How they’re shaping up – the situation in top European leagues

THE 0-0 draw between Arsenal and Newcastle United underlined how much progress these two sides have made over the last year, but it also demonstrated, to a certain degree, that both will be challenged to last the pace in the Premier League. Manchester City are waiting in the wings and will have been pleased with the stalemate at the Emirates Stadium.

For the past decade, European football has stagnated in so far that most leagues are dominated by a single entity, maybe two at a push. The Premier League is one of the more democratic, although it is bossed by half a dozen clubs with more money than the rest. The Premier, since 2012-13, has had five different champions, although five of the 10 titles have gone to Manchester City, with four of those won in the last five years.

Here’s the situation in some of Europe’s top leagues as 2023 gets underway:

Austria

Red Bull Salzburg are top and six points clear of Sturm Graz, the only side to beat the champions this season. Salzburg have won the last seven Bundesligas, their financial advantages enabling them to dominate Austrian football. Although the Austrian league is a two-stage affair, it is difficult to look beyond Salzburg, who are also in the last eight of the Austrian Cup, which they have won for the past four seasons.

Belgium

Genk, who last won the Belgian league in 2019, are seven points in front of second-placed Union Saint-Gilloise. Club Brugge, who have won the past three titles, are not faring so well this season, although they are in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. They have recently appointed former Fulham and Bournemouth manager Scott Parker as their coach. Anderlecht, who were third in 2021-22, are floundering in mid-table.

France

It would be a major shock if Paris Saint-Germain were not top of Ligue 1 at the start of a new year. They have a four-point advantage over Lens, who beat them 3-1 to end an unbeaten run that stretched back to March 2022. PSG have Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé in their ranks and a wage bill that dwarfs the rest of Ligue 1. If nothing else, the performance of Lens (they have lost just once, too), suggests the French league will be more interesting than usual.

Germany

Unsurprisingly, Bayern Munich are on top once more and have a four- point lead over surprise club Freiburg. RB Leipzig, who have recovered after a poor start, are in third place. Bayern have lost just once (against Augsburg) and have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League after ending the group stage with a 100% record. Four points is a relatively modest lead at the top of the Bundesliga, but Bayern are equipped to relentlessly go after their 11th consecutive league success.

Italy

Serie A is very interesting this season, but Napoli are winning all the plaudits for their exciting style. They have a seven-point lead at the top and are unbeaten. AC Milan, the reigning champions, are in second place and crisis club Juventus are third, but pressure has been building on coach Max Allegri after they were knocked out of the Champions League at the group phase. Napoli have impressed in Europe and are in the last 16 of the competition, along with AC Milan and Inter Milan.

Netherlands

Feyenoord went into 2023 on top of the Eredivisie, three points in front of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. This should make for an exciting second half of the campaign, although Ajax have been very clumsy in losing points cheaply. They have lost twice, to PSV and AZ Alkmaar. PSV have beaten both Feyenoord and Ajax this season, but they have just lost the talented Cody Gakpo to Liverpool. All three Dutch giants are still involved in the UEFA Europa League.

Portugal

As ever, the Primeira Liga is being dominated by Benfica and Porto, with Braga and Sporting behind them. Benfica, who enjoyed a successful Champions League group stage, are top and five points ahead of Porto, who also qualified for the last 16. Benfica lost their first game of the league campaign in their first post-Christmas fixture, a 3-0 drubbing at Braga. A prolific player-trading club, they look set to receive another cash windfall if they sell Enzo Fernández to a top Premier league club in the aftermath of the 2022 World Cup.

Scotland

Already people are talking about Celtic as champions and that it is a case of “theirs to lose”. Certainly, their nine point lead over Rangers looks insurmountable at this stage of the season. The two sides drew 2-2 on January 2 at Ibrox, but their first meeting saw Celtic win 4-0. Both teams saw their shortcomings exposed in Europe, finishing bottom of their Champions League groups. They could yet meet in the Scottish League Cup final in February.

Spain

Inevitably, it is a two-horse race once more in Spain, with Barcelona and Real Madrid level on 38 points after 15 games. The two teams have almost identical records, but Barca are ahead on goal difference. Real Sociedad are in third place, but nine points worse off than the big two. Atlético Madrid are having a somewhat patchy season. Real Madrid are the only Spanish side in the last 16 of the Champions League, both Barca and Atléti, along with Sevilla, went out at the group stage, but Barca are in the Europa League, where they will face Manchester United.

Switzerland

While reigning champions Zurich are embroiled in a relegation fight, Young Boys Bern look poised to regain the crown they lost in 2022. They have a 10-point margin at the top of the Super League, with Servette in second position. YB are the league’s top scorers with 35 goals in 16 games, but they have also conceded just nine goals. They look red hot favourites to win the title.  

While most of the title-chasers are fairly predictable, there are possibilities of shocks, notably in England (Arsenal), France (Lens) and the Netherlands (Feyenoord). On the other hand, this list may just read Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax. We can dream.

I can hear the Graz grow

Graz on top – action from Sturm’s 1-0 win against Salzburg Photo: PA

UNTIL last weekend, Sturm Graz had a 100% record in the Austrian Bundesliga, but a 2-1 defeat at LASK Linz ended the Styrian club’s impeccable start to the season.

Austrian football has been dominated by RB Salzburg for the past 11 years, eight titles in that timeframe. Salzburg’s Red Bull backing makes them unpopular with many people and creates a very uneven playing field. Everyone seems to revel in Salzburg’s failures, such as the recent defeat in the UEFA Champions  League which sent them into the Europa League. Sturm Graz beat Salzburg 1-0 in the game preceding the setback in Linz.

“After Rapid Vienna, Sturm have the most emotional support in Austria,” says their Sporting Director, Günter Kreissl. “There is a lot of noise and interest around our club.”

In 2016-17, Sturm Graz averaged 10,500 for their home games, around 50% of Rapid’s total but 2,500 more than champions Salzburg.

There’s also growing curiosity about Graz as a tourist destination, although like its football, it is often overshadowed by Vienna and Salzburg. A recent magazine article called it, “Austria’s hippest city”, which is no mean feat given the riches, history and culture of the capital.

From a football perspective, Graz have just three title wins to their credit, the last secured in 2010-11. The other two were in 1998 and 1999. They’ve won four Austrian cups, the most recent picked up in 2010.

As the capital city of Styria, Graz has become renowned as a breeding ground for good quality footballers. “Part of the identity of our club is our ability to find new talent,” says Kreissl. “For example, in the English Premier, Watford’s defender, Sebastian Prödl is a former Sturm player, and you can also find Sturm Graz products in, for example, Germany and Turkey.”

Kreissl reluctantly admits that there is an inevitability about selling your best talent, but the romantic in him longs for the day when clubs like Sturm Graz can keep their top players and build a successful team. “In today’s football environment, everyone except the very elite clubs are sellers of talent. It is a fact of life.”

That doesn’t mean it is an impossible task to be competitive, he adds. “We are showing that through continuity and the addition of two or three good acquisitions, that we can create a good team.” Among the new arrivals this summer was Nigerian forward Emeke Eze from Finland’s Rovaniemen Palloseura. Most of the other arrivals were free transfers from Austrian clubs, Peter Kulj and Fabiean Schubert came from Ried, while Thorsten Röcher came from Mattersburg. Patrick Puchegger was previously with Bayern Munich’s second eleven.

Kriessl looks to the English Premier for inspiration as his club goes head-to-head with more resourced outfits. “To be frank, Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League win was a massive motivator for all underdogs across Europe. It showed that working together with a common cause can make you successful. Leicester was a great story.”

So can Sturm, under coach Franco Foda, make a genuine title challenge this season? Doubtless Austrian football could do with an alternative champion to Salzburg, if only to help boost the image of the game in one of Europe’s historic football homes. “At the moment, we are aiming to be in European competition in 2018-19. This is really important for us,” says Kreissl.

In England, the Europa League is looked upon as a relatively unimportant competition, but it is good to hear that clubs across the continent place great emphasis on it. “Being in Europe is a dream for us – yes, we hear that in some countries they do not take it so seriously, but that is our aim. If that is the Champions League, it will be fantastic, but we will also gladly welcome the Europa. We had two great games against Fenerbahce this season and narrowly went out, but it was a good experience, and of course, European football brings in much needed revenues.”

This season, Sturm Graz have won twice in Vienna (3-2 at Austria Wien and 2-1 at Rapid) and have beaten Salzburg (1-0 at home). They are four points clear of Salzburg and seven ahead of third-placed Linz. A long way to go, but the “Blackies” have good momentum from the first phase of the 2017-18 campaign.