Monday, September 13, 2010

Has parity engulfed Europe? Or are the good teams just playing poorly?

It's an interesting question midway through September. Look at the tables for the top five leagues in Europe and you'll see some familiar faces, but not many. You may even recognize more clubs in the bottom three than the top three. Promoted teams and bottom feeders from last season have seized control of this campaign with impressive starts, while perennial powers have yet to hit their stride - assuming they do hit it at some point. And while those powers may simply be off to a slow start, many have already exposed some weaknesses which will surely be a factor come February, March, and April.

Looking at the 14 promoted sides in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and England, only two find themselves in the drop zone. Six sit in the top half of the table, and each of those is in sixth position or better. Meanwhile, teams like Schalke, Lyon, Auxerre, and Roma sit in the drop zone. Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Milan have already been blanked by promoted sides. Manchester United blew two leads in injury time. Clearly, this is not the script we were presented with when the season kicked off.

Ominous forecast or early season jitters? Let's take a closer look at each of these leagues to see what's really going on.

We can start in France where the most shocking turnover has occurred. After five games, Toulouse, Rennes, St. Etienne, Nice, Montpellier, and Caen hold the first six positions. Those teams finished 14, 9, 17, 15, and 5 respectively while Caen is a newly promoted side. Now lets look at the top four clubs at the end of last season: Marseilles, Lyon, Auxerre, Lille. Those teams occupy the 13, 16, 17, and 8 positions respectively. Among them, they've won only three games out of a possible 20! And Bordeaux, Champions League semifinalists last season, continue their free fall and sit in 18th.

Good teams playing poorly? Clearly. But will they hit their stride? At this point it doesn't seem likely. Five games in and the top four from last season do not appear to be improving on any level. Let's not discredit the new boys, though, who are playing excellent football. Their wins are not just a case of opponents playing badly. Considering the hole France's old guard have dug themselves, it's hard to foresee them rebounding to challenge for the title.

A similar scene has emerged in Germany where Hoffenheim, Mainz, Hamburg, Hannover, and Kaiserslautern sit one through five in the table. Last season, they finished 11, 9, 7, and 15, and Kaiserslautern is newly promoted. Where are the big boys? Last season's top four, Bayern Munich, Schalke, Werder Bremen, and Bayer Leverkusen, currently sit in 11, 17, 10, and 8th place. Leverkusen were crushed 6-3 this season already while Bayern lost 2-0 to promoted Kaiserslautern. And Schalke, a team in the group stages of the Champions League this season with new superstar signings littering the squad, sit in dead last with zero points - accompanied by Stuttgart and Wolfsburg.

Germany is probably the best case for parity. Three different champions over the past five years. A top four that changes each season. Bayern may be the best team in the league, but an efficient system boasting financial stability and no hints of corruption or wrongdoings off the field has allowed every team in the Bundesliga to put forth a competitive squad to challenge the "big boys." This isn't a case of the good teams playing poorly. Everyone else is just playing much better. You can't even begin to predict how this league will shape up.

In Italy, Chievo Verona and Cagliari lie 1-2 at the top of the table and finished last season in 14th and 16th places respectively. Newly promoted Cesena are in 4th. Roma, last season's 2nd place team, have one point and sit in 17th position. They were obliterated 5-1 to Cagliari on Saturday. Milan and all their firepower? They lost 2-0 away to promoted side Cesena and sit in seventh.

Okay, it's only been two games. Milan will surely hit their stride and challenge for the scudetto - although they looked rather dull in their 2-0 loss this past weekend to Cesena. Inter as well are just too good to get nervous about this early on. As for Roma, I'm not sure a run for the top four spots is a possibility after getting pummeled this past weekend and starting the season at home with a terribly boring draw against Cesena (maybe this new team ain't so bad). Sampdoria has picked up where it left off and Bari, in it's second year up, seem to be keeping their heads above the water. Fiorentina and Juventus are not the teams they once were and still looking for an identity. I would imagine the race for spot 3-6 will have some new faces towards the end of the season. We'll find out if Cagliari and Chievo can keep up their hot start. But again, it's a bit too early to draw too many conclusions.

As for Spain, Barcelona sit in 11th position!! Okay, okay. It's only two games but they were just soundly beaten at home 2-0 to promoted Hercules. That is not your everyday loss at the beginning of the season - especially a team the caliber of Barcelona. Real Madrid are playing Mourinho football - boring and defensive. Their crosstown rivals however, Atletico Madrid, seem to be making a strong case (stronger than Sevilla in the beginning of last season if you ask me) that they can keep pace with the top two. We've already seen the invincible Barcelona are human after all. As for another promoted club, Real Sociedad, you can be assured they will finish comfortably above the drop zone.

This isn't the easiest of leagues to make any sort of conclusions. Real Madrid and Barcelona will undoubtedly finish in the top two. Barcelona's lack of depth will be an issue however. As for the rest of the league, don't be surprised if this is the year a third team makes a real push at those two.

Finally, there's England. Is it as boring as Spain when looking at the top of the table? Perhaps. But for the sake of this conversation, it is also just as intriguing. Manchester United have already dropped four points allowing injury time goals at Fulham, and two stunners this past weekend against Everton. Promoted Blackpool (6 of 7 points on the road) are off to a sensational start fresh off a 2-0 away win at Newcastle (another promoted side who look very likely to stay up). Meanwhile, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City continue to play mediocre football dropping points to teams they should be beating. No game is a gimme in England as the mid-level teams have proven very stiff competition for the leaders - except Chelsea of course who are in a class of their own.

Apart from Spain, England is the only other league where digging an early season hole could be inescapable. Tottenham, City, and Liverpool (and even Everton for that matter) are too good to be where they are. But if they continue to play inconsistent football, new faces will emerge in the top half of the table to fill their spots.

Have we decided anything? Doesn't look that way and you can interpret all this as you will. It's still so early in the season that making such drastic conclusions seems impractical. But one thing is for sure: the best teams in Europe from last season are not doing themselves any favors. And with debts and economic restrictions dictating the landscape, the playing field may just be evening out a bit.

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