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.

France may conjure up a title race in 2023

IN THE SMALL city of Lens there was rejoicing on New Year’s Day – RC Lens beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 to close the gap at the top of Ligue 1 to four points. It was PSG’s first defeat of the season in the league and underlined the impressive run by Les Sang et Or in 2022-23, whose 40 points is the best performance by a second-placed team at this stage of the season since 1959.

PSG were stunned, but they were without Neymar and Lionel Messi. Nevertheless, PSG’s owners won’t be impressed that their team was swept aside by opponents who have a playing budget that is but a tiny fraction of the Paris wage bill. Coach Christoph Galtier refused to blame the absence of two of his star men for the defeat, admitting that Lens deserved their win. “Athletically, we were dominated,” he said after the game.

PSG may have been suffering from a post-World Cup hangover. Messi was on extended leave, Neymar was suspended after being sent-off against Strasbourg and Kylian Mbappé had reasons for being subdued after losing the World Cup final despite scoring a hat-trick. PSG made hard work of their December 28 game against Strasbourg, relying on a 96th minute penalty to win 2-1. Before meeting PSG, Lens had a 100% home record and had lost just once, a 1-0 Derby du Nord defeat at the hands of Lille.

  PWDLFAPtsg.d.
1PSG171421461344+33
2Lens171241291140+18
3Marseille171133341536+19
4Monaco171034332333+10

Franck Haiser’s side adopted an aggressive style, pressing constantly and placing PSG under constant pressure. It says a lot about the lack of competitiveness in Ligue 1 that PSG have rarely faced such tenacious opponents in domestic football in recent years. Lens took an early lead but within three minutes, it was 1-1, but goals in the 28th and 48th minutes gave them a shock 3-1 victory. It was PSG’s first defeat since March 2022, a run of 38 games.

But there’s still a long way to go, and over the last decade, there have been a few occasions when a French side looks up for a title battle, but inevitably, PSG have been too strong for anyone to keep pace with them. Only Monaco in 2017 and Lille in 2021 have managed to outperform the Parisians. Lens have one of the smallest wage bills in the division, so even mounting a challenge for part of the season would be something of an achievement.

That’s not to say Lens don’t have some interesting talent, notably Florian Sotoca, the experienced former Grenoble striker and Loïs Openda, the 22 year-old Belgian front man. And then there’s Austrian central defender Kevin Danso, who was excellent against PSG. Seko Fofana and Salis Abdul Samed also caught the eye against the Ligue 1 champions.

French football could do with an exciting second half of the campaign, especially after that heartbreaking World Cup final defeat in Qatar. Lens have shown they know how to get to PSG, but if Neymar and Messi had been in the team, it would probably have been a different outcome. It’s difficult to see the clubs immediately behind Lens – Marseille and Monaco – making much of a statement, but the result at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis will act as a form of inspiration. The transfer window is opening and that may be bad news for the rest of Ligue 1. PSG will undoubtedly be busy in the coming weeks. The question is, do Lens have what it takes to remain in contention?