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The 91st Minute: Take a deep breath, relax and get ready for the stretch run

A look at the most interesting races as the season winds down in Europe’s top five leagues.

“The 91st Minute” is a column by Sam Reno about professional soccer.

While three of the five league titles have been all but decided, the European stretch run will certainly not be without late-season drama. Let’s look at three must-watch races, and who ultimately seems poised to win them.

La Liga: Title Race

The battle for this season’s La Liga crown is certainly the most entertaining in all of Europe, but it did not always look this way. As the calendar turned to February, Atletico Madrid had lost just one league game and their edge over the rest of the league remained steady at no less than eight points.

Since February began, however, Atletico has only managed 23 of a possible 42 points in La Liga, allowing Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Sevilla to claw their way back into the mix. Just three points now separate first-place Atletico (73 points) from fourth-place Sevilla (70 points) as May approaches.

While they sit in third on 71 points, the league is Barcelona’s to lose, for their match in hand means they control their own destiny from here on in. If they win out, Barcelona would be your 2020-21 La Liga Champions.

Lionel Messi has shown no signs of slowing down, Antoine Griezmann is rounding into form with three goals in his last two, and there is very clearly a different energy surrounding this team than earlier this season.

They also hold a massive goal-differential advantage over the rest of the league which, given how tight the top of the table is, might just decide the title.

Atletico are floundering, Sevilla don’t have the firepower, and Real Madrid still have Champions League fixtures to concern themselves with. Barcelona hold the league in their hands, and, given the surrounding circumstances, it is hard to see Messi and co. letting it slip now.

Premier League: The fight for Top 4

Ten points clear with just five matches remaining, Manchester City have all but lifted their third Premier League title in four seasons. Similarly, second-place Manchester United and third-place Leicester City seem poised to claim those respective positions.

However, the race for fourth could not be more combustible. Chelsea, currently holding the spot, sit three points clear of the challengers, but there are four of them within just six points.

Among them are a surprising West Ham United in fifth, Liverpool, the defending champs, in sixth, Tottenham Hotspur in seventh and an Everton side in eighth who have a match in hand over the other four.

With the way this Chelsea squad have played since the arrival of Thomas Tuchel, it is hard to envision a scenario where they would relinquish the last UCL spot, but the closing run of fixtures does not favor the Blues at all.

West Ham and Liverpool face just one side in the top half of the league to finish the season, while Chelsea will only see one bottom half-side in a fixture list that includes two top four teams.

In addition to the difficult league schedule, Chelsea still have an FA Cup Final against Leicester City and the second leg of the Champions League semi final against Real Madrid to worry about.

In a vacuum, Chelsea would seem the obvious choice to claim the final spot in the top four, but their remaining run of fixtures seems a hill too difficult to climb. For the exact opposite reasons, I believe a Liverpool side that has found their form once again will steal fourth-place in this season’s Premier League campaign.

Serie A: The fight four Top 4

Perhaps even more compelling than the Premier League’s top four battle, the race for Italy’s Champions League spots is unbelievably tight with just five matches remaining. Inter Milan have already claimed the top spot, but two points separate the next four behind them.

Atalanta hold second place on 68 points while Napoli, Juventus and AC Milan hold third, fourth and fifth on 66 points each. It is also worth mentioning sixth-place Lazio, who sit at 61 points but with a match in hand over the other four.

Juventus have won the last nine league titles and possess more top end talent than any of the other challengers. As much as Juventus have struggled at times this season, Cristiano Ronaldo still dons the black and white, which is enough for me to believe in them.

Atalanta hold the two point edge as well as a friendly run-in of fixtures, so I would place equal confidence in their top-four prospects as well. That leaves Napoli and AC Milan vying for the final spot.

AC Milan were once top of the league bolstered by the performance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who continues to defy the logic of aging. However, they have struggled greatly of late while Napoli have surged to close the gap.

AC Milan also have a tough run of fixtures to close, with Juventus and Atalanta making up two of their last five. In my mind, Napoli are playing too well, are too confident and have too easy of a remaining schedule to waste the opportunity that their recent form has granted them.

So, while many of the title races may already be decided, there is still plenty to watch for as the European season reaches its conclusion. Champions League football is a massive boon to the clubs who qualify and a massive failure for those who don’t, a possibility some of the world’s biggest clubs are now staring dead in the face.

“The 91st Minute” typically runs every Wednesday.