Now that we’re into the new year, it’s time to think about some of the stories to watch for in 2008.
Can anyone knock one of the Big Four out of the top four in the EPL?
Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea all look set to take three spots in the top four, but the fourth spot is up for grabs, between Liverpool and a few hopeful contenders in Everton, Manchester City, Aston Villa, and Portsmouth.
Everton and Portsmouth’s potential as contenders for the fourth spot might be made or broken in the next month, as both sides will lose several players to the African Cup of Nations.
Aston Villa could be the surprise of the bunch, if they can continue to quietly churn out results as they have. They have to take on Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton, and Portsmouth all away from Villa Park through the remainder of the season, so they’re going to have to pick up some valuable points on the road in order to make fourth (or even fifth) a serious possibility.
Manchester City could make a long-awaited return to the Champions League in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s first season at the helm, but are going to have to put their away struggles behind them in order to do so. Thursday’s 2-0 win at Newcastle might be a sign that’s the case.
If you had to pick the likeliest candidate based on their ability to get consistent results both home and away, it would be Everton, but as I said, their hopes may depend on how they make it through the African Cup of Nations stretch.
But, if City can continue to continue their excellent run of form at home and start regularly getting positive away results, then they’re going to at least be in the fight for fourth or better until the end. They’re now in that fourth spot after their win over the Magpies and Liverpool’s surprising 1-1 draw at home to Wigan, which moves City one point ahead of the Reds, though the latter have a game in hand.
Can one of the surprise contenders around Europe break through domestically?
In Germany, Hamburg SV are only four points behind Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen, but their fate may be determined by whether or not they sell Rafael Van der Vaart in the January transfer window.
In Spain, Real Madrid have a comfortable lead atop La Liga, so unless they suffer a major dip in form, a second successive title is in the cards. But, there’s a surprise contender in the race for (at least) the second Champions League group phase slot, in Espanyol, who are nipping at the heels of city rivals Barcelona, only one point out of second spot.
Elsewhere, Sivasspor, who are only in their third season in the Turkish top flight, are challenging Istanbul’s Big Three for supremacy in the Turkcell Super Ligi, leading the league by goal difference over reigning champions Fenerbahce at the halfway point of the season.
In France, while the likes of Monaco (9th), Marseille (10th), Auxerre (15th), PSG (16th), Lille (17th), and Lens (18th) are struggling, a couuple of sides are making a push to challenge for Champions League spots, and one of them is giving Lyon a serious run for the Ligue 1 title. Newly-promoted Caen are fourth, two points behind Bordeaux for the third Champions League slot, while Nancy (Arsene Wenger’s first wife, er, managerial stop back in the 80s) are only four points behind Lyon (39 to 35) at the halfway point.
Another one that’s worth mentioning is in Romania, where CFR Cluj enter the new year with a five-point lead atop the Liga I. Cluj have never won a league title in their history was out of the top flight from 1976-2004, but since their return, they’ve gradually improved each season, and finished a club-record 3rd last season.
Can a new name in the UEFA Champions League 2nd round make a strong run?
Olympiakos, Fenerbahce, and Sevilla are in the round of 16, and at least one of them will make the quarterfinals, as Fener and Sevilla will tangle in the round of 16.
Sevilla could be much like Porto a few seasons ago, with their success in the UEFA Cup laying the foundation for a run to glory in the Champions League.
There’s no doubt about their proficiency in front of goal, as they’ve got two prolific strikers in Luis Fabiano and Fredi Kanoute, but we’ll have to see if they can grind out those 1-0, 1-1, and 0-0 results away from home in some of European football’s fortresses.
Can Greece repeat as European champions?
Greece were a Cinderella story in 2004 when they made a run all the way to the Euro 2004 final against hosts Portugal, after coming into the competition with no wins in continental/international competitions. In the final, they shocked Europe by defeating the favorites for the second time (they also won 2-1 in their opening group match), with Angelo Charisteas etching his name into European football folklore with a 65th minute goal that handed Greece a 1-0 victory and the European championship.
But, they weren’t able to follow their surprise win with a successful World Cup 2006 qualification campaign, as they finished fourth in their group behind Ukraine, Turkey, and Denmark and missed out on the competition.
They rebounded from that disappointment to have a strong performance in Euro 2008 qualifying, easily winning Group C by seven points over Turkey, winning 10, drawing one, and losing only one on the way to claiming their place for Austria/Switzerland.
There’s going to be a lot of pressure on them to repeat their fantastic feat from ’04, but now that they’ve reached the pinnacle of European football, they know what it takes to get back, and many key members of that championship-winning side will be there this summer, including coach Otto Rehhagel.
Who will be the next South American import to take Europe by storm?
If you wanted to choose one of the South American starlets that are already in Europe, you can take your pick from a number of talents. If Sergio Aguero keeps scoring like he has for Atletico Madrid, they’ll have to spend the next few seasons trying to rebuff Europe’s elite, as they did with Fernando Torres.
There are several others to choose from, some of whom are already regulars in top European sides, and some of whom are still very much getting their feet wet. Check out this list to see some of the other names to watch.
As for who’ll be making his debut on European soil in 2008 and stands to make a big immediate impact, 18-year old Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato is now eligible to play for AC Milan, and could be just the answer for their issues up front.
These are some of the things that I’ll be watching out for, but there are many, many more that we’ll see play out soon enough.
There are several England/Fabio Capello-related questions as well – Who will be captain – Terry, Gerrard, or someone else? Who will he pick, and who will he snub? Will the Three Lions get off to a winning start under their new manager? Will he live up to his promise of learning English in a month?
Some others to ponder – Will Carlo Ancelotti stay at Milan past, or for that matter, to the end of, this season? Will Ronaldinho go to AC Milan? Is Jose Mourinho going to be managing somewhere by the end of 2008? Will Sir Alex lift his ban on player parties (we all know he just got tired of not being invited!)? Will Harry Redknapp ship David Nugent off to Africa in the summer in a swap deal for the next Yakubu – and a yak?
What stories will be on your radar in 2008? What do you hope to see?