The European football calendar enters its second phase with the final international break of the year and we slope off into Christmas and the winter breaks across the continent. I have eight subjects to report on for the first phase of the season on the continent.
The City of Genoa: B-
Genoa as a city is still reeling from the Morandi Bridge Collapse in mid-August. It forced the postponement of the opening game of the season for the city’s two clubs. It would be foolish to suggest that Sampdoria and Genoa, bound by the beautiful Stadio Luigi Ferraris, would get off to a good start given the circumstances but there has been a few phoenixs rising from the ashes of a disaster that killed 43 people in August. Krzysztof Piatek has been revolutionary in front of goal for I Rossoblu and has since earned a call-up for the Polish national team. Fabio Quagliarella, on the other hand, has been knocking in goals of Puskas Award quality on a regular basis. Despite both clubs sitting in mid-table (Sampdoria in 12th, Genoa in 14th), they are both only a couple wins outside of the European places and the season will only get better.
Unfortunate Ajax: A
31 points from 12 games would put you top in most leagues with the exception of Ligue 1, Serie A, Premier League and, as Ajax have discovered, the Eredivisie. They have conceded 5 goals all league season, earned a credible draw at the Allianz Arena and are on the cusp of a first appearance in the Champions League knockout rounds since 2005-06 but Ajax still can’t find the summit of the league. They sit five points behind PSV who look to emulate PSG’s record breaking winning start to the season with 12 wins from their first 12 games. Ajax have beaten Feyenoord handsomely in the league, recorded draws away at Benfica and Bayern as well as beating Benfica in the Johan Cruyff Arena but a piece is still missing, despite their best efforts. A win in Athens on matchday 5 of the Champions League would secure qualification in what must be seen as a successful season, despite what would be failing efforts in the league.
Brits in Germany: A
It’s the season’s new sensation: British players going abroad to find game time and succeeding. In the past the likes of Kevin Keegan, Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham, Steve McManaman and Owen Hargreaves have found success abroad and seemingly a new generation of English talent are looking outside the crippling loan system to gain permanent success abroad. Yes, Reiss Nelson is on loan from Arsenal and he will face a decision to either try and break into an Arsenal team that could replace him with a click of their fingers or he could remain at Hoffenheim, who are actually playing Champions League football, and play in a league of similar or better talent. Nelson will have seen Jadon Sancho’s stock rise after his move from Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund which has taken him to the England squad despite being four months younger than Nelson, and will see a better forged path. Sancho has the most assists in the top European leagues, whilst scoring 4 in 11 Bundesliga games. Nelson has hit 5 in 6 and both have featured in the Champions League. Why would you want to move back to England?
Monaco losing their Va Va Voom™: F
Since returning to Ligue 1 after a two-year absence in 2013, Monaco has been a revolving door of players but despite this they have always maintained a top 3 finish under Claudio Ranieri and Leonardo Jardim, they have got to the latter stages of the Champions League on two occasions, which is some testament to the player turnaround when you consider that the following players have left the club: Falcao (twice), James Rodriguez, Lucas Ocampos, Layvin Kurzawa, Anthony Martial, Dimitar Berbatov, Yannick Carrasco, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Jeremy Toulalan, Adama Traore, Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Benjamin Mendy, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar, Joao Moutinho and Kylian Mbappe. It’s a wonder how they managed to survive for so long on this precarious strategy. Well, until now. Jardim was ousted as manager and replaced with Thierry Henry who soon found himself without once-potent forwards Stevan Jovetic and Falcao due to immediate injuries. He hasn’t won in six games as Monaco manager, the latest of which was a damning 4-0 home defeat at the hands of PSG. Henry had 15 players out injured and Monaco are joint-bottom of Ligue 1 with Guingamp on 7 points.
The Return of Parma: B
If you’ve had the recent history that Parma have had, a return to Serie A in the manner that they have had must feel like a dream come true. Yes, I know that they’re 11th in the table but, to put that into context, they are five points away from a Champions League place. Gervinho has been a revelation, scoring sumptuous goals with regularity and this seemingly obscurity of 11th might improve as the season opens up. Parma have stood toe to toe with Juventus, got a win in the San Siro and have recorded a win in Turin (okay, against Torino but still). They have acquitted themselves amazingly well after such a tumultuous ride back to the summit of Italian football.
Bayern & Kovac: D
Robert Kovac has left the likes of Luka Jovic and Ante Rebic behind at Frankfurt, exchanging them for the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Franck Ribery. This weekend, however, Frankfurt climbed above Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga table after Bayern’s 3-2 loss in Der Klassiker. Bayern are 5th, unimaginable in previous seasons where they have now won the Bundesliga in six successive seasons. However, with the quality in their side and the fact that Bundesliga is so close at the top with Bayern, in fifth, only seven points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund, there is still hope. Their league form might overshadow matters but Bayern are a point away from qualification in the Champions League. Things aren’t as bad as they seem at Bayern and Kovac, given time, will steer them back towards glories.
Unstoppable Salzburg: A- grade
Just the four points have been dropped all season from Red Bull Salzburg. They have won four from four in the Europa League group stages and have dropped just four points in the Austrian Bundesliga where they hold one of the best records in Europe, only bettered by the flawless PSV and PSG and the near-flawless PAOK. They spectacularly managed to miss out on the Champions League group stage with their FFB World Championship crown intact. They are just a point away from qualification to the Europa League knockout phase, perhaps the only place they’re likely to lose their world title.
Life after Zidane at Real Madrid: C grade
I had initially given Real Madrid’s season so far an E grade. I had bought into the fake crisis at Real Madrid. Yes, they had sacked Julen Lopetegui and had gone down to a superb Barcelona side without Lionel Messi. Lopetegui was first embarrassed on the world stage, being sacked by Spain on the eve of the World Cup and then sacked just ten league games into his spell at Real Madrid. It’ll take some coming back for Lopetegui but his interim successor, Santi Solari, has since guided Real to three wins in a week: yes, against Valladolid, Celta Vigo and Viktoria Plzen but it has made this so-called crisis slightly better. They’re four points behind a Barcelona side who led them by 17 points at the end of last season. A crisis at Real Madrid is always inflamed, always feels bigger than what it is because of the vivid and illustrious history and precarious relationships between the president and the players and the supporters. Sergio Ramos has initiated a pact of player power under Lopetegui’s reign between spates of breaking noses and shoulders in Champions League fixtures. Real are in a state but not as much as the press or Real themselves would have you believe.