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Column: Europe doesn't need fat lady this season

Friday - 3/29/2013, 4:56pm  ET

Germany's Mario Goetze, 3rd left, talks to teammate Jerome Boateng, left, after scoring during their World Cup Group C qualifying soccer match in Nuremberg, southern Germany, on Tuesday, March 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

JOHN LEICESTER
AP Sports Columnist

PARIS (AP) -- Although the tulips are barely starting to bloom as winter surrenders to spring in Europe, suspense has gone from the continent's top football leagues.

Don't wait for the fat lady to sing in Germany, England, Spain and quite possibly Italy, because she has taken off for an early vacation, feeling unwanted.

There is a simple explanation why Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Barcelona already have one hand on their domestic league trophies by Easter: because, as is often true with champions, they are terrible losers. They used the sting of failures last season as fuel to drive them to success this term.

After Manchester City took the Premier League title from under his nose on the last day of the 2012 season, United manager Alex Ferguson immediately set to work on righting this wrong.

On the coach carrying his team back from its last match in Sunderland, where United learned that City had won the title by the narrowest of margins on goal difference, Ferguson went around to his younger players and told them to squirrel away their hurt.

According to United forward Danny Welbeck, quoted by English newspapers at the start of this season, Ferguson said: "Never forget this, because this will win you titles ... This will make some of you into men and be the best you can be."

That and fistfuls of money.

United's recruitment of Robin van Persie has also proved a game-changer for United this season. In Germany, Bayern licked the wounds of two seasons without trophies by spending a Bundesliga record euro40 million ($50 million) on defensive midfielder Javi Martinez.

Dante, the Brazilian defender recruited from Borussia Moenchengladbach, has also helped plug gaps in the Bayern defense that lost the 2012 Champions League final, allowing Didier Drogba to score for Chelsea in the 88th minute. In the Bundesliga's 50th season, Bayern is now proving to be the hardest team to score against in that league's history.

Bayern hopes to clinch the Bundesliga title this weekend. United and Lionel Messi's Barcelona, bullying La Liga again this season after being knocked off its perch by Real Madrid in 2012, could follow suit in the weeks ahead. In Italy, Juventus is nine points clear of second-placed Napoli with nine matches to play.

There is still suspense aplenty about which European teams will drop from the top flights and which will qualify for the Champions League.

But for Bayern, United and Barcelona, the unanswered questions now revolve more around which new marks they might set on their way to wrapping up their league titles. Here's some that are in their sights:

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21: That is the Bundesliga record for fewest goals conceded in a season, set by Bayern in 2007-08. Bayern could shatter that, having shipped just 11 goals in 26 games.

If Bayern wins all eight of its remaining matches, it will finish with 93 points, bettering the record of 81 points Borussia Dortmund set in winning the league last season.

The 20-point lead Bayern carried into this weekend is larger than the league-record 16-point gap it set in winning the league in 2003.

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95: Chelsea's Premier League record for points in a season, from '05, will be hard for United to better. With 74 points before playing Sunderland on Saturday, United could in theory finish with 101 points if it wins its last nine matches. But those include visits to Old Trafford by Manchester City and Chelsea and an April 28 trip to Arsenal.

Other targets for United to aim for are Chelsea's Premier League record of 29 wins in a season -- which it achieved in both '05 and '06 -- and the league record for the points gap between the champion and runner-up. United set that in 2000, finishing 18 points clear of Arsenal.

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121: That astounding record of goals scored in a La Liga season may not be safe, not with Messi continuing to score liberally for Barcelona. Barca has scored an average of 3.1 goals per game this season. It needs 34 more goals from its last 10 games to beat the record total Cristiano Ronaldo's Madrid racked up last season.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester


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