Gavin Hamilton
Tuesday April 22nd, 2008

You have to search high and low for a surprise in this season's European league campaigns, which look set to go down as the most predictable in years.

Last weekend, PSV Eindhoven claimed its fourth successive Dutch league title with a 1-0 win at Vitesse Arnhem. It joined FC Porto, which retained its Portuguese league crown a few weeks ago, and is likely to be followed by Manchester United, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Lyon, all of whom are comfortably positioned to reclaim the titles they won 12 months ago.

United could yet be upstaged at Chelsea, on Saturday. But where's the choice in that:­ United winning its second successive title or Chelsea winning its third in four years?

In Spain, Real is closing in on another title, yet it has been one of the most disappointing campaigns of recent years. Barcelona, for all the hype surrounding Thierry Henry's signing last summer, has failed to mount a serious challenge to its greatest rival, while Madrid's season has been blighted by its failure, once again, to progress beyond the first round of the Champions League knockout stage.

With Valencia imploding (poor old Ronald Koeman -- how was that for a poisoned chalice?) and Sevilla unable to mount a challenge of two fronts in their first season in the Champions League, it has been left to Villarreal, inspired by Robert Pirès, to mount a late challenge for the title. But the 2007-08 season won't linger long in the memory.

Similarly, Inter and Lyon are set to retain their crowns in Italy and France, respectively. But they have almost done it by default, with little in the way of serious opposition, and with both clubs likely to change coaches in the summer.

In Germany, a new club will succeed VfB Stuttgart as champion but it will likely be record title-holder and traditional powerhouse Bayern Munich, which has led the Bundesliga race from Day 1. Bayern's return to dominance means a return to the status quo after Stuttgart's surprise title victory last year. It also represents a triumph for Bayern's spending power ­-- it spent a record sum last summer on the likes of Luca Toni and Franck Ribéry.

It's the same old story in Greece, where Olympiakos is set to win its 11th title in 12 years after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled against Apollon Kalamaria, which had beaten Olympiakos 1-0 in February only to have the result reversed when it emerged it had fielded an ineligible player.

In Turkey, things are neck and neck between Fenerbahçe, the defending champion, and Galatasaray, which has now overhauled Sivasspor, the surprise leader at the halfway point of the season. So business as usual there, as well.

For a genuine surprise, you have to look to Belgium, where Standard Liège has broken the stranglehold of Anderlecht to win its first league title for 25 years. Standard's 2-0 win over Anderlecht left it 10 points clear of Anderlecht and Club Brugge with three games remaining.

Anderlecht, despite its recent domestic dominance, again struggled to make any impact in this season's Champions League. It lost to Fenerbahçe in the third qualifying round, having failed to win a game in the group stages of the '06-07 Champions League.

Belgium, of all the European leagues, is proving to be the exception to the rule. Everywhere else, participation in the Champions League is providing teams with the financial power to dominate their domestic competitions. It's a cycle that is becoming harder and harder to break with every passing season.

Gavin Hamilton is the editor in chief of World Soccer Magazine. He contributes to on alternate Tuesdays.

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