The timing could never had been better. Precisely ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, another barrier in Europe is being taken down: the wall between the strong and the weak of European football; between the Champions League and the Europa League; between the Big Four and the Little 16.
Just by glancing at this year’s UCL group stage line up, you could tell that a storm was brewing. Wolfsburg? Rubin Kazan? Debrecen? New blood is being pumped into a competition that desperately needs some more excitement. And doubters of the re-branded Europa League were silenced as they were stunned by the surprising efficiency of the spanking new, and smoother group stage, as Europe’s so-called ‘second-tier’ teams managed to put up an entertaining show.
But let’s look at the situation in specific countries, starting with the Premier League.
English Premier League
A hurricane was unleashed on Britain when Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez packed their bags, the latter joining city rivals Manchester City and their Arab millions. Liverpool wheeled and dealed, while Chelsea prepared for a new era under a Carlo Ancelotti sick of Berlusconi’s hegemony. And let’s not forget a relatively quiet Arsenal, a downright silenced Tottenham, a free-spending Everton, and dark horses Aston Villa.
All of this pointed to a season of much-needed change, which, after eleven matches, is what we have.
Chelsea are first, as expected, but only two points ahead of a reborn and spectacular Arsenal and a surprisingly tenacious Man United. Ever-underachievers Tottenham are instead a resurgent team this season, as they occupy a startling fourth spot. Aston Villa, despite losing superstar Gareth Barry to the Citizens, are holding tight on fifth, while an exciting City side are currently in sixth, two points ahead of a disappointing Liverpool. And what of Everton? David Moyes’s miscalculated summer spree sees them sitting in the far below-par position of 14th.
My prediction: 1. Chelsea 2. Manchester United 3. Arsenal 4. Manchester City 5. Tottenham Hotspur 6. Liverpool
La Liga was always going to be Barca-Madrid, a tale of Perez vs. Laporta, CR9 vs. Messi, Merengues vs. Blaugrana. But that did not rule out the possibility for change, and, after ten games, it is showing just that. Both teams surged into impressive season starts, before Barca were halted by an incredible Rubin Kazan in the UCL, while Madrid were massacred 4-0 by lowly Alcorcon in the Copa del Rey.
But perhaps the most surprising fact is the return of Deportivo. Ever since their successive UCL qualifications in 2002-03 and 2003-04, and their La Liga crown in 1999-00, Deportivo have become a mediocre, mid-table team. But this year, with the fall of Atletico Madrid and Villarreal, Deportivo have risen to the challenge and now sit fourth, one point ahead of a resilient yet heavily debt-laden Valencia.
Atletico are languishing in 18th, perhaps due to their lacklustre transfer campaign, perhaps due to their inexperienced goalkeepers, perhaps just because the time is right. Villarreal are 14th, back from bottom due to Giuseppe Rossi’s skills. Zaragoza are back after their shocking and undeserved relegation in 07-08, but are now in a disappointing 12th place.
My prediction: 1. FC Barcelona 2. Real Madrid 3. Deportivo 4. Sevilla 5. Valencia 6. Villarreal
French football imploded last season when Bordeaux burst Lyon’s precious bubble. The damage had been done; Lyon would never dominate again. But Les Gones had something to say about that, and embarked on a vengeful shopping spree in the summer, although losing iconic striker Karim Benzema to Real in the process. Bordeaux kept Chamakh and Gourcuff, Marseille splashed their cash.
After twelve games, Bordeaux sit atop Ligue 1’s Eiffel Tower, just two ahead of a Lyon still licking their wounds and early-season surprises Auxerre. Ex-giants Monaco are savouring their comeback in a comfortable 4th spot, while Marseille are struggling to pick themselves up from 8th. PSG and Toulouse, despite keeping their best players, are in thirteenth and fourteenth position respectively.
My prediction: 1. Bordeaux 2. Lyon 3. Monaco 4. Marseille 5. Paris-Saint Germain 6. Auxerre
Serie A has exploded onto the world stage this season, with the current level of excitement a slap in the face to Italy’s many doubters. Juventus were tipped to trouble Inter this season, but what we have seen instead is a flurry of about 8 teams challenging for the coveted Scudetto.
Sampdoria burst onto the scene, with Pazzini and Cassano forming a lethal duo up-front. Napoli crashed, before Walter Mazzarri brought them roaring back. Milan, despite early predictions, are holding on quite well, while traditional giants Roma are done and dusted. Palermo and Genoa, touted as potential troubles, are living up to their tags, while sleeping giants Parma are slowly but surely erupting once more. Udinese are faltering, but still have promise, while a Lazio missing De Silvestri, Pandev, and Ledesma, is being destroyed.
After eleven games, Inter have a narrow four point lead on Juventus in 1st, Sampdoria sit a further three behind the Old Lady in 3rd, Milan are holding on with the skin of their teeth in 4th, just one point ahead of Fiorentina and Napoli.
My prediction: 1. Juventus 2. Inter 3. Napoli 4. Sampdoria 5. Genoa 6. Milan
Ah, Germany, Germany. Hoffenheim, Wolfsburg, Hertha, and a host of other hard-to-pronounce names set the stage alight last season when the Bundesliga officially became the most entertaining league on earth.
This season, little has changed; with a Bayern shaken by problems, a deflated Hertha, and a troubled Stuttgart in freefall. Leverkusen sit undefeated in first position. They have produced stunning results to get to where they are now, a comfortable four points ahead of a new-look, young Werder, a more solid Hamburg, and a Magath-powered Schalke. Just one point behind sit defending champions Wolfsburg and newcomers FSV Mainz.
Bayern are in turmoil over the Mario Gomez-Toni-striker affair, and are badly in need of fullbacks and of a consistent goalkeeper. After twelve matches, they are eighth. Hoffenheim are still finding their feet, and are seventh. Hertha, having lost the only decent players they had, are relegation candidates in 20th.
My prediction: 1. Bayer Leverkusen 2. Schalke 3. Hamburg 4. Bayern Munich 5. Werder Bremen 6. Wolfsburg
Rest of Europe
What’s the situation in the other leagues? In Holland, Twente rule supreme despite losing virtually all their talent, while PSV are enjoying their return and AZ are positively dead. In Portugal, Braga are top, with traditional giants Porto in a relatively disappointing third, Benfica are second, and Sporting are in dire need of CPR in 7th spot.
In Turkey Fenerbahce, after 2-3 seasons of underachivement, are back on their throne, while Galatasaray are back in second, and recent champions Besiktas are third. Sivasspor have exploded, their remains in 18th spot. Nothing has changed in Greece, where Olympiacos are still first, but this season has seen the return of PAOK and the emergence of Kavala. In Russia‘s 2009 league, which is coming to an end, last year’s winners and UCL surprises Rubin Kazan are top. Spartak are second, CSKA fifth, Zenit fourth, and FC Moscow third.
And what of continental competition? In the Champions League, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Marseille, Barcelona, and Stuttgart are all in serious danger of being eliminated, more specifically Liverpool and Bayern. Atletico, on the other hand, have already been eliminated, while Bordeaux, Rubin Kazan, AC Milan, and Fiorentina have all surprised. Sevilla, Chelsea, and Porto have all qualified, while Man Utd, Lyon, Juventus, Bordeaux, and Arsenal are well on track.
My prediction: Juventus, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Chelsea (Semi-finals).
In the Europa League, Ajax, Anderlecht, Hapoel, Hamburg, Sporting, Basel, Galatasaray, Panathinaikos, Red Bull, Fenerbahce, Twente, Benfica, Everton, Shakhtar, Brugge, PSV, Sparta, Werder, and Bilbao are all set to go through. Meanwhile, the door is wide open for Valencia, Genoa, Hertha, Heerenveen, Roma, Fulham, Villarreal, and Lazio. AEK Athens and Celtic are the two most high-profile teams to be in serious danger of elimination.
My prediction: Shakhtar, Fenerbahce, Hamburg, Valencia (Semi-finals).
Is Michel Platini football’s Mikhail Gorbachev? No. Platini had a very small part to play in this footballing toppling of the Soviet regime. Times change, and so does football: the time has come for the new era.