Premier League

7 intriguing storylines to follow in early 2019

 • by Matt Gault
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So, 2019 then. New year, new blah blah blah.

If you’re already sick of reading about people’s New Year’s resolutions on Instagram, let’s tuck into some of the most intriguing storylines across European football in the first half of 2019.

As things stand, it’s set to be a hugely exciting few months. We don’t have a World Cup to look forward to this year but, thankfully, some of Europe’s top leagues have stepped up to the plate with what everyone wants to see: title races.

Can Dortmund finally end Bayern’s reign?

Borussia Dortmund have, in this writer’s opinion, been the most entertaining team to watch in Europe so far this season.

Lucien Favre’s impact at Dortmund has been both swift and significant, transforming a talented but under-achieving side into genuine title frontrunners.

With the Bundesliga enjoying its winter slumber until January 18, Dortmund are currently enjoying a mid-season break looking down on the rest.

Bayern Munich, who have recovered following a stuttering start under their new manager, Niko Kovač, are Dortmund’s nearest challengers, six points behind the pacesetters.

With Paco Alcácer, Marco Reus and England starlet Jadon Sancho all in excellent form, Favre’s side will be tough to catch but the pressure will only mount as the season inches towards its conclusion.

With trips to RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt, fourth and fifth respectively, to come in their next three games, Dortmund’s championship credentials will be given a stern test, but their meeting with Bayern on April 6 looks very much like it will be decisive in determining the outcome of the German title.

Considering Bayern have won it in each of the last six seasons, it would be a refreshing change of pace to see Favre’s free-flowing Dortmund dethrone the Bavarian giants.

Liverpool to end long wait?

29 years. That’s how long it’s been since Liverpool were champions of England. If you’re a Red, you obviously won’t need reminding of that fact, but it does bear repeating to underline the potential significance of this season in the club’s storied history.

When Manchester United clinched the inaugural Premier League title in 1993, it ended a 26-year wait.

Liverpool’s wait has been excruciating. They have triumphed in cup competitions and Europe since their last league title in 1990 but have watched a team from Manchester lift the league trophy 16 times in that period.

However, there is a clear sense of belief that Jürgen Klopp’s side – seven points ahead of Manchester City at the time of writing – have all the necessary attributes, both physical and mental, to see this through.

Mourinho & Wenger – where next?

Two of the Premier League’s most formidable managerial figures left their posts during 2018. Arsène Wenger brought the curtain down on his 22-year stint at Arsenal in May before José Mourinho was given the boot by Manchester United a week prior to Christmas.

It begs the question: where next? Wenger previously stated that he ‘believed’ he would be starting his next job on New Year’s Day, having received ‘enquiries from all over the world.’ The Frenchman, 69, has been tipped to become Paris Saint-Germain‘s new technical director. It sounds like we won’t have to wait long before finding what’s next in store for the three-time Premier League winner.

As for Mourinho, a return to Real Madrid may be on the cards. Although the Portuguese’s first spell in the Spanish capital ended with his popularity having plummeted, Florentino Pérez is reportedly ready to welcome him back to the Bernabéu, which is likely hugely unsettling for Santiago Solari given he only penned a three-year contract in November.

Surprises at the top and bottom in Spain

Speaking of Spain, there is plenty of intrigue in La Liga this season. Although Barcelona and Atlético Madrid occupy the top two spots, Sevilla have been something of a surprise package and sit third, just five points behind Barça.

Head coach Pablo Machín has impressed in Seville and, while they may not have enough to stop the two sides above them, it will be interesting to see if they can edge out Real Madrid and clinch third.

Elsewhere, Alavés are flying high this season. After finishing 14th last term, Abelardo’s are fifth, just a point behind Real.

At the other end of the table, Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao are both in serious trouble. With almost half of the season played, Bilbao are 17th with the Yellow Submarine sinking one spot further down.

Bilbao were in the Champions League group stage in 2014 while Villarreal have not finished outside the top six since being relegated in 2012. If either were to go down, it would be a massive story in the Spanish top flight.

Henry’s nightmarish Monaco return

Two-and-a-half months after being appointed Monaco manager in a fairytale return to the club, Thierry Henry still finds himself mired in a scrap to avoid relegation.

Brought in as Leonardo Jardim’s successor to reinvigorate the principality club and secure their Ligue 1 status, Henry’s time at the Stade Louis II has been harrowing, to say the least.

With no previous experience, the 41-year-old has endured a nightmare, managing just three wins in his 14 games in charge. His squad, already severely depleted by an escalating injury crisis, are tragically low on confidence and Henry is cutting an increasingly helpless figure on the touchline.

Their latest defeat, 2-0 at home to Ligue 1’s basement club Guingamp on the eve of the winter break, only deepened the sense of doom and gloom and the French media are beginning to approach Henry’s departure as a matter of when, not if.

Can Ronaldo lead Juve to European glory?

New year, same old story in Italy. Juventus, flying high after their best-ever start to a Serie A campaign with 53 points from a possible 57, would have to suffer a spectacular collapse for them to not end their domestic season with an eighth Scudetto in a row.

They are nine points ahead of Napoli and 13 better off than third-placed Inter. Max Allegri’s Bianconeri simply look too good in Italy.

The Champions League presents a much more robust assessment. Cristiano Ronaldo was bought with the idea that he would elevate Juve to a position where they would be considered the best in Europe.

Ronaldo has been his typical brilliant self in Serie A with 14 goals and five assists in 19 appearances. However, his only strike – albeit a stunning one – in the Champions League came against his former side Manchester United.

He was also sent off on his debut for Juve in the competition and Allegri, who lost the final in 2015 and 2017, hopes the five-time Ballon d’Or winner can prove decisive in the Turin club’s 23-year quest for the most prestigious prize in European football.

That will start with a tough two-legged tie against another side who have lost two recent finals: Atlético Madrid.

Solskjær set for United acid tests

Ole Gunnar Solskjær has got off to a flyer as Mourinho’s interim successor at United with three wins in a row and 12 goals scored.

He has restored the feel-good factor at Old Trafford, has Paul Pogba playing with a smile on his face and generally has the fans looking forward to watching matches once again.

Of course, the praise directed at Solskjær has been tinged with a knowledge that home games against Huddersfield and Bournemouth and a trip to Cardiff were just about as easy an initiation as the Norwegian could have hoped for.

Yes, more unforgiving examinations lie ahead and, with the 45-year-old throwing his hat into the ring to become Mourinho’s permanent replacement, he will be judged more on assignments such as away to Tottenham (January 13), the Champions League knockout tie with Paris Saint-Germain (February 12 and March 6) and Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford (February 24).

Solskjær will face a particularly daunting run of games in March. After the trip to Paris, United face Arsenal at the Emirates three days later before hosting Manchester City in the derby on March 16. Such a blockbuster stretch could prove decisive in determining Solskjær’s long-term future at the club.

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