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8 storylines to watch as European leagues sprint to the finish

The top five leagues are set to resume action this weekend after another round of international friendlies, and while the title races are mostly decided, there’s still plenty at stake for clubs both in the top and bottom halves of the table.

With two months remaining in the European campaign, here are the eight biggest and most compelling storylines from across the continent.

West Ham’s plans of grandeur falling apart

The move to the London Stadium was supposed to launch West Ham United into the upper stratosphere of the Premier League. The Hammers left behind the intimate and intimidating Upton Park to become, as vice chairwoman Karren Brady promised in 2016, a world-class team in a world-class stadium.

But the reality is far different. West Ham is stuck just two points above the drop zone, its owners have become moving targets, and fans have waged endless protests both on and off the field. Relegation to the Championship would not only undercut the east London side’s television revenue, it would cause irreparable damage the club’s project.

David Moyes’ side has a difficult task ahead, with matches against Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City still to come. There’s little confidence at the back – West Ham has conceded the second-most goals in the division this season – and no reliable scorer in its ranks.

West Ham has a chance to reverse course against relegation rival Southampton on Saturday.

Manchester City has points record in sight

City has already crushed records this season, and the single-season Premier League points record is just as vulnerable as the others were. Pep Guardiola’s men are currently on 81 points and need just 15 out of a possible 24 to surpass Chelsea’s benchmark from 2004-05. The champion-elect can achieve that with wins over Everton, Swansea City, West Ham, Huddersfield Town, and Southampton over the next two months.

City already established the longest winning streak in Premier League history, coming out victors 18 times in a row this season. It’s averaging 2.7 points and nearly three goals per game. Expect Guardiola to keep his men running at a high tempo until the very last minute of the campaign.

Napoli painfully close to 1st title in decades

Not even a 10-match winning streak was enough to separate Napoli from Juventus. The six-time defending Serie A champion matched its southern counterpart stride for stride, and picked up the lead once the Partenopei tripped up.

Napoli is now staring at a two-point deficit with nine matches to go. A daunting trip to Juventus’ Allianz Stadium is also on the agenda. (The last time Napoli beat the Bianconeri away from home in Serie A was October 2009.)

Maurizio Sarri’s players have had trouble breaking down teams lately, needing a late header from unlikely scorer Raul Albiol to get past Genoa, but there’s still hope. Napoli is fifth among teams from the top five leagues in shots on target (6.9), meaning it’s not lacking chances. And excluding Faouzi Ghoulam’s absence, the team is relatively healthy. The issue is whether Napoli can break through the psychological barrier to claim a first league title since 1990.

Can Gattuso lead Milan to the promised land?

After a troubling start to his reign – including an embarrassing draw with Benevento on his debut – Gennaro Gattuso has amassed an impressive 9-3-2 record in Serie A to lead AC Milan back into the European conversation. Qualifying for the Champions League seemed impossible when Gattuso replaced Vincenzo Montella in November, but the former midfielder oversaw a mini-revolution, improving his players’ fitness levels while simplifying tactics with a more consistent XI.

The Rossoneri’s remaining nine fixtures are mostly manageable, with six of them against opponents below them in the standings. Considering the gap to fourth place is down to just five points, there’s reason for fans to dream.

Girona targeting Europe in maiden La Liga season

Many may see Girona’s rise as a consequence of its partnership with Manchester City, but in fact, only one of the players out on loan in Catalonia has featured regularly in the club’s ascent to seventh place.

Girona is enjoying a fantastic debut season in La Liga with players from humble backgrounds. Manager Pablo Machin has implemented an untraditional 3-5-2 formation that’s caused both Atletico and Real Madrid problems, with Girona taking a win and two draws against the capital clubs this season.

Its top scorers were failures elsewhere before rediscovering themselves in the Catalan suburbs. Portu, who had only played a single top-flight match before the 2017-18 campaign, has punctured the defences of Atletico, Real, and Valencia. Meanwhile, Cristhian Stuani, considered a disappointment at Middlesbrough, has an unexpected 17 goals to his name. No one else in the top five leagues has headed in more goals than the Uruguayan.

Machin’s side also boasts six straight victories at home without conceding. A combination of solid defending and clinical finishing has put Girona within two points of a Europa League spot – and deservedly so.

Barcelona’s unbeaten record to be tested

Barcelona’s a virtual lock to win its 25th league title, something that seemed so unlikely at the start of the season. Ernesto Valverde’s switch to a more practical 4-4-2 formation allowed Barcelona to keep a more defensive shape while preserving the club’s pass-first ethos. That philosophy has led to a 29-match unbeaten run and an 11-point lead atop the table.

And yet there’s still work to do. It’s unclear whether Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Sergio Busquets, and Lionel Messi will be fit to face Sevilla next Saturday. Meetings with Valencia, Real Madrid, and Villarreal await the Blaugrana after that.

Eintracht Frankfurt can’t slip up this time

Eintracht Frankfurt was in this position last season. The Eagles were third in the Bundesliga after 19 matches, but in the second half of the campaign, they plummeted into the bottom half of the table. Niko Kovac’s side completely lost the plot, collecting yellow and red cards like souvenirs. Frankfurt finished in 11th place with just one win from 15 matches and a paltry 11 goals scored in that span.

It’s a different story this time around. Qualifying for the Champions League is now a realistic possibility. After 27 games, Kovac’s men – an ensemble of nomads and rejects – are in fourth place. Kevin-Prince Boateng, who’s struggled to stabilise his career since leaving Milan, has reignited the attack. And veterans Marco Russ and David Abraham have kept the backline tidy. This is Frankfurt’s best chance of European qualification in years.

Could Paris Saint-Germain get an inter-city rival?

Before Paris Saint-Germain’s million-euro footballers graced the pitch at Parc des Princes, there was Paris FC. PFC split from PSG in 1972 following a dispute, but maintained its top-flight membership at its rival’s expense. Stripped of its professional status, PSG was sent down to the third tier, while PFC became the official tenant of the Parc des Princes.

The roles reversed over the past four decades, with PSG reclaiming the stadium and Paris FC switching names and ownership on the way down to the lower divisions. PFC toiled in amateur football as PSG built a roster with the likes of David Ginola, George Weah, and later Ronaldinho.

But a comeback is in the works. PFC is currently in a play-off spot for promotion to Ligue 1, and with eight matches remaining, the old Parisian side could give PSG some company next season.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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