Usually it’s obvious who will triumph in Europe’s biggest leagues, but the opening weeks of this season have suggested some clubs might be ready to challenge the established order…
These are early days in the season, and after only a handful of games it would be foolish to draw strong conclusions, but have we already seen signs that the established order of things in some of Europe’s big leagues around the continent could be shaken up?
Juventus have won the last eight Serie A titles. Bayern have the last seven Bundesligas. PSG have six of the last seven Ligue 1s. Spain’s big two have been kept honest by Atletico, but they’ve still helped themselves to 14 of the last 15 titles. The last time the Benfica-Porto duopoly was broken in Portugal was in 2002, by noted minnows Sporting. Manchester City may only have two on the spin but their dominance over everyone but Liverpool is startling.
In England and France things are more or less as you might expect: Liverpool and Manchester City are looking down on the rest of the Premier League, while PSG top Ligue 1, even if they have been pushed pretty close in a few games and have required a couple of super late interventions from Neymar to maintain their position.
However, elsewhere genuine challengers are emerging, showing that pre-season predictions and hype may have been justified, and adding to the hope that we might, at the very least, have a few title races around Europe, rather than the collection of processions we’ve been used to.
Take Germany. There has been a sense that Bayern have been teetering a little for a few seasons now, from Carlo Ancelotti’s dismissal in September 2017 through to Niko Kovac’s slightly uncertain title victory last term. The trouble is, nobody has quite had the nous or staying power to fully topple them, but could that change this season?
“It looks as if we have not just one but two genuine contenders,” said Rafa Honigstein on this week’s European edition of the Totally Football Show, after RB Leipzig recorded their fourth win from five to stay two points clear of Bayern at the top of the table, with Dortmund a point back in third.
“The players and Julian Nagelsmann were asked about where this was all going [after the 3-0 win over Werder Bremen at the weekend], and you could sense they didn’t want to be honest, but at the same time what came across in their answers was they genuinely believe they can continue doing this. They’ve already drawn against Bayern, and all other teams with the exception of Dortmund look inferior.
“It’s good for the league and it’s also quite reassuring for everyone who has been hyping up Nagelsmann (and I would include myself in that camp), because it looks like he’s doing what he did at Hoffenheim, which is improve the team almost immediately.”
The players and Julien Nagelsmann...they genuinely believe they can continue doing this.
There are arguably a couple of even more substantial challengers in Italy, where Juventus are in the unusual position of second place, behind Antonio Conte’s Inter, and our Italian expert James Horncastle said on the Totally Football Show this week that they’re nowhere near the finished package yet either.
“They have margins for improvement. Even with Lukaku – I don’t think he’s played particularly well in his first four games, but he’s got three goals in four games. Once he gets firing and he;’s fit and in form, that’s quite the proposition.
“We also have to see what Conte does with Alexis Sanchez. If he can reawaken what we saw at Udinese, or Barcelona, or Arsenal, then that could be pretty tasty too…[also] I think Inter’s midfield has looked the best it’s been since the treble.”
And then there’s Napoli, just a point behind Juventus in third place, top-scorers in the division and playing a different brand of football to most others.
“I do think Carlo Ancelotti is getting better with age. That team plays a really sophisticated brand of football…they’re a very amorphous team, depending on where the ball is, depending on the situation – that’s what determines the situation.”
And then there’s Spain. In a global modern football world where most teams cast the net for talent in every corner of the world, it would be truly extraordinary if Athletic Bilbao were to seriously challenge for La Liga.
But there they are, top of the table (admittedly on goal difference), above Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico, who are all going through different sorts of crisis and transition at the moment.
“Last season it took them 14 games to get 11 points – it’s taken them five games to get that this season,” said Alvaro Romeo on the podcast. “They haven’t lost at home since last October. They haven’t been at the top of the table at this stage of the season since 1993, when Jupp Heynckes was the manager.”
Everything is down to what Messi does on the pitch...but he's not fit yet.
A few other less fashionable clubs – Granada, Real Sociedad, Villarreal – are clustered near the top of La Liga too, so is there a reason for this?
Alvaro explained: “It happened last season, until Barcelona started winning, but I think it’s due to a couple of things. The sharing of TV revenue is much fairer than it was, and the ‘great cycle’ of Real Madrid and Barcelona is over: Real haven’t been able to recover from the impact of losing Cristiano Ronaldo, and Barcelona don’t go for excellence anymore, it’s as simple as that.
“In the past they considered themselves the ‘Apple’ of football – they would recruit before everyone else, have a philosophy and a sporting director who was on the same page as the manager, and they don’t have all that now. In fact, they don’t have a sporting director at all or a vice president, and the coach Ernesto Valverde is in trouble too.
“Many things are not working, and everything is down to what Lionel Messi does on the pitch, but he hasn’t had a pre-season and he’s not fit yet.”
Of course, as often happens the giants may awake from their slumber eventually and trample on this nascent insurrection from the rest. But for the moment, there is hope – hope that some of Europe’s biggest leagues could see some real excitement beyond the obvious teams.
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