Return of the kings: Europe’s revivalist clubs

GLASGOW Rangers, Sporting Lisbon, AC Milan and Atlético Madrid are all top of their respective leagues in 2021, challenging the clubs that have swept aside their rivals for the best part of a decade.

These are all big football institutions with rich histories, but they have found themselves in the shadows of clubs that have enjoyed consistent success year-in, year-out. In Scotland, Portugal, Spain and Italy, one or two clubs have dominated, but in 2020-21, we may see a change. 

Scotland: Celtic’s run coming to an end

In Scotland, Rangers are on the verge of ending the reign of Celtic, who have won the title for nine consecutive years and the Scottish treble for the past four. The margin between Celtic and their rivals has averaged 17 points during this timeframe, but from 30 points in 2017, the gap has been coming down. 

Rangers, under Steven Gerrard, have been a revelation in 2020-21 and are unbeaten in their 24 league games and have generated a goal difference of 53. Celtic are 21 points behind them and have lost twice to their old rivals already. Rangers’ astonishing win rate has also underlined the danger of too many drawn games.

Rangers are still in the Europa League and will face Antwerp in February. Celtic, meanwhile, went out of the Champions League early on and then finished bottom of their Europa League group.

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Rangers 24 21 3 0 60 7 66
2 Celtic 21 13 6 2 46 16 45
3 Hibernian 24 11 7 6 33 24 40

Portugal: Tight at the top

Sporting are top at the moment, unbeaten in 14 games and four points clear of Porto and Benfica. A big test will come on January 31 when Sporting host their Lisbon neighbours Benfica. This will be one the most heated local derbies of recent years and will provide some pointers to the strength of Sporting’s title bid. They haven’t won the Primeira Liga since 2002 but they could be facing a stoppage in Portugal after Benfica revealed they have 17 cases of covid-19. 

There’s a certain vibrancy about Sporting this season. For a start, they are fielding one of the youngest line-ups in the league (squad average age 25.9) and there’s a big emphasis on youth within their set-up. Transfer activity has proved to be successful, with the arrival of Pedro Gonçalves (also known as Pote) filling the gap left by the departure of Bruno Fernandes to Manchester United last season. Twenty-two year-old Gonçalves was signed from Famalicão for € 6.5 million and has scored 12 goals this season. He is already being tipped to become Portugal’s next big star.

There’s a long way to go, and Sporting have a reputation for blowing-up in the new year, but so far, it’s going well for Lisbon’s other club.

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Sporting 14 11 3 0 31 9 36
2 Porto 14 10 2 2 36 17 32
3 Benfica 14 10 2 2 29 14 32

Italy: Milan revival driven by Zlatan

As Juventus, by their own standards, continue to stutter, AC Milan have been in good form for months and lead Serie A. It is 11 years since Milan last won the scudetto, but they have an exciting team that has only just lost its unbeaten start to the season, going down 3-1 at home to the reigning champions.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be 39 years old, but he’s been in sparkling form (when he’s fit) and is the talisman for a side that is the youngest in Serie A by at least a year (24.6 years). They have added more experience in the form of Mario Mandzukic, but surely only to help bring their younger players along.

Italian football has been waiting for Milan to come good again after some very mediocre years that have been characterised by poor results on and off the pitch. The club may be making financial losses, but if their current team continues to improve, Milan could be back among Europe’s elite before too long.

    P W D L F A Pts
1 AC Milan 18 13 4 1 38 18 43
2 Inter Milan 18 12 4 2 45 23 40
3 Napoli 17 11 1 5 40 16 34

Spain: Atléti taking advantage

With Real Madrid and Barcelona below their best, Atlético Madrid are back in the running for the La Liga title they last won in 2014. Diego Simeone has refashioned a new Atléti side and is so buoyed by his team’s performance, that he looks set to sign a new contract that will keep him at the Wanda Metropolitano until 2024. Atléti have been beaten once in La Liga, a home defeat at the hands of Real, and they are in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.

They have dispensed with the cautious, defensive approach that has defined the Simeone era by playing a game relying on a very high press that forces mistakes. No longer do they defend so deep, a tactic that didn’t make them the most attractive side to watch. 

Atléti are now seeing why they paid so much money for Portuguese wunderkind João Félix, who has scored five league goals already and has been consistent since the start of the campaign. This is partly due to Simeone’s tactical switch which has allowed Félix to be more expressive just behind the forward line. Furthermore, Félix has also benefitted from the arrival of veteran firebrand Luis Suárez.

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Atlético 16 13 2 1 31 6 41
2 Real Madrid 18 11 4 3 30 15 37
3 Barcelona 18 10 4 4 37 17 34

Business as usual… in some places

The Premier League has been an open competition this season and there’s been a number of leaders already:, including Everton, Tottenham, Liverpool, Leicester City, Manchester United and Manchester City. However, after two years where Liverpool and Manchester City have dominated, there is every indication that the 2020-21 season will go the distance. 

In Germany, the Netherlands, France, Russia, Austria and Switzerland, the usual suspects are leading the way: Bayern Munich, Ajax, Paris Saint-Germain, Zenit St. Petersburg, Red Bull Salzburg and Young Boys Berne.

This all adds up to a far more interesting campaign than in previous seasons. We may actually see some different league champions across the major leagues. Some will blame the pandemic or fixture congestion, but there’s also something very cyclical about football. However great a team is, a glorious run comes to an end at some point. For clubs like Juve, Barca, Celtic and Porto, it may not be what they want to hear, but it might just be time to allow someone else on the winners’ podium.

Photo: PA

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