It's blatantly obvious that sports are not the most important thing in the world, especially now. If or when they can still be staged safely, however, sports can still provide an immense and welcome distraction. If nothing else, so can the piece you're reading right now.
With the coronavirus spreading throughout Europe and North America, we've seen more or less every professional sports league across the globe suspend operations to help with social distancing efforts. UEFA met on Tuesday to postpone Euro 2020, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about concluding the 2019-20 seasons across Europe.
There's nothing guaranteeing that the rest of the European soccer season will ever be played to its completion, or without some modifications. To distract ourselves, however, let's assume for the moment that it does play out eventually, crowds or no crowds. Let's look at some of the more interesting questions the last 10 or so weeks of this season might answer about Europe's big four leagues, if or when the games actually take place.
English Premier League
1. What now for Liverpool?
Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool are currently on pace for 107 points in Premier League play. That would easily top the 100-point record set by Manchester City in 2017-18. Last season, they won the Champions League.
They're in the middle of a run almost unmatched -- unmatchable -- by an English club. Yet they're also reeling. As late as Feb. 28, they had a shot at becoming only the second Premier League team to finish unbeaten -- though when Arsenal's Invincibles did it in 2003-04, they managed only 90 points because of 12 draws -- while also winning the FA Cup and Champions League. An almost unbeatable treble, an accomplishment without peers.
The trouble began slowly, as it often does. After the league's new "midseason break" in early February, Liverpool squeaked by relegation-bound Norwich 1-0, then went to Spain and lost 1-0 to Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the round of 16. They returned home and needed to rally from 2-1 down to win 3-2 against 16th-place West Ham United, then saw their "Invincible" quest destroyed by a 3-0 loss to 17th-place Watford.
Three days later, they lost 2-0 at Chelsea in the FA Cup, the potential treble became a double only now, it's a single. The Reds fell behind to AFC Bournemouth on Saturday before rallying to win 2-1. Needing to beat Atletico by at least two goals on Wednesday at Anfield in the return leg of the Champions League, they indeed went up 2-0 early in extra time ... and then gave up three goals to lose going away.
Two weeks ago, a set of goals you couldn't even accomplish on Football Manager without a lot of cheats and restarts (yeah, guilty as charged) seemed not only possible, but plausible. Now Liverpool have to rebound and focus on simply taking care of business in the league. Their magic number is six points -- if they earn six, second-place Manchester City loses six, or some combination, they clinch -- and that will almost certainly happen pretty soon. And hey, when you haven't won a league title in 30 years, that's cause for extreme celebration.
But if or when the league completes 38 matches, Liverpool will need 19 points from their remaining nine matches to hit 101 points. Can they recover in time? Does it even matter as long as they lift that elusive league trophy? More to the point, how will we remember this team now that we know what was possible and where they ended up?
2. Who scores the final Champions League spot in England?
Manchester United added Sporting CP midfielder Bruno Fernandes for nearly £68 million near the end of the January transfer window, and in the eight matches since his Feb. 1 debut, they have yet to lose: they've advanced in the FA Cup, they walloped Club Brugge in the Europa League round of 32, put five past LASK Linz in the Europa League round of 16 first leg and they've picked up 11 points in only five Premier League matches, second most in the league. (Oh, and they have the best goal difference too.)
This isn't due only to Fernandes, obviously, but the 25-year-old has been brilliant, creating 18 chances, logging three goals, three assists and pressing beautifully throughout (31 ball recoveries already at his new club). And while eight matches aren't enough to declare United back once and for all, it has provided a likely answer to what was for a moment the most intriguing question in the Premier League: Who's going to benefit the most from Manchester City's potential ban from UEFA competitions? With City virtually guaranteed to finish second in the Premier League but banned (pending appeal) from taking part in next year's Champions League, that means that the EPL's fifth-place team would qualify instead. And not too long ago, the battle for that spot looked like a spectacular logjam. Tottenham Hotspur! Manchester United! Wolves! Sheffield United! Arsenal! Burnley! Maybe even Everton or Crystal Palace! They were all within shouting distance.
Technically, most of them still are. But until recent form shifts, we have a clear favorite in this race.
Everton and an injury-depleted Spurs have each picked up only one point in their past three league matches, and Everton looked particularly exhausted in an embarrassing 4-0 loss to Chelsea over the weekend. (Spurs looked the same on Tuesday, getting run out of the Champions League comfortably by RB Leipzig.) But even with United's great recent form they're still only two points up on Wolves and Sheffield United, four up on Tottenham, five up on Arsenal, and six up on Burnley and Palace. FiveThirtyEight gives United a 70% chance of sealing the deal and qualifying again for the UCL, but Wolves (24%), Sheffield United (12%), Spurs (11%) and Arsenal (5%) are still on the board. Spurs could make things particularly interesting with a theoretical home upset of the Reds on Sunday.
By the way, if Spurs do collapse and Arsenal lose form, we could end up with three of England's Big Six clubs missing European competitions -- Champions League or Europa League -- altogether next season. In an era in which money appears to matter more than ever, some of the most monied clubs in England have been struggling to find their footing. It's an odd time, made even odder by the thought of a Champions League quarterfinal featuring teams from Leipzig and Atalanta but not featuring Liverpool and, possibly, Barcelona or Real Madrid. (We'll get to them in a bit.)
3. Is this the year Leeds returns?
The city of Leeds is the fourth largest in England and easily the largest with only one major soccer club. Leeds United has one of the broadest and most intense fan bases in any sport in the world, which has made its extended Premier League absence awfully noticeable. Two decades ago, Leeds basically spent future Champions League earnings in an effort to keep achieving at a high level; when they failed to actually make the Champions League a couple of times, they found themselves in a financial disaster. They were relegated to the English Championship in 2004, then fell to the third level of English football three years later. It took a while to return to even the second tier, then spending the past decade cycling through different owners and continuously failing to get back to the Premier League.
In 2018, new owner Andrea Radrizzani brought in legendary manager Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds fielded its most impressive team in years. But a late collapse dropped the team into the promotion playoffs, where they lost to Derby County.
Despite Leeds' constant ability to step on rakes, and despite Bielsa-coached tending to stumble late in any given season, maybe this is the year they finish the job? After a brutal (and familiar-looking) stumble in January and February (earning five points in an eight-match span) they eked out three 1-0 wins in a row, then knocked around Hull City and Huddersfield by a combined 6-0. Their five straight wins have put them back in first place in the Championship, and more importantly, they're seven points up on third-place Fulham. (The third- through sixth-place teams end up in the playoff, while the top two qualify automatically.)
FiveThirtyEight projects their promotion odds at 98%; Leeds fans have been through too much to believe in anything less than 100%, but it would take an even larger collapse than normal to keep them from returning to the Premier League in 2020-21.
4. Is this going to remain an incredible Bundesliga race, or is Bayern going to pull away?
We've seen a version of this episode before. Last year, Bayern Munich spent a good portion of the Bundesliga season looking extremely vulnerable, gifting Borussia Dortmund a pretty big lead in the process, but then roared back and won their seventh straight league title. And after benevolently letting other teams take the DFB Pokal (German Cup) for a couple of years, they went ahead and won that, too.
This season's edition seemed different, at least when it came to the number of teams involved. While Bayern was once again starting slowly -- enough so that manager Niko Kovacs was fired in early November -- Borussia Monchengladbach was enjoying its best start in ages, Red Bull Leipzig looked spectacular, and any number of other teams, from Dortmund to Schalke 04, were within shouting distance of the top of the standings. Even at the midway point, you could talk yourself into it being a three- to four-team race.
It might be a one-team race now.
Leipzig have dropped 11 points (via one loss and four draws) over the past seven league matches, while Bayern haven't lost since Dec. 7. The champs lost striker Robert Lewandowski to injury and, with a point to prove, scored six goals in their first match without him. FiveThirtyEight now gives Bayern an 87% chance of winning its eighth straight title.
They're still only four points up on Dortmund, though, and Dortmund have lost only once since adding attacker Erling Haaland in the January transfer window. If Leipzig find their collective legs, they are still only five points back. The odds are good that Lewandowski will miss an April 4 trip to Dortmund (if it takes place as scheduled) and if Borussia wins there, this could remain a race well into April.
We probably know how this episode ends, but if the door's almost closed, that means it's still open, right?
5. How will the Hertha soap opera end?
If you haven't been following the Hertha Berlin story this season, you've been missing out. Mind you, you haven't missed anything good: on the contrary, Hertha is on pace for its worst finish since 2015, when the club avoided relegation by a single point.
No, what you're missing is some serious, all-caps DRAMA.
Stuck in 15th place in the 18-team Bundesliga, Hertha hired former U.S. men's national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann as caretaker manager in late November. For a minute, it seemed like the move might work out pretty well: after losing his debut match (the team's fifth straight league loss), Hertha collected 12 points from their next seven matches, a pace easily good enough to avoid relegation. But then Klinsmann abruptly quit in mid-February, claiming he wasn't getting enough front-office support.
A couple of weeks later, a 22-page diary Klinsmann kept during his time with the club was leaked to the press. Not surprisingly, it was amazingly self-serving and scathing toward the club. Hertha proceeded to lose its first post-leak match 5-0. FC Koln, then fell behind 16th place Fortuna Dusseldorf 3-0 before rallying for a draw. They salvaged a 2-2 home draw against 17th-place Werder Bremen and remain six points out of the relegation zone. But the season has been teetering for a while, and among Hertha's final nine matches are road trips to RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach. We might not have seen the last plot twist.
6. Can Lazio win its first Serie A title in 20 years?
It feels particularly ominous talking about a completed Serie A season since matches have been canceled in Italy until at least early April. If it does resume, however, we'll have quite a race to follow: Juventus vs. Lazio.
Juventus aren't used to having much competition for the Serie A title. The Bianconeri have won eight championships in a row and the runner-up has been within eight or fewer points only twice in the past seven years. Lazio haven't finished closer than 18 points of the champs during this span of domination and yet, with 12 league matches to go for both teams, Juve have 63 points with a plus-26 goal differential, and Lazio are at 62 points/plus-37.
After a stirring run of success in the late 1990s and early 2000s (which included both Serie A and Coppa Italia wins in 2000), Lazio have managed only two top-three league finishes since 2001. The Biancocelesti didn't exactly come roaring out of the gates this season either, earning only 12 points (and falling 10 behind Juve) in their first eight matches. But they've dropped only four points since Oct. 22, giving up fewer goals than anyone in that span while scoring more than everyone except the impossibly prolific Atalanta. While they were surprisingly eliminated from the Europa League in the group stage, they haven't suffered a Serie A loss since September. They are scheduled, for now, to visit Juventus on April 26. That might end up being the deciding fixture in this surprisingly tight race.
7. Can any goal scorers catch Ciro?
Less tight at the moment: Ciro Immobile's Golden Boot lead. For more than 50 years, the boot has been given to Europe's best league goal scorer, with players in the top leagues giving a weighted edge since 1997. As you would probably expect, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have dominated, winning 10 of the past 12 boots. But both are looking up in the standings at the moment.
Goals in the top five leagues are worth two points, while goals in lesser leagues carry less weight. So Lazio's Immobile basically has a two-goal lead over the injured Lewandowski and a six-goal lead over the cluster of Werner, Ronaldo and Haaland. Messi is eight goals back.
Immobile, 30, is an incredible comeback story. After scoring 22 goals for Torino in 2013-14, he signed with Dortmund but struggled. Loans to Sevilla and back to Torino weren't particularly fruitful either, but he resurrected his career at Lazio. He scored 29 goals in 2017-18 and will almost certainly top that this spring. But some awfully big names are on his trail.
8. Can Atalanta, Europe's most fun team, remain relevant?
Across Europe's top five leagues, the majority of the most prolific teams are also among the richest and most consistently successful: Bayern Munich (2.9 goals per league match), PSG (2.8), Borussia Dortmund (2.7), Manchester City (2.4), Barcelona (2.3), Liverpool (2.3). The second-most goals-heavy club in the game at the moment, however, is based in Bergamo, Italy, a city approximately the size of Topeka, Kansas.
Coached by Gian Piero Gasperini since 2016, Atalanta finished fourth in Serie A in his first season, then qualified for the Champions League for the first time last season when they finished third. They improbably advanced to the knockout rounds by securing seven points in their past three matches, and they went nuts, scoring four goals in both legs of their round of 16 win over Valencia. They have scored at least three goals on 11 occasions in Serie A play and at least five on five occasions. They're led in scoring by veteran Josip Iličić, but six players have scored at least seven goals.
Marcotti: Praise for Atalanta's throwback attack
They lean more heavily into a funky 3-4-1-2 formation than anyone else in Europe (Ligue 1's midtable Montpellier is the only other team that comes close), and they attack you from whatever angle you give them. They're also willing to risk disaster in the name of pursuing success -- they've given up at least 10 more goals than each of the three teams ahead of them in the Serie A table.
This is the Mike Leach Air Raid of European soccer. We must protect them and nurture the Nerazzurri at all costs. But they hold just a three-point lead over Roma for the fourth and final Serie A spot in the Champions League. FiveThirtyEight likes their chances, but they still have obvious work to do.
9. Who wins the latest Barca-Real Madrid race?
Atletico Madrid has earned at least 76 points in La Liga play for seven straight years. Valencia earned 77 in 2014-15, and Sevilla earned 76 that same season. This would have been a great time for one of these Spanish clubs (or any other, for that matter) to really have its act together -- after all, the bar's a lot lower than normal when it comes to the title race.
As things stand, Barcelona is two points up on Real Madrid in the La Liga lead, but they're only on pace for 81-82 points. No league champ has finished with under 85 points since 2007, and over the past five seasons, three runners-up have topped 90. (Atletico finished third with 88 in 2016.) No one is taking advantage of the lower bar, however. Atletico are suffering their worst offensive output in years and are on pace for just 63 points. Sevilla are on pace for 66. Valencia are stuck in seventh place. Valencia were run out of the Champions League by Atalanta while Barca (vs. Napoli) and, more likely, Real Madrid (vs. Manchester City) could be eliminated next week.
Atletico's Anfield heroics aside, this has not been the most memorable La Liga season, but it is evidently Barca vs. Real for the crown once more, and neither team seems willing or able to take control. Barca fired off four straight league wins to take the lead, then Real took it right back with a 2-0 win in El Clasico. Just a week later, Los Blancos lost 2-1 at 12th-place Real Betis and gave the lead right back to Barcelona.
FiveThirtyEight gives Barca a slight edge in the competition -- a 62% chance to Real Madrid's 38% -- but in terms of expected goals (XG), Real's XG difference of plus-26.8 to Barca's plus-19.6 suggests they've been the better team thus far. Flaws or no, these teams appear as evenly matched as ever and the race (if we get one) will probably come down to the wire.
10. Who else makes the UCL from La Liga?
Hey, if almost all of your league's heavyweights and light heavyweights are having semi-disappointing seasons at the same time, that at least makes for tight competition, right? With five teams within five points of third place -- Sevilla (47 points), Getafe (46), Atletico (45), Real Sociedad (43), Valencia (42) -- that should make for an awfully tight race for Spain's third and fourth Champions League spots.
According to FiveThirtyEight, Sevilla (69% chance of qualifying for the UCL) and Atletico (52%) have a bit of an edge over Getafe (43%) and Real Sociedad (28%), with Valencia (5%) and Villarreal (1% with 38 points) holding on for dear life.
Expected goals suggest that Atletico has been dramatically unlucky so far this year. Their plus-18.6 XGD is easily third best and barely behind that of Barca, but they were apparently saving up all of their good fortune to unload on Liverpool. But XGD agrees that they and Sevilla (plus-15.2) have the quality edge over Sociedad (plus-9.9), Getafe (plus-5.8), and a similarly unlucky Villarreal (plus-10.7). So maybe we already know the answer to this one. Then again, we thought we knew what was going to happen on Tuesday in Liverpool too.