SET PIECES : EUROPEAN PREVIEW : AUGUST 11
By Mike Simzak
Although the league seasons in places like France and Scotland have already begun, the “Big Leagues” in Germany, Spain, Italy, and England begin over the course of the next few weeks. In anticipation of the kick-off of the domestic soccer season in Europe, here are a few things to look for over the course of the next nine months.
Barclay Premier League (England)
Of all the major European Leagues, the Barclay Premier League in England is arguably the most competitive. While Chelsea is the defending champions, comfortably winning the league by seven points last season, Manchester City enters the season as the favorites to claim the title in their second season under Pep Guardiola. Guardiola has been active in the summer transfer window, adding right-backs Kyle Walker and Danilo, left-back Benjamin Mendy, winger Bernardo Silva, and setting a transfer record for goalkeepers with the signing of Ederson to rebuild a defense that proved to be City’s Achilles heel last year. The return of Ilkay Gundogan will bolster the midfield and the David Silva will continue to pull the strings for an attack that will feature some frightening combination of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and Sergio Aguero.
While City may be favorites, crosstown rivals Manchester United, defending champions Chelsea, FA Cup winners Arsenal, runners-up Tottenham Hotspur, and Liverpool all have the necessary credentials to make a push for the league title. Of those teams, Manchester United have made the most high profile moves to alter their team by bringing in £75 million striker Romelu Lukaku to replace the injured Zlatan Ibrahimović as well as Nemanja Matic to add steel to the midfield and release the creative potential of Paul Pogba. If the Red Devils hope to claim their first league championship of the Post-Ferguson Era, in Jose Mourinho’s second season, they will need to find goals that were sorely lacking last season.
Antonio Conte’s formational change early last season unleashed Chelsea and set them on a romp to their second league title in three seasons. Chelsea have been embroiled in a summer-long will he/won’t he transfer saga with star striker Diego Costa whom Conte determined to be unnecessary and whom he replaced with Alvaro Morata. Chelsea benefitted last season from not having the burden of European competition and it will be interesting to see how Conte handles the added load of Champions League football to an already packed domestic schedule.
Tottenham have chosen to stand pat throughout most of the summer, choosing stability and continuity over addition. Maurico Pochettino’s side boasts a young core built around England International’s Harry Kane, Delle Ali, Eric Dier, and Danny Rose and will count on the continued growth and development of those players to continue the upward trend of the last several seasons. Liverpool’s season ultimately depends on the fate of Phillipe Coutinho. Coutinho has been the subject of recent interest from Barcelona in the aftermath of the Neymar transfer. If Coutinho stays, Jürgen Klopp will have the necessary pieces to improve on last year’s fourth place finish. If he leaves, Liverpool will miss the Brazilian’s creativity in attack and their chances in the league will suffer accordingly.
Much like Liverpool, Arsenal’s chances are largely dependent on the presence of Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez, along with Mesut Ozil, is in the last year of his contract and has yet to indicate any willingness to sign an extension with the Gunners. If Sanchez leaves, he takes with him much of Arsenal’s attacking threat. Arsene Wenger spent £50 million on French forward Alexandre Lacazette in hopes of diversifying the Gunners attack and taking pressure off of Alexis Sanchez; however, while Lacazette can complement Sanchez, he would not be able to replace him.
Outside of the Top 6, Everton has been the most active team over the course of the summer in adding goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, center back Michael Keane, midfielder Day Klaassen and forward Sandro, as well as bringing the legendary Wayne Rooney back to his boyhood club. Ronal Koeman has a stronger team this season than the one that he lead to a seventh place finish but must find a way to replace Romelu Lukaku’s goals.
1. Manchester City
3. Manchester United
4. Tottenham Hotspurs
Last season, Monaco ended Paris Saint Germain’s four year run as Ligue1 champions. This did not sit well with PSG who responded by making the biggest move of the summer: the €222 million signing of Brazilian superstar Neymar. Meanwhile the predators that are Europe’s biggest clubs have picked over the carcass of Monaco, seizing Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoue Bakayoko, and Bernardo Silva. Furthermore, rumors continue regarding the futures of Fabinho and wunderkind Kylian Mbappe. The additions of Youri Tielemans and Terence Kongolo should help keep Monaco near the top of the table but PSG simply has too much for any of the domestic teams in France.
2- 20. Not PSG
Over the course of the last 20 years, the Bundesliga has been won by a team other than Bayern Munich on seven occasions and three of those championships belong to Borussia Dortmund. Bayern have claimed the last five Bundesliga titles and look set to claim a sixth successive title. James Rodriguez and Kingsley Coman enter the squad as potential long term replacements for the likes of Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery and the team retains Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller to score goals and Thiago Alcantara and Arturo Vidal to control the midfield.
In Dortmund, Thomas Tuchel and his prickly relationship with the board and players is out as manager and Peter Bosz is the new man in charge. Bosz gained notoriety for building a young and exciting team at Ajax which he led to the Europa League finals last year. Bosz in known for working well with young players and playing exciting attacking football and Dortmund has the personnel to do just that. Dortmund managed to retain leading goal scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, club legend Marco Reus will return in early 2018 from a long term injury, and Mahmoud Dahoud will compliment Julian Weigl in central midfield. Winger Ousmane Dembele may be leaving the club for Barcelona; however, in Christian Pulisic, Shinji Kagawa, Mario Götze, and Andre Schurrle, Dortmund has the players in place to withstand that loss and still flourish.
Last year’s newcomers RB Leipzig finished second in the league and became the most successful East German team in a generation. Because of their affiliation with the energy drink Red Bull, Leipzig is the most hated club in a league that prides itself on its resistance to corporate ownership. Leipzig has been able to hang on to their key players, despite interest from bigger clubs. The addition of Champions League football may ultimate stretch the clubs resources and derail a potential league championship push.
1. Bayern Munich
2. Borussia Dortmund
3. RB Leipzig
Serie A (Italy)
Much like German, Italy’s Serie A has been characterized by a race to finish second to Juventus for the last six seasons. This summer has seen Dani Alves, Leonardo Bonucci, and Mario Lemina depart from a team that won the league by four points and lost in the Champions League final. However, the additions of Medhi Benatia should bolster the defense, and newcomers Douglas Costa and Fernando Bernardeschi join an attack that features Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Mario Mandzukic. While La Vecchia Signora may be more vulnerable this season than they have been in previous seasons, Massimo Allegri still has more than enough at his disposal to see off any challengers to the Scudetto.
Over the course of the last four years Napoli and Roma have battled for second and both look set to remain strong in this new season. Last year saw the retirement of Roma and Italian legend Francesco Totti, and while the Eighth King of Rome was a major figure in his last few seasons, his influence had been waning at the Stadio Olimpico and Roma has a strong enough squad to remain near the top of the Serie A table. Napoli enter the season with the bulk of the squad intact and made a few additions to strengthen the team that finished one point behind Roma last season.
Boosted by new owners, an influx of money, and the corresponding new players, AC Milan enter the season as the most improved team in Italy. The new Chinese owners have spent almost $250 million to rebuild the Rosseneri, bringing in Andre Silva, Ricardo Rodriguez, Franck Kessie, Andrea Conti, Hakan Calhanoglu, Lucas Biglia, and Mateo Musacchio among others. The new talent should give Milan enough to leapfrog into the chase for the Champions League places, a competition that they have been absent from since the 2013-2014 season.
3. AC Milan
La Liga Santander (Spain)
La Liga in Spain has been contested on 86 occasions and either Real Madrid (33) or Barcelona (24) has won 57 of those titles. In the 21st Century only Valencia (2) and Atletico Madrid (1) have managed to break up to the Catalan-Castilian duopoly. Real Madrid enter the season as the defending Spanish Champions and two-time defending European Champions. Since Zinedine Zidane took over the club in January of 2016, Los Blancos have been the dominant team in Europe. This year’s vintage of Madrid features most of the same cast of characters with Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Marcelo, and company all returning. Such is the strength of Madrid at the moment that Alvaro Morata, Pepe, James Rodrigues, and Danilo can all depart with barely a ripple. The potential arrival of Kylian Mbappe would only serve to strengthen an already formidable team. Madrid will have to content with another lengthy Champions League campaign as well as a December trip to the United Arab Emirates for the FIFA Club World Cup but the squad is strong enough to see these obstacles off and content for the league, Copa Del Rey, and Champion’s League titles.
Real Madrid’s title chances were given a boost by the fact that their closet competition has declined over the course of the summer. Crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid has their transfer ban upheld and, as a result, were unable to add players in the summer and Barcelona have been a baffling disorganized mess this summer. While Atleti were bolstered by Antoine Greizmann’s decision to remain with the club after their summer transfer ban was upheld, Diego Simone will feel the loss of talented young players Oliver Torres and Theo Hernandez from a team that has been unable to sign new players for the last two transfer periods. Atleti’s best hope for the season is to maintain touch with the top of the league until January and then hope to make some key signings in the winter to help for the run in.
No team in Europe has had as baffling a summer as Barcelona. For so long the Blaugrana have been the model of consistency and competence in the transfer market: identifying needs, recruiting and reinforcing. This summer has been anything but business as usual and, unless things change, the team will suffer in the upcoming season. Barcelona looked like a team in decline at various points last season. They needed a historic 6-1 comeback win against PSG in the Camp Nou to make it out of the Champions League Round of 16 before failing to score a goal against Juventus in the Champions League Quarterfinals. That loss to Juventus marked the first time that the team had failed to score in both legs of a Champions League match since their 1-0 aggregate loss to Manchester United in 2008. The Tridente of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar was able to carry a midfield that was frequently unable to maintain possession and a defense that looked shaky on multiple occasions throughout the season. Despite their best efforts, Barcelona has been unable to adequately replace the departed Xavi and the aging Andres Iniesta.
While Barca was able to secure Messi for the next four seasons and add Nelson Semedo, they were unable to sign Marco Verratti from PSG despite the player overtly expressing his interest in joining the club. Verratti would seem to be the perfect player for a position of need and Barca’s failure to secure their man represents a rare miss. The summer took a turn from bad to worse in early August when Barca were forced to sell Neymar to PSG. Although they pocketed €222 million in the transaction, they have yet to find a player or players to replace the departed superstar. In the past, Barcelona might have looked to their fertile youth academy for additions; unfortunately, the famed pipeline of La Masia has been unusually dry over the last few seasons. As long as Lionel Messi remains at the Camp Nou, Barcelona will be competitive, he is that good. However, to make a serious push for trophies, an expectation in Catalonia, Barcelona need to act quickly.
1. Real Madrid
2. Atletico Madrid*
*Prediction based on Barcelona not replacing Neymar