Early Favorites in The European Leagues

Radoslav Ivanov

As we enter the most hectic stage of the first half of the soccer season, it is very interesting to see what form teams are in. Usually, this is the time when fans see what a squad’s true possibilities are. We should now expect big clubs to show their real faces and start playing world-class soccer.

In the English Premier League, for example, we have the same old picture. Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, the latter a little behind at this stage, are again the teams that will finish in top four at the end of the campaign. Although Hull City is still hanging in there with the big guns, their recent games with Chelsea(3-0 loss) and United (4-3 loss despite being down 4-1 with 15 minutes left) show that they may not be a real powerhouse yet.

It is Liverpool, though, that is the major surprise this year. Scousers, which struggled quite a bitt for the last 15 years, may finally be getting back to their fantastic performances from the 70’s and 80’s when they were undoubtedly the best club in Europe. Many specialists and fans criticized manager Rafael Benitez for being an elimination-oriented tournament coach, but his team’s performance so far has proven critics wrong. After all, let us not forget that the year before Benitez went to England, he won the Spanish championship with Valencia. Furthermore, Liverpool has already played with, and defeated, their major opponents. First, they beat United 1-0 at Anfield. Later in the season, they stopped Chelsea’s incredible record of 86 games without losing on home ground by beating them 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. So, at the moment, Scousers is even with Chelsea at the top of the table while United is five points and a game behind.

In the Champions League, Liverpool is doing equally well. Their performance in that tournament, however, is not as surprising because they have had an excellent record in it since Benitez came in charge. However, Liverpool just lost their first two points at Anfield in its group by drawing with Atletico Madrid in what was a repeat of the previous clash between the two teams two weeks ago. Nevertheless, they now have eight points out of four matches and are almost sure to qualify for the next round with only two games remaining.

Moving from England to another major European championship, the Spanish La Liga, I want to analyze another team whose development is very curious to watch, namely Barcelona. After the dismissal of former manager Frank Rijkaard and the hiring of rookie Josep Guardiola, many people thought that Barca would step away from the fight for big cups for a year or two while a new team formed. However, we have seen quite a different phenomenon so far. Even though this team cannot repeat their excellent performances every game, they are playing impressively. With young stars Leo Messi and Bojan Krkic controlling the midfield, Barcelona is one of the most dangerous attacks in the world right now. However, youth implies inconsistency. So, after two fantastic 5-0 wins against Basel and Almeria in the Champions League and La Liga, respectively, they could not defeat this same Basel, this time at their own Camp Nou, and the game on Tuesday ended in a 1-1 draw. Despite this slightly disappointing result, Barca is still in the lead in both the Spanish championship and the Champions League, and provided they keep up their great form, they may win all the tournaments they take part in this season.

To complete the tour of the three major European leagues, we must visit Italy as well. This year, unlike the previous three which were marred by corruption scandals and ended with Inter winning them all by a great margin, the fight for the title is very intense. At the moment, Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan side is in the lead. After finishing fifth in the Serie A last year, Milan is now out of the Champions League, and the Italian championship is their main priority. I do not want to underestimate the UEFA Cup, but it is clear that Milan is just a different team than the others in that tournament, so the Rossoneri will probably entirely focus on winning the domestic championship. With Brazilian star Ronaldinho having joined their squad, they are now a great threat for any defense. The Brazilian trio of Kaka, Ronaldinho and young hope Alexander Pato have already formed a well-oiled machine that rarely fails to produce. Their power was felt when they beat city rivals Inter, 1-0 a few weeks ago. So, even though all of the first ten teams in Serie A are within a reasonable distance of the leader, I would say that Milan is the obvious pick for the new champion.

With the soccer season in full swing now, it is a shame if you do not make time for at least a few of the mouth-watering games this fall.