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Sunday, 07 August 2011

Will the new season throw up any shocks across Europe's top leagues?


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Here we go again ... It's that time of year again. Your club has had some embarrassing/great results in pre-season friendlies and the anticipation builds up as the new season approaches, but what can we expect from the big leagues around Europe?

Some countries, of course, have already kicked off, such as Scotland, Denmark and Austria while others such as the Nordic countries and Russia have summer football. The leagues in the “big five” though have still to start. For some around the continent this means a new chance to challenge for honours while for others it's about breaking the established stranglehold.

Globally the most anticipated kick-off will be in England, the world's best marketed league, with its gallery of international stars, but can we expect anything new? Manchester United are champions again and the team to catch. Chelsea will be there again although it remains to be seen how new manager Villas-Boas copes with the English game. 

Of the others Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City will be expected to challenge with some big names arriving and some possibly leaving. We are all aware of Barcelona's continued pursuit of Cesc Fabregas, Liverpool's capture of Downing and Adam and City's annual spending spree although there is a long time to go before the transfer window closes. If City can get their collection of egos playing as a team they could be genuine challengers, if Arsenal lose their top stars they'll have to be replaced, but Liverpool could be the ones to watch with their revamped squad under the tutelage of Dalglish. It's overdue for the Anfield club.

Further afield the two Milan clubs will be vying for supremacy in Italy again although Juventus have already spent big money making Fabio Quagliarella's move from Napoli and that of Alessandro Matri from Cagliari permanent. Also arriving are Stephan Lichtsteiner for €10m (Lazio) and Chilean international striker Arturo Vidal (€12m, Bayer Leverkusen). Napoli will be hard pressed to repeat last season's third place, but Roma and Lazio will no doubt be there or thereabouts and Fiorentina will be looking to improve on ninth.

The Primera Liga in Spain will almost certainly be a question of how far behind Barcelona will Real Madrid be with the other big clubs tussling for Euro qualification. After their Wembley wondershow destroying Manchester United there can be little doubt that the Catalans are the world's best team with Madrid the best equipped to try and mount a sustained challenge. Los Merengues have strengthened, bringing in Hamit Altintop on a free from Bayern and Nuri Sahin (€10m, Borussia Dortmund) to play in midfield ahead of new left back Fabio Coentrao, a €30m purchase from Benfica. The rest of the top places should be filled by the usual suspects, Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal and Malaga in any order. Not much change in Spain it seems.

In Germany the Bundesliga is usually a bit more competitive with a relatively poor Bayern only just making it into third place last season as a young and vibrant Borussia Dortmund won the Championship. Somewhat surprisingly Dortmund have so far hung onto many of their stars Sahin excepted, and have brought in Gundogan (€4m, Nurnberg) and Perisic (€5.5m, Bruges). Bayern too have lost a top star in Altintop, but have recruited keeper Manuel Neuer from Schalke 04 alongside Brazilian Rafinha from Genoa to bolster the defence. Other candidates for Bundesliga glory will include last year's runners-up Bayer Leverkusen, domestic under-achievers Schalke and Hamburger SV although the Bundesliga has a habit of throwing up a surprise or two.

France will presumably be along the same lines as the previous outing with the big city clubs PSG, Lille, Lyon and Marseilles dominating again although the outcome remains far from obvious as the days of monopolisation by Lyon or St Etienne before them appear to be over.  Other famous clubs will be looking to regain former glories, Sochaux, Bordeaux and Nice among them.

Of Europe's other big football nations the Netherlands appears to offer the best hope of a competitive league this year. Over the last few seasons AZ Alkmaar and Twente Enschede have both been champions breaking the hold the big three of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV although Feyenoord have declined dramatically as a power in Dutch football recently. Surprise packages could be Groningen, who have had a couple of decent seasons recently and will be attempting to improve further.

Portugal looks a bit like their Iberian neighbours with Porto being runaway (and unbeaten) champions last time out with Benfica a long way back and the other traditional big side, Sporting Club being poor in recent years. Same again should be the order of the day here.

Wherever you are in the world the arrival of a new season always brings the same hopes and fears, the same highs and lows. I hope the leagues all over the world throw up some shocks and surprises to delight football lovers the world over and wouldn't it be nice if every one of the above predictions was completely wrong?

Article by Iain Macfadzean

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Antony Melvin

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