Tight league title races play out across European soccer. Belgium aims for more epic last-day drama

Fri, May 3, 2024
Soccer News (AP)

Tight league title races play out across European soccer. Belgium aims for more epic last-day drama

GENEVA (AP) - The helicopter is on standby again.

Its task? To deliver the Belgian league trophy to the winner of another three-team title race that can only hope to match the epic climax of last season.

European soccer has intense title chases for fans to savor this month: The Arsenal-Manchester City duel in England will get the most attention while, away from the "big five" leagues, traditional city rivalries are playing out in Scotland, Turkey and Portugal.

Still, the best drama might be found in Belgium for a second straight year when the last round of games is played May 26.

It was an instant classic last June 4 when three different teams led the in-play league standings during the final six minutes of the season.

Toby Alderweireld's 20-meter (yard) shot deep in stoppage time won a first league title in 66 years for Royal Antwerp with a 2-2 draw at Genk that took the trophy from the home team. Genk had one hand on it for just a few minutes after Union Saint-Gilloise's one-goal lead at home to Club Brugge entering the 89th collapsed into a 3-1 loss.

Hovering above Union's stadium near Brussels, with a police escort waiting on the ground, had been a helicopter carrying league CEO Lorin Parys, the championship trophy, and a 16-year-old boy who was helping present it as a Make-A-Wish Foundation project.

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"The Union chairman, Alex Muzio, said the whole stadium saw the helicopter turn away," Parys told The Associated Press in an interview this week.

The flight path changed toward Genk, then Antwerp to land eventually next to the stadium where the triumphant players traveled from their game to join fans who had watched a big-screen broadcast there. They poured on to the field to celebrate Alderweireld's strike - a "mythic goal," Parys said.

"You felt like the whole country was enraptured in the one story," Parys said. "We have the unscripted drama and that is the role of the league."

Union is again chasing a first-ever title - now against a revived Anderlecht and Brugge, the traditional powers who reached a series of European finals in the 1970s and 80s.

Union topped the regular season standings but started the championship playoff group with four straight losses. The top six teams keep half their regular season points tally for the decisive round-robin group.

"It makes everything more exciting and different outcomes possible," Parys said of the clubs' decision to halve points tallies that is unusual in Europe.

Anderlecht and Brugge are tied on points with four rounds left and Union trails by one before hosting Anderlecht on Sunday. The title winner's reward is direct entry to the revamped 36-team Champions League in September. The runner-up enters qualifying rounds in August.

On May 26, the title rivals all play in different cities - Anderlecht at Antwerp, Brugge hosts city rival Cercle and Union hosts Genk.

The helicopter will be ready.

CITY RIVALRIES

Celtic-Rangers and Galatasaray-Fenerbahce are among soccer's most emotional and hostile rivalries.

In Glasgow, one more derby game on May 11 - at Celtic Park - could be decisive as the defending champion holds a three-point lead over Rangers with four rounds left.

In Istanbul, a Galatasaray team fired by Mauro Icardi's 21 league goals leads by four points with four rounds left and hosts second-place Fenerbahce on May 19. It's their tightest head-to-head title race since 2015.

Sporting Lisbon is back on top under coach Ruben Amorim and looking to repeat their surprise title won in 2021. Sporting leads crosstown rival Benfica by five points with three rounds left.

In Prague, Sparta starts the Czech league championship playoff group this weekend with a four-point lead from Slavia. Sparta hosts the derby game on May 11.

The champions of Scotland and Portugal go direct into the Champions League, but in Turkey and the Czech Republic champions go into the qualifying rounds.

FOUR-TEAM RACE

Greece has four teams chasing the title in the six-team championship group of a turbulent season which resumes May 12. PAOK meets Olympiakos to make up their games in hand before the final two rounds.

AEK Athens leads PAOK, which topped the regular season standings, and Panathinaikos by four points. Fourth-place Olympiakos is a further point back.

AEK goes to Olympiakos on May 15, though Olympiakos may yet play one more time at AEK's stadium which hosts the Europa Conference League final on May 29. Olympiakos won 4-2 at Aston Villa on Thursday in the first leg of their semifinal.

SALZBURG GOES FLAT

Salzburg, backed by drinks giant Red Bull, has won 10 straight Austrian titles and qualified to play at the inaugural 32-team FIFA Club World Cup next year among 12 European entries.

But Sturm Graz leads the Bundesliga championship group, after Salzburg topped the regular season standings. Salzburg lost back-to-back away games, conceding seven goals, and now trails Sturm by three points with three rounds left.

Chasing a first title for 13 years, Sturm ends its season against LASK and Klagenfurt - the teams that beat Salzburg.

BEST SEASON?

Bayer Leverkusen is team of the season in Europe. An astonishing, out-of-nowhere unbeaten run is now at 47 games with up to six left in the Bundesliga, German Cup final and Europa League.

Still, Leverkusen's league statistics - 81 points from 31 games, at an average of 2.61 - is the same as Sporting Lisbon and trails three teams in leading European leagues.

Serie A champion Inter Milan is averaging 2.62 points and PSV Eindhoven is on 2.71 having started the Dutch season with 17 straight wins until drawing a game in January.

Galatasaray's 93 points from 34 games so far is a 2.74 average and a rare 100-point tally is in sight.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

GRAHAM DUNBAR Dunbar is an Associated Press sports news reporter in Geneva, Switzerland. He focuses on the governing bodies, institutions and politics of international sports. twitter mailto "
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