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For much of Europe, soccer season is again a battle for second place

For much of Europe, soccer season is again a battle for second place
Chelsea will have a hard time repeating as Premier League champion if Diego Costa, right, remains in Brazil instead of rejoining the English club. (Paul Ellis / AFP/Getty Images)

European soccer's top leagues have been ruled by super clubs for much of the past decade.

Bayern Munich has won the past five Bundesliga titles in Germany, Juventus has captured the past six crowns in Italy's Serie A, and Barcelona and Real Madrid have combined to win 12 of the past 13 championships in Spain's La Liga.

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In France, Paris Saint-Germain won four straight Ligue 1 titles before finishing second last season. Ownership responded by spending more than $600 million to lure Neymar away from Spain, an investment that figures to bring the trophy back to Paris.

Only in the English Premier League, which has had four different champions in the past five years, has there been anything resembling parity.

This overall trend doesn't figure to change soon, with the regular seasons in four of the continent's five leagues again looking more like coronations than competitions, while in the EPL a handful of teams have realistic shots at the title.

Here's a look at how the 2017-18 seasons are shaping up:

Bundesliga (Germany): After struggling through a disappointing preseason, Bayern Munich returned to Germany and won three consecutive games over domestic competition, including Friday's 3-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the league opener.

That suggests Bayern, which has won the past five titles by an average of 15 points, once again will cruise to a championship.

The club canceled out the loss of Douglas Costa to Italy's Juventus by acquiring Colombian James Rodriguez on a loan from Real Madrid, and the rest of the roster remains familiar. Goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer returns along with forwards Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Mueller, midfielders Arjen Robben, Thiago Alcantara and Arturo Vidal, and defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng.

That gives Bayern arguably the deepest starting lineup in Europe. So, like many of the continent's elite teams, Bayern has the challenge of turning that domestic dominance into success in the Champions League, a tournament it hasn't won since 2013.

The race behind Bayern could be interesting, if not particularly tight, with Leipzig and Hoffenheim among those likely to push Borussia Dortmund for second place.

English Premier League (Britain): The Premier League hasn't had a repeat winner since Manchester United won the third of three straight titles in 2009, and that streak won't change this season.

Defending champion Chelsea dominated last season, but Antonio Conte's team won't sneak up on anyone this year. Striker Diego Costa remains in Brazil, holding his breath in an effort to force a transfer back to Spain. Playmaker Eden Hazard and forward Pedro are injured. That leaves Alvaro Morata, the team's chief offseason acquisition, to shoulder a huge load.

Manager Jose Mourinho spent nearly $200 million on summer transfer fees at Manchester United, the bulk of that going to Romelu Lukaku — who rewarded him with three goals as United opened the season with consecutive 4-0 wins. But will that be enough to make up for the loss of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

Second-year coach Pep Guardiola has cleaned house at Manchester City, where more than two dozen players have moved on since last season. Guardiola, who never has gone two consecutive seasons without a title, struggled to a third-place finish last year as he tried to implement his possession-heavy philosophy. If a preseason that included wins over Real Madrid and Tottenham is any indication, the players who are left in Manchester are now getting comfortable with that system.

Perennial contenders Tottenham (second and third, respectively, the past two seasons) and Arsenal (22 consecutive top-five finishes) once again will be in the mix as well.

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La Liga (Spain): Barcelona will start the season Sunday without forwards Neymar and Luis Suarez, but still has Lionel Messi and that makes it a contender to regain the league title it gave up last season. But for the first time in many years, Barcelona will not begin the season as title favorites since Real Madrid, the reigning champion, is also the two-time defending Champions League winner.

And just in case there was any doubt as to its superiority, Real swept Barcelona in the two-leg Spanish Super Cup last week — winning the second game despite the absence of talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, who was serving the first of a five-match suspension for shoving a referee.

Ronaldo's absence will sting; the FIFA world player of the year has led Real is scoring in each of the past seven seasons. And this season he'll be without Rodriguez and Morata, who combined for 31 goals in 2016-17 before leaving for Bayern Munich and Chelsea, respectively.

Ronaldo will be back by mid-September, but Barcelona won't get Suarez back from a knee injury for at least a month, and it won't get Neymar back at all after the Brazilian star jumped to Paris Saint-Germain for a record transfer fee of $263 million.

Atletico Madrid, which has finished in the top three the past five seasons, is once again the best of the rest.

Ligue 1 (France): The additions of Neymar and Brazilian teammate Dani Alves make Paris Saint-Germain arguably the best team in the history of French soccer. But what PSG's free-spending owners really want is a Champions League trophy and there the team has disappointed, failing to get past the quarterfinals since a Qatari investment group took over in 2011.

So this summer it doubled down, spending big for the 25-year-old Neymar and giving Alves a two-year deal reportedly worth more than $30 million.

And PSG may not be done spending, with 18-year-old Monaco striker Kylian Mbappé said to be weighing an offer to join the team before the transfer window closes.

Monaco, the league champion last year, will battle Lyon, Marseille and Nice for the next four places in the Ligue 1 standings.

Serie A (Italy): If PSG is trying to buy a European title, AC Milan's Chinese chairman Li Yonghong is emptying his team's treasure chest in an effort to knock Juventus off its Italian throne for the first time in seven seasons.

Milan spent more than $200 million on transfer fees alone this summer, a good chunk of that going to land defender Leonardo Bonucci, who left a Juventus team that hasn't entered the final weekend of a season without a title in hand since 2011. And despite the loss of Bonucci and Alves, who left for PSG on a free transfer, Juventus is still loaded.

Champions League runner-up Juventus added Costa on loan from Bayern Munich to support Gonzalo Higuain in the team's preferred 4-2-3-1 alignment. Also returning is ageless goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, 39, who had one of his best campaigns last season. Buffon already announced this will be his final season as he plans to retire following the World Cup.

While Milan's big spending has gotten a lot of attention, it may not buy Li more than a third-place finish in the league race since Napoli, third a year ago, will be strong again. Third will be more than enough to secure a return to the Champions League, however, since Italy will quality four teams for the continental tournament for the first time in six seasons.

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Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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