As one third of the European soccer season is through, it is time to have an overall look at two of its major leagues. Players have reached their form after the World Cup and the summer break, and they have become used to playing together after three months of league play. Some teams have unexpectedly overachieved while some title contenders have disappointed their fans so far. This week, the Gemini will have a look at the English Premier League and German Bundesliga before moving on to other European leagues next week.
The world’s most-watched league has taken an interesting turn this season. As Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger put it, “Sides are now fitter, stronger and technically much better than in seasons gone by, and if there were ever any `easy’ games before, that is certainly not the case now.”
This is evidenced by the fact that Newcastle, who was promoted to the league this season, is seventh in the table and have two strikers tied at the top of the goal-scoring charts with seven goals apiece. Another surprise this season has been the emergence of Tottenham’s Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart, as the usual big names – Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard – haven’t been in the spotlight due to injuries, lack of form or both. In part due to this lack of star power among the top clubs, we have seen a lot of upsets, whether it be Manchester City and Liverpool beating Chelsea, Liverpool losing to Stoke City or the title holders Chelsea losing to Sunderland.
The league leaders’ loss to Sunderland can be attributed to the injury and unavailability of numerous starters – Yossi Benayoun, Lampard, John Terry, Alex and Michael Essien – but their absence won’t serve as a full excuse. The defeat has spurred many to question the depth of the team and just how the Blues will cope with the aging of Drogba, Lampard, Terry, Nicolas Anelka and many of their senior players in seasons to come.
Also having a disappointing campaign is Manchester United, who just lost second place to Arsenal and has disappointed fans in most games this season. The Red Devils have had to come back in the last few minutes to tie with teams such as Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Bolton Wanderers, Everton and Fulham – teams they should have beaten easily. The absence of Rooney has certainly been felt, but the young Nani, Javier Hernandez and Gabriel Obertan are filling those shoes and finally getting match experience. Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to include older players in his starting 11 is also proving crucial as the younger players are learning from veterans like Paul Scholes and unsung hero Park Ji-Sung. This appears to be a year of transition for United, one that is desperately needed for Sir Alex’s boys to become men on the pitch.
Wenger’s young stars at Arsenal are repaying his trust in them and have proven to be a force to reckon with both at home and on the road. The acquisition of Marouane Chamakh on a free transfer has been pivotal for the Gunners, as the big target man has netted five goals and combined skillfully with Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin in a four-pronged attack.
Fabregas’ decision to stay has proven beneficial as well, and should the team continue to perform as they have done recently, this could be a season to remember for Arsenal. But the club’s fans know better than to get their hopes up just yet.
anchester City has answered the big question of whether an assembly of highly paid stars can make a good team despite a lack of prior playing experience together. David Silva, Yaya Toure, James Milner and Mario Balotelli have been phenomenal, and in the Gemini’s opinion, only the defensive catenaccio tactics of manager Roberto Mancini that are holding the Citizens back from fulfilling their potential.
One-third of the season has passed, and the top German league has once again proven that it is full of surprises. The league is fairly balanced, which has led to close competition and a large base of contenders – unusual in today’s world of European soccer.
Borussia Dortmund’s current standing, seven points clear in the top spot, may come as a shock to most, but not for those who have been watching the steady rise of the Westfalen side under its coach, Jurgen Klopp. One of the best young managers in soccer, Klopp has earned the nickname “Mourinho of Westfalen” for his achievements. The team’s key players -Shinji Kagawa, Nuri Sahin and Neven Subotic – are all under 23. Forwards Lucas Barrios and Robert Lewandowski have been very productive, helping Dortmund to lead the league in goals through 12 games; the club has also conceded a league-low seven goals thanks to stellar performances by the young and dynamic defensive duo of Subotic and Mats Hummels. Dortmund are on a hot streak as well, as they haven’t lost since an opening-match defeat to Bayer Leverkusen.
Their inexperience might prove to be their biggest problem in the future when the pressure increases at the end of the year, and it will be interesting to see how Dortmund’s young group of players will respond. Their league fixtures will also clash with their Europa League schedule, but they have a deep squad to deal with that. If its core stays healthy, Klopp’s side definitely has the edge over the rest of the league.
The bottom of the Bundesliga may be even more surprising than the top, as Schalke 04 is in the relegation zone. The expectations were very high for the Gelsenkirchen side after it signed a successful and experienced coach in Felix Magath and acquired top-class players like Raul and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The new signings are in impressive form, leading the team in scoring – but nothing else is going right for them. They have only two wins in 12 games, and sit in 16th.
Schalke just needs time, and the Gemini believe that the club will pick it up and finish the league in a decent position. They have quality with arguably the best young goalkeeper in the league in Manuel Neuer, the highly skilled Jefferson Farfan, the young and talented Ivan Rakitic and their new signings. At the very least, their Champions League hopes remain high as they sit in second place in the softest group of the tournament and stand a great chance of advancing to the second round.
Last year’s champion and this season’s favorite, Bayern Munich, has also been disappointing. They started the season terribly, suffering from injuries to star players Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, but in November they have earned consecutive wins to narrow the gap between themselves and first place to 12 points. They are still far from last season’s form, but manager Louis van Gaal has said that he is hopeful of repeating the championship.
Other contenders like Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen and Stuttgart are all huge disappointments so far as all three stand in the bottom half of the table. Without a doubt, Wolfsburg will improve under skilled manager Steve McClaren and the nation’s deadliest attacking duo of Edin Dzeko and Grafite. Each of these teams is aiming to qualify for European competitions, and they each have the experience and quality to achieve that.
As a short-lived Cinderella story, Mainz won their first seven games and were leading the Bundesliga after their first 10 contests. Despite a recent slump in which they have lost four of their last five matches, Mainz are still very impressive. No one expected them to be anywhere but the relegation zone at the start of the year.
Without a doubt, the Bundesliga has been the most exciting and fun league in Europe so far, with a series of upsets and intriguing storylines. Now as the league enters its midseason, it will be interesting to see if Borussia Dortmund can keep its form as it faces pressure and strong competition from Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen.
Michael Appau is a sophomore in the College. Cem Yolbulan is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. GEMINI SPORTS appears in every third issue of HOYA SPORTS.