Andy Brassell on European Football: Half-term reports from Spain, Germany and Italy
The winter break is here, and Andy Brassell is thankful we still have title races worthy of the description in the big three leagues on the continent
Barcelona top, but not looking invincible
Saturday's 4-1 win over Alaves, coupled with Real Madrid's uninspiring goalless draw with Athletic Bilbao which brought the curtain down on La Liga's 2019, means Ernesto Valverde and company are two points clear at the top as they enjoy a short winter break. Things are far from idyllic at Camp Nou, however.
As always, it goes back to El Clásico. Barça were outplayed in last Wednesday's showpiece, with El Real looking further ahead in their development as both giants regroup. That Gerard Piqué was their outstanding player in keeping Madrid at bay, as the champions consciously try to make their team younger, did not escape critical notice in either Barcelona or the Spanish capital.
The aftermath was quite clear in the stands on Saturday, as fans booed their team when Alaves pulled a goal back and gave a rapturous reception to Sergio Busquets, left out of El Clásico, officially due to a fever. Barça's individual quality is not in question but doubts over their collective - and even what their best XI is - means the title race is too close to call and Real have to be the value.
Back Real Madrid to win La Liga at 3.55
Can Leipzig keep the Bundesliga pace?
Over in Germany, there was no conflict of emotions for the Bundesliga's leaders. RB Leipzig came back from a 1-0 half-time deficit to in-form Augsburg with a determined, irresistible second-half display to win the game and secure the unofficial title of Herbsmeister (autumn champion) for the first time.
They celebrated heartily at the end, and deserved to. Leipzig will never be loved, or even accepted, by many of German football's traditionalists but they have built the on-pitch success smartly and sustainably, and have taken a further step under the canny coaching of Julian Nagelsmann. The variety with which his team play and the extra he gets out of talented players who were frustrated elsewhere, like Patrik Schick and Christopher Nkunku, is tribute to his intelligence and persuasiveness.
Leipzig are, however, stepping into a new year whose demands will be completely new to them. They will face a Bayern Munich who look more stable and settled under Hansi Flick, an insistent Borussia Mönchengladbach who are heavy on firepower and maybe even a surging Borussia Dortmund should they get their house in order. If we factor in continuing DfB Pokal and Champions League campaigns, Nagelsmann's skill in juggling his talented squad will clearly be tested to the full.
Back Leipzig to win the Bundesliga at 3.45
Conte won't concede in Juve battle
The final weekend before Christmas wasn't the one that Juventus hopes for. They were beaten - and outplayed - by Lazio in the Super Cup in Riyadh and more predictably Inter took advantage of their absence from the domestic scene to handsomely beat Genoa and go back to the top of the table.
Antonio Conte's men were in exhilarating form, as so often this season - and they really are Conte's men, having adapted to the former Juve coach's methods so well. Romelu Lukaku has been Conte's success in microcosm, looking revitalised and scoring 12 Serie A goals already, as well as forming an excellent partnership with Lautaro Martínez.
January will be interesting. Conte is likely to agitate for reinforcements of some description, as is his way, and keeping creative tension from turning into full-blown fallouts is a tricky balance. The opening week after the restart, when Inter face Napoli and Atalanta while Juve take on Cagliari and travel to Roma, promises to tell us a lot but we already have enough from Inter to suggest they won't concede in a hurry.