One-horse races ahead

KEITH BRADFORD -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:27 AM ET

There's a tradition in Holland that the team at the top of the league at Christmas is crowned "winter champion.'' But as many teams have found to their cost, the unofficial title doesn't count for much if a new year slump leaves you languishing in mid-table.

With a bit of luck, that's the fate awaiting several of the clubs sitting pretty at the top of their respective leagues.

After all, a one-horse race is the last thing anyone needs. But that's exactly what's emerging in Europe's best leagues.

Barcelona were yesterday 10 points clear of Valencia, their nearest rival in Spain. And while they can be expected to stutter a little at some point, Valencia - with a coach nicknamed the "tinkerman" - are likely to be the very definition of erratic.

You can forget about Beckham et al. at Madrid. A total of just 29 points at Christmas (as of yesterday, compared to Barcelona's 42) means they'll be hard-pressed to make it into next year's Champions League - let alone challenge for the title.

Prediction: Barcelona champions by a country mile - leaving Ronaldinho with an even bigger smile. Cesar Julio Baptista's goals propel FC Sevilla into an unlikely runners-up spot. Madrid suddenly find a midfield player who can tackle and climb into third. The president announces huge Beckham-inspired pre-tax profits - and everyone's happy. Mission accomplished.

- - -

Over in England, Chelsea have looked ruthlessly efficient all year and, with a big lead over Arsenal, the title race - if you can call it that - appears a foregone conclusion.

At least in Arsenal, Chelsea have a formidable challenger. And Manchester United - Wayne Rooney tantrums aside - still have the potential to be a thorn in their side.

Prediction: Chelsea's relentless pursuit of points sees them crowned champions, Arsenal suffer from suspensions due to a series of brawls and finish a distant second. United mount a late run and come third.

- - -

Juventus had a healthy four-point lead over AC Milan at the top of Italy's Serie A yesterday. But I can't see it lasting.

Prediction: AC Milan to be crowned champions by just two points, Juventus runners-up thanks to a late wobble and Inter Milan will land third.

- - -

Of all the top European leagues, France may be the most difficult to call.

Lyon and Lille are the early frontrunners but I'm not convinced about their staying power.

As unlikely as it might seem at the moment, Monaco - currently lying fourth - have the ability and the firepower to be real contenders.

Prediction: Monaco to win it on goal difference with an amazing end-of-season surge to the top. Lyon the unlucky runners-up and Lille in third.

- - -

In Germany, it should be one of either Bayern Munich or Schalke. Both were tied at the top with 34 points yesterday.

Prediction: Oliver Kahn blames the wind for yet another clanger and Bayern are plunged into crisis. Schalke capitalize and are crowned champions. Bayern hold on to second (just) from Stuttgart.

- - -

You'd be hard-pressed to call Holland one of Europe's best leagues, but seeing as AZ Alkmaar won the coveted title of "winter champions'' earlier this month, I'd be remiss to leave them out. After all, they're almost certainly about to collapse in spectacular fashion.

Prediction: PSV champions by at least six points. Ajax start to stabilize after a year of turmoil and claim the runners-up spot.

And our winter champions? Fourth behind Feyenoord.


Photos