From champs to flops, assessing the European soccer season

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The nine-month chase for silverware is almost over for European clubs. All that's left to contest is the Champions League final on Saturday — a derby between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. Then the focus shifts to the European Championship in France in June and July.

But with the domestic seasons now over, Associated Press writers across Europe offer their assessments of the continent's leading competitions:

BY SAMUEL PETREQUIN

SPAIN

Champion: Barcelona held off a late charge by its Madrid rivals to defend the league title and also win the Copa del Rey.

Surprise: Barcelona should have cruised to the title but managed to squander a nine-point lead in the final weeks.

Flops: Valencia was expected to mount a top-three challenge but instead flirted with relegation. After two coaching changes, including one to replace first-time coach Gary Neville, Valencia finished 12th.

Best player: Cristiano Ronaldo was eclipsed by Luis Suarez, who was the league's top scorer with 40 goals.

Best coach: When Rafa Benitez's brief reign was halted in January, Zinedine Zidane took over a Real Madrid in crisis in January but he helped "Los Blancos" finish with 12 straight wins to challenge Barcelona.

Offseason: The Madrid clubs could be at a disadvantage because of a FIFA-imposed ban on signing players for breaching rules registering underage players. The ban was temporarily suspended but could return after FIFA delivered its verdict on the clubs' appeals.

BY TALES AZZONI

ENGLAND

Champion: One of the most remarkable title winners ever, Leicester won the league for the first time in its 132-year history after fighting relegation the previous season.

Surprise: It wasn't just Leicester upsetting the established elite. Tottenham was unexpectedly Leicester's closest Premier League challenger. Despite a late-season collapse to slip behind north London rival Arsenal, the youthful Tottenham team qualified for the Champions League for only the second time. Bournemouth also defied expectations by smoothly securing a second season in the Premier League.

Flops: As remarkable as Leicester's surge was, so was Chelsea's collapse. The London club mounted the worst-ever defense of a Premier League title, finishing 10th. Jose Mourinho was fired in December, four months into a new contract after an internal rift.

Best player: Jamie Vardy becoming a star approaching 30. Contributing 24 league goals elevated the former non-league striker above the rest of Leicester's title-winning squad.

Offseason: Was Leicester's triumph a one-off or is another team well equipped to emulate the champions and stun England next season? Much of the intrigue will center on how teams rebuild under new managers: Manchester City (Pep Guardiola) and Chelsea (Antonio Conte).

BY ROB HARRIS

GERMANY

Champion: Even when injuries seemed to be taking their toll, Bayern Munich managed to eke out narrow wins to claim an unprecedented fourth straight title before Pep Guardiola heads to Manchester City.

Surprises: Mainz qualified for the Europa League in Martin Schmidt's first full season in charge. Darmstadt survived its first season back in the top flight after a 33-year absence.

Flops: Nicklas Bendtner never settled at Wolfsburg in his two seasons after arriving from Arsenal. The brash striker was a substitute in 22 of his 31 league appearances and only scored three goals before his contract was terminated.

Best player: Javier Hernandez revived his career at Bayer Leverkusen after being ditched by Manchester United. His 17 goals helped Leverkusen finish third to make the Champions League.

Best coach: Thomas Tuchel stabilized Borussia Dortmund after Juergen Klopp's departure and restored confidence with a second-place finish.

Offseason: Carlo Ancelotti is replacing Guardiola with new signings already secured: Mats Hummels from Dortmund and Renato Sanches from Benfica. Mario Goetze's Bayern future is uncertain with the midfielder linked with a reunion with Klopp at Liverpool.

BY CIARAN FAHEY

ITALY

Champion: Juventus became the first club to win Serie A after losing four of its opening 10 matches. Juve overcame the departures of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez to capture a fifth straight title.

Surprises: In only its third season in Serie A, Sassuolo finished sixth to qualify for the Europa League playoffs.

Flops: The Milan clubs. Inter missed out on the Champions League for a fifth straight season by finishing fourth and AC Milan didn't even get the consolation of the Europa League after finishing seventh.

Best player: Napoli forward Gonzalo Higuain broke a 66-year-old league record with 36 goals.

Best coach: Massimiliano Allegri kept his Juventus squad together after a difficult start and swept a domestic treble.

Offseason: AC Milan is looking for a coach and investors. Interim coach Cristian Brocchi produced only two wins in six Serie A games after replacing the fired Sinisa Mihajlovic. Owner Silvio Berlusconi is looking to sell a majority stake to a group of Chinese investors.

BY ANDREW DAMPF

FRANCE

Champion: No European team has it as easy as Paris Saint-Germain, which won a second straight domestic treble. The league was won with a record 96 points, 31 ahead of Lyon.

Surprises: Hatem Ben Arfa, the former golden child of French soccer, revived his troubled career on the Riviera, scoring 17 league goals as Nice finished fourth.

Flops: Former European champion Marseille endured an inconsistent year, going through three coaches and taking until May to secure its topflight status.

Best player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic reached 50 goals in an outstanding farewell season, showing age is no barrier for the 34-year-old forward.

Best coach: Laurent Blanc led PSG to a fourth consecutive league title, but fell short in delivering Champions League glory again.

Offseason: Blanc faces a difficult task replacing Ibrahimovic. As usual, PSG is linked with Cristiano Ronaldo. At 31, the Portugal forward doesn't have long left at the top but he would still be a costly purchase from Real Madrid. PSG should be targeting players in their mid to late 20s, such as Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid) or Eden Hazard (Eden Hazard).


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