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.

Spain’s most notable teams?

THE SPAIN team that won three consecutive major titles between 2008 and 2012 will go down in history as the most successful national team in those years. Spain also had an important role in changing football in that period, the so-called tiki-taka, a game built around short-passing and constant movement. This system turned Spain into perpetual under-achievers into trend-setters. In Qatar 2022, Spain will be one of the more fancied sides to win the World Cup.

1920 – The Olympics

Spain created their national team for the Olympics and they won the silver medal after a tournament that was disrupted by Czechoslovakia, who were losing the final to Belgium, walked off the pitch. A hastily arranged series of play-offs were initiated to determine the silver and bronze medals. Spain beat Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands to secure silver.

Ricardo Zamora, Luis Otero, Mariono Arrate, Jose Samitier, Belauste, Ramon Eguiazabal, Pagaza, Felix Sesumaga, Patricio Arabolaza, Pichichi, Domingo Gomez Acedo, Pedro Vallana, Agustin Sancho, Joaquin Vazquez.

Coach: Francisco Bru, Madrid-born football man who was a player, referee and highly respected coach. He was manager of Peru in the 1930 World Cup.

Ricardo Zamora, the legendary Spain keeper whose name has lived on in the form of the Zamora trophy, awarded to the top goalkeeper in La Liga each season. Zamora was from Barcelona, but played for both Barca and Real Madrid. He won 46 caps for Spain, his career in Spain ending during the civil war, during which he was imprisoned. Rafael Moreno Aranzadi, “Pichichi” – Athletic Bilbao striker who died in 1922 at the age of 29 due to Typhus. To honour his name and memory, the Pichichi award was inaugurated and is given each year to the top scorer in La Liga.

1950 World Cup

Antonio Ramallets, Gabriel Alonso, Gonzalvo II, Jose Parra, Gonzalvo III, Antonio Puchades, Estanislao Basora, Agustin Gainza, Silvestre Igoa, Zarra, Jose Panizo, Luis Malownhy, Ignacio Eizaguirre, Rosendo Hernandez, Jose Juncosa.

Coach: Guillermo Eizaguirre, a goalkeeper with Sevilla as a player, he took over the national team in 1948 and had two spells in charge.

Achievement: Spain won all three of their group games in the 1950 World Cup, including a 1-0 victory against England. They qualified for the final group that included Sweden, Uruguay and Brazil. They drew 2-2 with Uruguay, but were beaten 6-1 by favourites and hosts, Brazil.

Zarra – Bilbao striker, born 1921, who won the Pichichi award six times during a prolific career. He scored more than 300 goals for Athletic Bilbao and won 20 caps, averaging a goal a game. Estanislau Basora – one of Barcelona’s greatest wingers, he scored over 100 goals for the club and won 22 caps. He also represented Catalonia five times. Agustín Gaínza –  captain of Spain and one of the players of the 1950 World Cup. Played around 400 games for Athletic Bilbao and was capped 33 times.

1964 European champions

José Angel Iribar, Feliciano Rivilla, Isacio Calleja, Ignacío Zoco, Ferran Olivella, Josep Maria Fustré, Carlos Lapetra, Luis Suárez, Marcelino Martinez, Jesús Maria Pereda, Amancio Amaro.

Coach: José Villalonga

Achievement: European Championship winners 1964, beating USSR in the final and before that, Romania, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland.

Jesús Maria Pereda, Barcelona midfielder who also played briefly for Real Madrid. Catalan-born players who won 15 caps for Spain. Had a very good eye for goal; Luis Suárez, Galician-born inside forward or attacking midfielder, an elegant player possessing an explosive shot. Starred for Barcelona and also played for Inter Milan and Sampdoria; Amancio, outside right who was known as El Brujo (the magician). Played 14 years with Real Madrid and won 42 caps for Spain.

After their performance in 1950, Spain failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1954 and 1958. In both 1962 and 1966, they were eliminated in the group stage and then they missed out again in 1970 and 1974. Since then, they have qualified for every World Cup. In the 1980s, they threatened to challenge in both 1982 and 1986, but in the latter, after beating Denmark 5-1 in the round of 16, they surprisingly went out to Belgium. In between those two World Cups, they reached the final of the European Championship, losing to France.

1984 – Euro finalists

Luis Arconada, Santiago Urquiaga, Ricardo Gallego, Salva, José Antonio Camacho, Victor Muñoz, Juan Señor, Julio Alberto, Francisco, Santillana, Francisco José Carrasco, Manuel Sarabia, Roberto, Antonio Maceda.

Coach: Miguel Muñoz – won the European Cup with Real Madrid, later managing the club.

Luis Arconada – Captain and goalkeeper of the team who won 68 caps for Spain. A brave and athletic keeper for his club, Real Sociedad and country. Extremely acrobatic style. Santillana – An outstanding forward who played 645 times for Real Madrid, scoring 290 goals. Excellent in the air, he was one of the best strikers of his generation, winning 56 caps for Spain. Ricardo Gallego, versatile performer who could play in midfield or as a sweeper. One of Real Madrid’s key players in the 1980s, winning four La Liga titles.

2008 – 2012: The treble winners

At the start of this glorious period, Spain was a country in some turmoil. They were badly affected by the global financial crisis, but at the same time, their national team was in the ascendancy and their clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, dominated Europe, winning the Champions League in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2014. Spain won the European Championship in 2008 and 2012, and the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.

Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Carlos Marchena, Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevila, Marcos Senna, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fàbregas, David Silva, Fernande Torres, Xabi Alonso, Santi Cazorla, Dani Güiza, David Villa, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Jesús Navas, Juan Mata, Jordi Alba, Álvaro Negredo, Álvaro Arbeloa.

Coaches: Luis Aragonés, enjoyed success as coach of Atlético Madrid and Barcelona before leading Spain to the 2008 European Championship. Vicente del Bosque, won the World Cup in 2010 and European Championship in 2012. Achieved a win rate of 76% in eight years as coach. As a player, appeared over 400 times for Real Madrid.

Xavi – A product of Barcelona’s La Masia youth set-up, Xavi played 767 games for the club and was a key part of the great Barca team of the 2010s. A deep-lying playmaker who was adept at finding space on the field to produce decisive passes. Small and agile, he won 82 caps for Spain. Sergio Ramos – Aggressive and competitive defender who won 180 caps for Spain and played 671 games for Real Madrid, scoring over 100 goals. Won all three trophies with Spain as well as four UEFA Champions Leagues. Andrés Iniesta –  Scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands. A neat and skilful midfielder with superb balance and ball control, Iniesta was the ultimate box-to-box midfielder. Won 131 caps for Spain and appeared nearly 700 times for Barcelona. David Silva – A versatile and agile midfielder who can act as a false number 9 and a playmaker. Silva won 125 caps for Spain and starred with Valencia, Manchester City and latterly, Real Sociedad. A good dribbler and capable of creating and scoring goals.