and automatic promotion to Serie A. They’ve scored the second-most goals in the league, paced by Moroccan forward Walid Cheddira’s 15 goals and five assists. They’re fun, they’re in form, and they would be a delightful re-addition to Italy’s top division.
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