Europe’s fairy-tale in 2022? Union Saint-Gilloise

IN 2020-21, three of the five big European leagues saw a changing of the guard, although it is unlikely to represent a seismic shift in the balance of power. In Italy, Juventus’ long reign was brought to an end by Inter Milan, Lille knocked Paris Saint-Germain off their perch in France and in Spain, Atlético Madrid were champions for the first time since 2014. 

As Manchester City opened up a six-point advantage in the Premier League, poundits were starting to predict a prolonged period of sky blue prominence, with City overtaking Manchester United’s 20 title wins. This is, of course, a possibility, but the chances are, a new contender or two will emerge in the coming years to change the competitive landscape.

Nevertheless, Manchester City are looking formidable again this season and after chasing Chelsea earlier in the campaign, they have raced ahead and it would be a fool who would bet against Pep Guardiola’s team lifting yet another title. At best, it could be a three-horse race in the Premier, involving City, Liverpool and Chelsea, although three may become two in the near future. City are not the only team in Europe who probably won’t have to return their championship trophy in the summer.

No change there, then

Red Bull Salzburg are, predictably, 14 points clear in Austria and look far too strong for the rest of their Bundesliga rivals. They also have a Champions League last 16 tie with Bayern Munich to look forward to. Rangers are six points in front of Celtic in Scotland and have transitioned well after losing their coach, Steven Gerrard, to Aston Villa. But after going undefeated in 2020-21, they were beaten at Tannadice, home of Dundee United, 1-0. It’s there only league defeat so far.

In Italy, Inter have surprised everyone by going top after the departure of coach Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakim. Inter signed the veteran Eden Džeko to replace Lukaku, and it seems to have worked, but Inter actually look a more fluid side and are playing very good football. Inter will play Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League, which could be much more difficult than fending off the Serie A challenge of AC Milan (4 points behing) and Napoli (seven).

Bayern Munich are on course for yet another Bundesliga title and have nine points more than second-placed Borussia Dortmund. Robert Lewandowski, so cruelly denied the Balon d’Or, has netted 30 goals in all competitions. Other champions from 2020-21 who look destined to retain their championship include Slavia Prague (Czech Republic), Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia), Olympiacos (Greece), Ferencváros (Hungary) and Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia). 

Surprise packages

The most eye-catching league leader in Europe has to be Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium. The Brussels-based team, who only a few years ago were in the third tier of Belgian football, are seven points clear of holders Brugge. It’s often forgotten that USG have been champions 11 times, but the last occasion was in 1935. The club has been owned by Tony Bloom, the chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion, since 2018.

Legia Warsaw, Polish champions in 2020-21, have been having a torrid time this season and are languishing in the bottom half of the top flight, which is more of a shock than Lech Poznań being top of the league. In Switzerland, FC Zurich are top of the table, ahead of Basel and Young Boys Bern. Zurich, who were last champions in 2009, have not been contenders for some time and finished eighth in 2020-21. There could be an unfamiliar face at the top of the Turksih league come the end of the campaign. Trabzonsopor are 10 points ahead of second-placed Konyaspor and could win their first championship since 1984.

Tight competition

Portugal is experiencing a keenly fought title race and the big three, Benfica, Porto and Sporting, are in a commanding position. Porto and last season’s champions, Sporting are both on 41 points and are unbeaten, while Benfica have four less. All three clubs are still involved in European competition, with Sporting facing Manchester City and Benfica playing Ajax in the Champions League last 16. Porto have been paired with Lazio in the Europa League play-off. As ever, the Serbian title will be decided between Partizan and Red Star Belgrade. The former have five points more than the champions and are unbeaten in their first 21 games. Similarly, it is a Shakhtar Donetsk – Dynamo Kyiv battle in Ukraine, with the former just ahead of champions Kyiv. Both teams have excellent away records.

Back on top

Real Madrid have an eight point cushion at the head of La Liga and have lost just once. Sevilla, Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano (!) are chasing Real, while champions Atlético Madrid are in fifth position but have been blowing hot and cold. Barcelona are way off the pace, largely due to their financial problems and the physical and psychological loss of Lionel Messi. His new club, Paris Saint-Germain, have a 13-point margin over second-placed Nice  and look certain to recapture the title they lost to Lille in 2020-21. Messi, who has taken time to adjust to Ligue 1 football, has scored just one league goal for PSG. 

Ajax have got serious competition this season in the Eredivisie and are in second place, one point behind PSV Eindhoven, who were last champions in 2018. Interestingly, PSV were beaten 4-0 at home by Feyenoord and 5-0 when they travelled to Ajax. With the Amsterdamers distracted by the Champions League, though, PSV have an opportunity to consolidate their leadership in the next few months.

European football has become quite predictable over the past decade, although the big clubs have always been successful over the long-term. While it is fair and responable that the best should emerge as winners, the joy of the unexpected is what makes football so interesting. We need more stories like Leicester City (2016) and Lille (2021) – could we find one or two from this season? If you’re a football romantic, cheer on little USG in Brussels!

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