by John Wilkinson
With the final international break of the 2018-19 season complete, attention turns back to the homestretch of league play across Europe.
Sure, some of the stoylines across Spain, France and Turkey may not be the most nail-biting – Paris Saint-Germain are set to win Ligue 1 again any day, Atletico Madrid’s chase of Barcelona has tailed off to not much more than a mathematical possibility, big clubs like Athletic Bilbao and AS Monaco have staved off mid-season relegation scares – but there is still plenty to watch for over the final two months.
Here are five storylines to watch as LaLiga, Ligue 1 and the Turkish Super Lig wind down on beIN SPORTS:
🇪🇸 Who finishes fourth in LaLiga?
The top of LaLiga may have ended up shaking out much the way it usually does, but this strange, competitive campaign has given us a fascinating run for the European places beneath the big three. Getafe, driven by top-scoring Spaniard Jaime Mata, currently occupy fourth on 46 points. Alaves, despite a dead-even goal differential, are two points back (44) and Sevilla are just one point further behind (43).
Last season’s fourth-place finisher Valencia are still in the hunt for some kind of European football, currently seventh on 40 points, but also closing in on the more dubious accomplishment of settling the single-season record for draws. Los Che have split the spoils 16 times so far this season, just three draws from breaking the record – 18 set by Deportivo La Coruna in 2015-16 – but maybe it would be more fitting if they just matched the record. If Valencia don’t make a push, eighth place Real Betis are still just four points out of sixth and could make a run at another year of Europa League football.
🇪🇸 Barcelona’s treble chase
Messi made things perfectly clear before this season that, after settling for merely a near-perfect LaLiga title and another Copa de Rey crown last year, the Champions League was atop Barcelona’s to-do list. Now that they're sitting on a 10-point cushion toward another LaLiga title and vanquished Real Madrid to reach the Copa del Rey final, the Blaugrana have a very good look at a treble that would include their first Champions League title since 2015.
Valverde, consistently criticized for his inability to rotate his squad successfully, should theoretically be able to focus on the final stages of the Champions League. Manchester United showed PSG that they can make a good team pay for taking them lightly, but Barcelona will still be heavily favored in the quarterfinals. Proving they can still win the continental knockout competition Real Madrid has recently dominated while once again exhibiting season-long domestic dominance would be about as perfect a season as those at Camp Nou could hope for.
🇪🇸 Zidane shakes out his squad
With Real Madrid out of contention on all three fronts, Zidane’s triumphant return has come too late to make any real difference this season. The next 10 games then will serve as a kind of extended pre-pre-season. Zidane, installed with more personnel power than in his first stint, will be weighing up who will stay and who will go as Real Madrid face a huge offseason of decisions.
Gareth Bale seems destined to leave the Bernabeu, but what about others from the old guard such as Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Keylor Navas? Zidane returned old favorites like Isco, Navas and Bale to the starting XI for his first match back in charge and it seems like he will use the remaining matches to size up what to do with this squad.
If Zidane and Florentino Perez really want to go on a half-a-billion-dollar spending spree this summer the questions won't just be about who is coming in, but who will be on their way out.
🇹🇷 Can Basaksehir win their first-ever top-flight title?
Istanbul Basaksehir are young as far as football clubs go. Founded in 1990 they didn't make it to the Super Lig for the first time until the 2007-08 season. They have won lower-division titles in promotion season but have never won a top-flight title. Since their most recent promotion, Basaksehir have finished fourth, fourth, second and third.
⚽️📸 TRAINING SESSION | March 29 pic.twitter.com/Be2BRYYmO7— Istanbul Basaksehir English (@ibfk2014En) March 29, 2019
That could change this year, however, as the Istanbul side own a six-point lead over last year’s champions Galatasaray heading into the home stretch. Basaksehir have to travel to Galatasaray on May 19, the second-to-last matchday of the season, in what could be the title race's deciding match.
🇫🇷 Ligue 1's crowded European chase
No one’s catching PSG, but if you lop off the top spot, the rest of the Ligue 1 race is full of intrigue.
Breakout star Nicolas Pepe and Lille are comfortably in second place on 57 points. Lyon may have had a strong run in this year’s Champions League, but as of now they sit in third place on 53 points and would have to play in a Champions League qualifying round next season. Lyon are likely to be raided for some of their stars in the offseason, but missing out on Champions League action would certainly expedite that exodus (and probably scare away Jose Mourinho).
Mario Balotelli, Florian Thauvin and company are six points further back with Marseille and currently sit in line for Europa League play, a fate that could see some of those stars look for UCL opportunities elsewhere. Even a Europa League place is no gimme for Marseille, as Saint-Etienne and Stade Reims are both one-point back (46) and Montpellier (42), Rennes (41) and OGC Nice (41) are within a couple results of catching them.
Lyon face Lille and OM in back-to-back weeks during the final month of the season, a fortnight that could swing things drastically.