EUROPE’S leading clubs were back in action at the weekend like a bear that’s had its hibernation snooze rudely interrupted before it was ready.

Most of the continent’s major leagues are usually still on their winter break this early in the new year but, in this peculiar period of interrupted campaigns and seasons running into one another, nearly all of them were back reporting for duty before the Christmas decorations were even down.

In Spain, the chances of a club outside of the big three winning La Liga for the first time since Valencia in 2004 grow increasingly unlikely with every passing matchday.

Real Sociedad had put up a good fight in the first half of the season and led the way for a while but their draw at home to Osasuna on Saturday means they have now won only one of their last five league games.

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Instead, it seems the championship will again stay in the capital, with the only thing still to be decided on which side of Madrid the trophy lands.

Atletico now seem the team to catch as they pursue a first title in seven years. They left it late at the weekend to defeat Alaves, Luis Suarez pouncing in the 90th minute to seal a 2-1 win. The Uruguayan has now scored nine times this season, making it even more mystifying as to why Barcelona felt they could do without him this season.

Atleti’s win saw them again leapfrog neighbours Real to preside over a two-point lead and with two games in hand. The defending champions got a brief taste of life back on top when they defeated Celta Vigo 2-0 on Saturday thanks to goals from Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio.

Barcelona remain nominally in title contention too but you would need a telescope to spot them from the top of the division all the way down there in fifth. They did at least open the new year with a victory, Lionel Messi still working his magic in 2021 to set up Frenkie de Jong for the only goal of the game at Huesca.

Football romanticists - and people with money to burn - can still get odds of 10/1 on the league trophy somehow ending up in the Nou Camp cabinet this summer.

The price on Bayern Munich retaining their title is somewhat skinnier. The German record champions played in the final Bundesliga game of the weekend at home to Mainz and teased their title rivals by going down 2-0 at half-time.

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They roared back in the second half, however, in some style, the evergreen Robert Lewandowski scoring twice and laying on an assist as Bayern went nap to run out comfortable 5-2 winners.

Bayer Leverkusen’s 2-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt put a serious dent in their outside championship prospects and, although Borussia Dortmund defeated Wolfsburg, it now looks increasingly likely that only RB Leipzig can prevent Bayern collecting a ninth successive Meisterschale. Leipzig won 1-0 at VfB Stuttgart to remain two points behind Bayern.

There was no sign of any post-panettone sluggishness in Italy where the top five all won in the opening fixtures of the new year.

Milan survived the first-half dismissal of Sandro Tonali to win 2-0 at Benevento, replacing rivals Inter who had lorded it the summit for a few hours on the back of their 6-2 thrashing of Crotone. Lautaro Martinez bagged a hat-trick.

The chasing pack of Roma, Napoli and defending champions Juventus also won but already it is shaping up to be a two-horse race involving the Milanese pair.

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In France, Mauricio Pochettino will need to break a habit of a coaching lifetime if he is to deliver the Ligue 1 title for PSG – win something. The former Spurs and Southampton manager has yet to lift silverware during his 12 years on the touchline but, having replaced Thomas Tuchel, will be fully aware that second place won’t be good enough at a club chasing an eighth Ligue 1 title in nine years.

His quest to overhaul Lyon and Lille at the top starts tomorrow night away to St Etienne.