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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Qatar’s World Cup – an inflection point in the modern game

HOW ironic the World Cup final will be contested by Argentina and France, two nations whose star players just happen to play for Paris Saint-Germain. PSG, as we are all aware, are owned by Qatar, so the presence of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé fits nicely into the host nation’s agenda. From their perspective, 2022 could not have been more successful.

That is assuming Qatar doesn’t really care about what people are saying about their society, their treatment of women, human rights and homosexuality. The 32 nations who travelled to Qatar didn’t seem to “use their platform” to make a stand about these issues as they promised, but we wait for the return of the fans to hear about the way they were treated. Qatar’s only setback was the performance of their team, arguably the weakest host in the competition’s history.

The 2022 World Cup, pre-final, drew an average of almost 53,000 per game (at least, that’s the official figure), the third highest ever and better than traditional football countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, not to mention England in 1966. The tournament’s goals-per-game ratio, before the finale, was 2.63 which is almost identical to the last two World Cups.[1]

There has been no shortage of drama, or even fairytales, but there was a lack of genuine quality and an absence of a truly outstanding team. The media have been urging Lionel Messi to make the final, devoting almost entire commentaries and panel discussions to the Argentinian skipper. They also wanted Cristiano Ronaldo to join him on the podium, but it was difficult to justify when he sat on the bench for so long. Neymar, too, was in focus, but like Ronaldo, he departed unfulfilled and in floods of tears.

Rarely has a World Cup appeared to be the end of the road for so many players and teams. We are coming to the closure of a unique, golden era in which some truly remarkable footballers are about to disappear from the international (and domestic) stage.

Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar will probably never appear again in the World Cup, leaving a big gap to fill for Argentina, Portugal and Brazil. While the likes of Pelé, Maradona and the original Ronaldo all finished their careers with a World Cup winners’ medal, only Messi of this trio can do likewise. Cristiano Ronaldo, while possessing magnificent statistics[2], will never be looked upon in the same way as dear old Eusébio. It is clearly hard for these players to realise they could end their celebrated playing days without the greatest prize, but none are short of rewards. In the case of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, their careers seem to have dragged on for ever, so it will be equally hard for their fans to deal with their retirement from the scene.

There are others who will be coming to terms with reaching the end of their World Cup lives; Luka Modrić, Harry Kane, Olivier Giroud, Robert Lewandowski, Christian Eriksen, Thomas Müller, Sergio Busquets, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema and Virgil van Dijk may all be be waving goodbye.

As well as individuals, the 2022 World Cup may also signal the end of a natural cycle for some national teams. Belgium, for example, were a golden generation that failed to deliver on its huge potential. Packed with stand-out players at club level, Belgium, who finished third in 2018, had clearly passed their best by the time they rolled into Qatar. Almost half their squad was over 30, including De Bruyne and Hazard, Alex Witsel, Dries Mertens and Jan Vertonghen.  

The same could be said of the England squad to some extent, who seem to be divided almost equally between the future and the past. While they have some outstanding talent that will surely form the heart of their team in the years ahead – Foden, Bellingham and Saka – they may also have seen the best of Raheem Sterling, Kane, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Kyle Walker. England reached the quarter-finals but as in the past, capitulated when facing a decent side.

The usual “what ifs” dominated the post-match narrative, but England are effectively not a lot different from where they were at the start of the 21st century[3]. They have now happily returned to last eight status after a period in which they struggled to get beyond group stages. England left Qatar in better shape than some of their peers; Germany, Spain and Portugal, for instance, all fell short. One of the problems for some countries is the longevity of some careers, which can prevent new blood from emerging and make “untouchables” out of long-serving squad members.

Of course, Argentina rely heavily on one of their stalwarts and should he depart the international arena, their team will be badly affected. Although they reached the final, they are workmanlike in composition and deeds. France, on paper, may be the strongest team, but they do not have an orchestrator like Messi.

Many have proclaimed that 2022 is a turning point for Africa, but in reality, it is a turning point for Morocco, although the jury should remain out on whether this is a journey to sunny uplands for the entire continent. Certainly, more games were won by Africans than ever before (seven, eight if you include penalty shoot-outs), but four of the eight were by Morocco. The gap may have closed between CAF representatives and Europe, but given consistency has always been one of the stumbling blocks, 2026 will be an important World Cup for Africa.

Qatar is an inflection point because it also leaves FIFA nursing a battered reputation, although they seem to have ignored the damage done to their image by merely announcing even more tournaments and 48-team World Cup in 2026. After handing the competition to Russia and Qatar, FIFA has to be investigated further around its values and political motives. As the sport’s governing body, it also needs to be regulated more stringently[4]. In the aftermath of a fairly decent World Cup on the pitch, FIFA cannot be allowed to make decisions that harm the game and its reputation. The football world should be saying right now, “enough is enough” and that should include an overhaul of FIFA’s management.

[1] World Cup 2018 goals per game 2.64, World Cup 2014 goals per game 2.67

[2] Ronaldo has scored 701 goals in 951 games, including 118 in 196 games for Portugal

[3] 2002 World Cup QF, 2004 Euros QF, 2006 World Cup QF.

[4] In 2018, FIFA revised its code of ethics to remove corruption as one of the enumerated bases of ethical violations. It retained bribery, misappropriation of funds and manipulation of competitions as offences, but added a statute of limitation clause that those offences could not be pursued after a 10-year period.