How are the other European leagues shaping up for this season? Can we expect a repeat from last year, when the title winners went (predictably) to Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Inter Milan?
A lot of people will tell you the Bundesliga is the most exciting league in Europe, and that isn’t as far-fetched an idea as you would think. With a slightly shorter season (34 games), the league table is usually much tighter than elsewhere. 15 points separated the 6th place team from the 1st place team, whereas in England this gap was extended to 22 points. Italy chipped in with a 23 point gap, and Spain featured an astounding 41 point difference.
The talent level in Germany is a little more evenly spread out, and most teams play an attacking style. I was lucky to catch a game between Bayern and Koln last year, towards the end of the season. Podolski opened the scoring for Koln, and then they had a player sent off, yet at various points in the game they were unafraid to go out at the eventual Bundesliga champions. Good stuff, and a few Americans are scattered about the league, better numbers than in Spain or Italy in fact.
Bayern Munich: The Bavarian giants were quiet in the off-season, but there wasn’t very much for them to do. They will add a good bit of attacking play by increasing Thomas Muller’s playing time, and Toni Kroos comes back to the squad after a year on loan at Leverkusen. Center of the midfield is unchanged, with two World Cup standouts the entrenched starters. Mark van Bommel and Bastian Schweinsteiger complement each other very well, with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben set to man the wings. But there are numerous questions surrounding the two wingers. Ribery will have to deal with the criminal investigation involving his alleged affairs with an underage French prostitute (seriously), and Robben is set to miss 8 weeks with a hamstring tear. Kroos and Muller will be heavily relied on early in the year while these two get straightened out, offering an opportunity for their opposition. In defense, Martin Demichelis and Daniel van Buyten aren’t getting younger, so perhaps Holger Badstuber will get to stay inside, rather than at full-back where he looks desperately exposed. As great a match as Manchester City vs. Tottenham provides the EPL, the Bundesliga will have an equally appetizing opening fixture, with Bayern hosting tough challengers Wolsfburg on August 20th.
Wolfsburg: Holding it down on the footballing tip, y’all? The club were champions 2 years ago, with duo Grafite and Edin Dzeko scoring more goals combined that most of teams in the league. But last year was a disappointment (8th place); Grafite squabbled with management, the defense was full of more holes than a Michael Bay movie plot, and the great dictator Felix Magath vacated his position. Armin Veh only lasted one season, and Englishman Steve McClaren was brought in after improbably leading FC Twente to the title in the Dutch Eredivise. What McClaren inherits is a bit of a mixed bag that has potential to be champions. Arne Friedrich and Simon Kjaer provide experience and youthful talent, and if they can get on the same page they could no doubt be the best in the league. You may recognize their goalkeeper, Diego Benaglio, as the hero who lifted Switzerland past Spain in the opening round of the World Cup. Talent in the midfield is solid if unspectacular; Brazilian holding midfielder Josue has much more ability than his size would lead you to believe, with Karim Ziani, Makoto Hasebe, and Thomas Kahlenberg are all capable wide players. Zvjezdan Misimović is the focal point of midfield attack, however he was a want-away player this summer. McClaren will need to keep him focused and motivated, as he provides the direct link with the best stiker you’ve never heard of; Edin Dzeko. 65 goals in the last two seasons should jump out immediately, but it’s his somewhat deceptive level of skill that justifies his $35 million price tag. He’s got a lot of Ruud van Nistelrooy in him; superb in the air, clinical in the box, but still capable of beating you with skill if you think he’s a one-trick pony. I’m picking Wolfsburg to win the Bundesliga, and you’re more than welcome to hold me to it.
Other teams around the league: Schalke ’04 have the ambition to chase the title, but allowed last year’s top scorer, Kevin Kuranyi, to leave the club after clashing with Felix Magath. In addition, I’m not sure allowing Hamurg SV to purchase versatile defender Heiko Westermann was a smart decision. They brought in former Real Madrid legend Raul Gonzalez, but how often do 33 year-old strikers hold up for a full season, particularly when Raul looked too old to propel his beloved Madrid past Barca? Hamburg themselves look improved with Westermann, and will hope to get a nice contribution out of “Ruud van Goal”. Eljero Elia should continue his upward trajectory with the club this year. Stuttgart look less fancied, unwilling/unable to bring back Barcelona loanee Alex Hleb, and selling Sami Khedira to Real Madrid.
Two possible contenders still remain. Bayer Leverkusen brought in Michael Ballack, balancing out a veteran team (Sami Hyypia, Simon Rolfes) with prodigious scorer Stefan Kiessling. The last team I would look at as a contender is Werder Bremen. Perhaps realizing this is their last chance with the current group, they look poised to hold on to Mesut Ozil for the year. Towering Per Mertesacker anchors the defense, with club captain Torsten Frings in front of him. A nice bit of trivia is that Claudio Pizarro is the all-time leading foreign scorer in the Bundesliga. He should be flanked this year by Marko Marin and Aaron Hunt, two younger players who can work interchangeably with Ozil in attack.
Oh, how I wish I had nice things to say about Serie A (I’m Italian, sorry!). Featuring two of the worst run clubs that still cling to “elite” status (Juventus and AC Milan), the league are consistently led by Inter Milan. “Intergentina”, as they are less than affectionally called, have won 5 straight league titles by benefitting greatly from the heavy punishment passed down on other clubs in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal (and AC Milan’s ineptness). However, they were very briefly in second place last year, behind Roma, something that can’t be ignored as the impact of Jose Mourinho’s absence from their sidelines cannot be adequately assessed for some time.
Inter Milan: Treble winners just a year ago, the biggest question is whether a coaching change (oft-mentioned Rafa Benitez takes over) is going to be too much to overcome. They’ll be decidedly rested despite the World Cup summer, as Zanetti, Cambiasso, Pandev, Milito, and Chivu amongst others had the summer off for various reasons. Jettisonning controversial Mario Balotelli was a gamble based on improving morale. Despite “Super” Mario’s talent, which may at some point develop into the best in the world (no seriously, he’s got control, pace, finishing, AND set piece accuracy out the wazoo), he was an almost crippling cancer in the locker room and for the fans. The future of Inter now shifts to the feet of Philippe Coutinho, former Vasco de Gama player and Brazilian youth. Where Benitez struggled to find a lockdown defense at Liverpool, Mourinho hands him one of the best in the world. They refrained from selling Maicon, the best right-back in the world, to Real Madrid, and are still one of the front-runners to land Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano. It will be interesting to see how ageless captain Javier Zanetti is deployed, as Mourinho was artful in moving him between left-back and the midfield. No outstanding weaknesses on this team, especially considering the other “incomplete” teams in the league. Keep a keen eye on how Benitez reigns in Samuel Eto’o; the Cameroon captain forced a move from a Barcelona side that was the best the world may have ever seen a few summers ago. Rocky Balboa look-alike Diego Milito should stay plenty busy finishing off Wesley Sneijder’s midfield moves.
AS Roma: Near-champions last year, the hiring of Claudio Ranieri mid-season seemed to reinvigorate a squad that stagnated as runners-up for a few years. I Lupi were unable to capture Nicolas Burdisso from Inter, so they instead settled on his younger sibling, Guillermo. David Pizzaro was outstanding last season, yet Palermo’s Fabio Simplicio was brought in to add depth as capable cover. The club took on an enormous (literally and figuratively) risk in bringing back Adriano to Italy. After falling out with Inter a few years back, Adriano was voted the best player in Brazil’s domestic league. He may have lost a step, but he still possess a tactical nuke of a left foot. How he links up with club talisman and legend Francesco Totti is imperative for any title challenge. Despite his advanced age, Totti is crafty enough to hide his physical limitations with oustanding link-up play, positioning, and understanding of attacking moves. Concerns at right-back and the wings will have to be addressed, with Marco Cassetti solid but unspectacular, and Jeremy Menez shows flashes of brilliance without putting it all together.
AC Milan: Let’s just try to give you a quick idea of how dumb I think AC Milan are. They potentially made the mistake of a generation by allowing Yoann Gourcuff to move to Bordeaux, instead assuming Andrea Pirlo could play till he’s 45 or something. They fill out their back line by adding more geriatrics per year than the Social Security system (this year it’s 34 year-old Mario Yepes). They hold on to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, not recognizing he doesn’t fit in with the ground game oriented players like Pato and Ronaldinho, and then complain about raising funds. They collect mediocre goalies while a slew of top ‘keepers are sitting around on lesser clubs. Marco Amelia moved in on loan from Genoa, while his parent club moved for Portuguese standout Eduardo. Oh, and they voraciously fought to hold onto Ronaldinho, who is still capable but on the wrong side of 30, and will surely at some point begin holding back the club from berthing in youth players. And let’s not forget that they drove off coach Leonardo, who despite initial struggles, wound up rallying the club into 3rd place despite injuries to many of his best players. But despite all of this, they’ll probably still be in it, due to one player exclusively: Alexandre Pato. When healthy, he’s the most skillful in the entire league, and will likely be leading a youthful forward line for Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. He only managed 12 goals in 23 games, and if he can stay healthy it’s not doubtful he could double last year’s output.
Oh yeah, I did it. And believe me, I needed a much smaller blotch to block out Berlusconi's canoli. And I need a much smaller one to blot out his brain. Idiot...
Juventus: Perhaps the only reason AC Milan aren’t the laughingstock of the league is because Juventus aggressively wrestled that title away from them. An absolute mess, the club entrusted businessman Jean-Claude Blanc as their transfer guru, and he delivered them a woeful 7th place finish (every bit as embarassing as Liverpool’s comparable campaign). Major questions abound, as Fabio Cannavaro was mercifully let go to bring in Leonardo Bonucci. Felipe Melo had perhaps the worst year of any player in football, not just becoming the focal point of Juve’s disappointing season, but scoring the embarassing own-goal that helped knock out tournament favorites Brazil from the World Cup. Diego Ribas no longer fits into new manager Luigi Delneri’s tactics, so the club will take a hit after dolling out $30 million for his services. Mauro Camoranesi and Alex Del Piero are no longer influential, and none of their strikers project creativity or guile. Most interstingly, the Juventus player you want to keep an eye most isn’t even at the club this year. “The Atomic Ant” Sebastian Giovinco will spend the year at Parma. Despite his lilliputian stature (5 ft 4 1⁄2 in) he has throngs of supporters who will be watching his every move at Parma. Every winning goal he is a part of, and every winning goal Juve can’t score, will highlight the club’s inability to provide playing time for one of Italy’s favored sons.
Other teams around the league: Marek Hamsik is the engine which drives Napoli, and they continue to add attacking options to the team. This year they brought in Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani, but may not have added enough midfield depth to make a strong run. Fiorentina lost coach Cesare Prandelli to the Italian national team, then lost scorching hot prospect Stevan Jovetic for much of the season through injury. They will certainly struggle to get back to Champions League contention. Sampdoria finished 4th last year, behind a strong defense and just enough goals from the Palombo-Cassano-Pazzini attack. Can they keep improving despite former coach Delneri moving to Juve?
The most interesting moves in Serie A came from upstarts Genoa. Luca Toni was brought in for free from Bayern Munich, yet will only have to share the load with a slew of players who scored just under ten goals last year (Rorigo Palacio, Giuseppe Sculli, Rafaele Palladino). After an exhaustive chase that was supposed to end with a move to Juventus, Schalke right-back Rafinha secured a relatively cheap move to Genoa. He’ll provide the kind of youthful balance on the opposite side of Domenico Criscito that the aging squads in the league lack. Miguel Veloso was allowed to leave after a disappointing season at Sporting Lisbon, and will be called upon the secure the middle of the field. Also incoming was Portoguese goalkeeper Eduardo, the national team starter. Whatever credit you give to the defense of Portugal, it’s always only as good as your ‘keeper. And Eduardo was very good; only 1 goal allowed in the World Cup, and David Villa would have scored many more on a less in-form goalkeeper.
A tale of two leagues in Spain. Barcelona and Real Madrid finished a full 25 points ahead of the competition, with the Catalan champions finishing the year losing only 1 time all season (visiting Atletico Madrid). If you’re one of those people complaining about the gap between the elite and the rest in England, you had better refresh your perspective before watching La Liga. It is very refreshing, however, to get into the thick battles for Champions League, and Europa League, places. Plenty of talent dispersed throughout the league, and a slew of teams that have deep cultural connections to the fan bases that they represent. Don’t think that just because these teams play in Spain that they are all Spanish; The Basques of Athletic Bilbao, the Catalans of Barca and Espanyol, and the Galicians who support Deportivo are fiercely proud of their own special heritages.
Barcelona: The most dominant club team in the world heads into a new season with the same set of challenges, but one massively important signing. Pre-World Cup, star striker David Villa was brought in from Valencia. 129 goals in 5 years at Valencia are just the start of the contribution he will give Pep Guardiola’s side. Where the languid, relaxed, and at times less than effusive style of Zlatan Ibrahimovic clashed with supporters who demanded perfect effort, Villa’s intensity and aggression will suit them well. As Spain stuttered early in the tournament, increasingly frustrated with watertight defenses, it was Villa who rose to the occassion and almost single-handedly pulled La Roja into the final. More suprising is that he looked comfortable as a right winger; though not the position he is likely to play at Barca, it is just another versatile element that will allow Pep to break down defenses prodigiously. Yaya Toure was sold to Manchester City to finance this move, and although this disappointed many fans, it should not have a glaring effect on the squad so long as they remain healthy. Seydou Keita has always put a good foot forward when available, and youngsters from the greatest youth system in the world will emerge to provide depth. In addition, and under the radar, Adriano Correia was bought from Sevilla. He can slot in at either full-back spot, as a wide midfielder, or even an emergency winger. While their Madrid rivals opt for bombast in the transfer market, this is yet another example of how Barcelona build a superior team by putting the team before the name on the jersey.
Real Madrid: If nothing else, this should be a circus. Jose Mourinho left Inter Milan after winning the treble to defy convention and lead Real Madrid to numerous trophies; two years without winning La Liga, and watching Barcelona lift the Champions League have not sated the enormous appetite of the team’s governing board. Along with Mourinho come a number of depth-related changes to the lineup; Ricardo Carvalho rejoins his former to coach to add a veteran defender, one who understands his manager’s attention to defensive work ethic. Pedro Leon was brought in from Getafe, and 19 year-old Sergio Canales looks like the future in the attacking midfield. But the biggest addition was Angel di Maria; a speedy left-footed winger who dominated at Benfica, but struggled mightily for Argentina in the World Cup. Weaknesses are hard to come by on paper for Real Madrid (left-back is always a concern), but the drama is never short in the Spanish Capital. Kaka failed to deliver last season, leaving many to doubt his long-term health and where he fits into the squad. And it is still yet to be seen if Gonzalo Higuain is capable of beating the top defenses across Europe. He has scored an attention-grabbing 63 goals in his last two years, but at the same time he spoils a plethora of opportunities from Christiano Ronaldo and the rest of his teammates. Parallel to any success in the Spanish domestic league must be success in the Champions League; an embarassing series of exits in the quarter-finals has knocked out some of Mourinho’s predecessors.
Other teams around the league: Both Villareal and Atletico Madrid rebounded from coaching changes and lackluster starts to their respective seasons to get back into the top 10 of La Liga. Both will continue to have questions in defense, but both feature superb attacking options. Villareal hold on to Giuseppe Rossi, despite the inevitable move back to Italy, and Brazilian internationl Nilmar. Atletico Madrid get back man-of-the-World Cup Diego Forlan, and will have another chance to pair him with Sergio Aguero. In contrast, however, Villareal will rely on mainstays Santi Cazorla and Joan Capdevila, while Atletico will look for youngsters Fran Merida (formerly of Arsenal) and Eduardo Salvio to provide more punch.
Last year’s 3rd place finisher, Valencia, have constantly struggled with staggering debts, and were forced to sell of their two star players, David Silva and David Villa. Los Che are still adept at developing talent, but will need to get exemplary efforts from Nobby Soldado, Aritz Aduriz, and Chori Dominguez to compensate for these massive losses. The team that may benefit most from Valencia’s losses is Sevilla. Luis Fabiano has never struggled to score, with Jesus Navas and Diego Perotti providing him service. Over the years, Sevilla have provided teams with players such as Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves, Seydou Keita, and Julio Baptista amongst others. They are always capable of reloading, and do an excellent job of integrating African players in particular.
It’s always difficult to pick against last year’s favorites in any league, particularly when they are oft-repeating champions such as we’ve had. Injuries are impossible to predict, but they are going to shape the early season for Bayern Munich in particular, hence I’m going with Wolfsburg for the Bundesliga. In Italy, always hard to pick against Inter, but in the interest of making a difficult pick, I’m going to guess that they struggle adapting to Benitez and pick Roma. I know that probably won’t happen, but I want one last championship for Totti. In Spain, ummm, I don’t know exactly why, but I’m going to go with Real Madrid. Jose Mourinho never loses at home, and their should be some World Cup burnout for Barcelona. Not that there won’t be for Madrid, but sometimes you have to jump out against convention.
Have a team of your particular interest I haven’t covered? Hit me up and I’ll give them a paragraph in a post update at some point.
Filed under: Bundesliga, EPL, FIFA, Football, La Liga, Serie A, Soccer | Tagged: AC Milan, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Jose Mourinho, Juventus, Real Madrid, Roma | 6 Comments »