European Football

Gornik and Lokomotiv show that it’s not all business as usual

Lokomotiv enjoy their win at Zenit Photo: PA

EACH year, the pundits hope for something different to talk about. In Germany, Borussia Dortmund started the season on fire, Bayern looked a little rusty. A new name on the Bundesliga shield? Then Bayern sacked Carlo Ancelotti, brought back Heynckes and Dortmund slipped up. Look at the top….it is Bayern, and they are three points clear. Crisis in Munich over.

Paris St. Germain are going to walk away with the Ligue 1 title, and they are looking special in Europe. They fell from their perch last season but now they have a front line that has replaced the Messi-Suarez-Neymar triumvirate as the hottest in Europe, Mbappe-Neymar-Cavani, they may just be able to make the big breakthrough on the continental stage.

Italy promises to have the most interesting title race, which will be good for Serie A but perhaps less acceptable  for Juventus. Napoli, Inter, Juve and Lazio could all be involved this season, and the December 1 meeting between Napoli and Juve looks like being a really decisive battle that could tell us more about the destination of the Scudettto in 2018.

Barcelona have rebounded nicely after their torrid summer and Real Madrid’s form has not been particularly good. It is probably Barca’s turn to win the LaLiga crown again.

England has been the most diverse league in terms of champions in recent years, with four winners in five years (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Leicester City). City have started the season well, scoring goals for fun with arguably their best team since the Middle East money arrived in Manchester.

No great surprises among the “big five”, but across Europe there are some more interesting stories. Surveying the current league leaders, the “Leicester” story of 2017-18 has to be the rise of Gornik Zabrze, the team that used to dominate Polish football but came to the Ekstraklasa as a promoted side. They are top of the table after 14 games and enjoy the best support in Polish football, more than 22,000 (only Lech Poznan also have a 20,000-plus average gate in the division).

Gornik also have the youngest squad in Poland, with an average age of barely 24, some five years younger than the oldest squads in the Ekstraklasa. That said, their star man at the moment is 33 year-old Spanish striker Igor Angulo, who has netted 14 goals this season.

In Russia, Lokomotiv Moscow top the league after 15 games. They’ve already beaten the three Moscow teams, Spartak, Dinamo and CSKA, and most recently trounced wealthy Zenit 3-0 away from home. They are unlikely league leaders at the halfway stage, but their success has been built on good organisation and experience. Lokomotiv finished eighth last season, so their jump to top place represents one of the best performances so far this term.

Equally, Greece’s Atromitos, a lesser known club from Athens, have risen from eighth in 2016-17 to top the Greek league. This is, of course, a competition that has been dominated by Olimpiacos for 12 of the past 13 seasons.

However, such stories of rising clubs are quite rare. In Slovakia, Spartak Trnava, who finished sixth last season, are top of the table, but elsewhere, most current league leaders were in the top three or four in 2016-17.  And while some champions, such as Benfica, Feyenoord, Real Madrid and, to some extent, Chelsea, have not hit their best form, their place on the podium is currently being kept warm by elite clubs like PSV Eindhoven, Manchester City, Porto and Barcelona. There’s very limited scope for surprise in most leagues.

And what of the worst performing champions? APOEL of Cyprus are languishing in eighth. It’s only the end of October, admittedly, but the league tables start to shape-up at this stage of the campaign.

Other leagues that are currently being led by their 2016-17 champion include Bulgaria (Ludogorets), Scotland (Celtic) and Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk). It is safe to assume that by the end of 2017-18, a few more champions will have regained their top position. Red Bull Salzburg (Austria), Slavia Prague (Czech Republic), F91 Dudelange (Luxembourg), Basel (Switzerland) and Maribor (Slovenia) are all chasing the league leaders.

If you want a couple of tips – watch Young Boys in Switzerland and Sturm Graz in Austria. Both could unseat the champions of their respective competitions (Base and Red Bull Salzburg) this season. Still, a lot can change as autumn becomes winter and transfer windows open and close.

Categories: European Football

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