As another pre-season draws to a close, Europe’s major leagues are on the brink of relaunching again. France and Germany have kicked off already. England, Italy and Spain will do so shortly. The summer saw inflated transfer-fees and arguably as little value for money in the transfer market as one can remember. A number of major players changed leagues too. Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, and Gonzalo Higuain led the La Liga exodus. The Spanish league was arguably the biggest loser when it came to talent. It also lost Jose Mourinho and Marcelo Pellegrini to the Premier League. The Premier League saw an influx of talent from all over Europe. They included some of the above names as well as Fernandinho, Bony, Guy Medel, and Andre Schurrle. Looking at Europe’s top leagues, what can one expect from the season ahead?
The Premier League is the big winner of the summer transfer window on many levels. Its gained a couple of household names in the managerial merry-go-around. Its also seen an influx of talent from abroad. The biggest loss will be that of Sir Alex Ferguson. However, Manchester United’s loss could be the Premier League’s gain (in a competition way). Its thrown the title race wide open. The margins between the top sides are as close as ever. Three sides go into the season with little between them (Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United). Tottenham will have title aspirations if they keep hold of Gareth Bale. Arsenal, well the less said about their summer activity the better. Its hard to see how they can strengthen the side now although buying Julio Cesar would be a start even with his high wages. Arsenal has missed out on many players that would have improved their side. The list is endless and could include Medel who joined Cardiff City recently. This illustrates that Arsene Wenger has not only lost players to rivals but to sides that are below Arsenal in the reputation table. Liverpool will be aiming to break into the top four and keeping Luis Suarez away from Arsenal makes sense on many levels as that would be the side they would be challenging for that spot.
Champion – Chelsea
Rest of Top 4 – Manchester City, Manchester United, Spurs
Bottom 3 – Stoke, Hull, Crystal Palace
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Swansea to finish in top 6 / Southampton to finish in top 8
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Bony
If one had to sum up what has gone on in Spain this summer, then it would be simple. The top 2 arguably got stronger whilst the rest of the pack fell further away. Valencia, Real Sociedad, Malaga, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid each lost some of their best players and in some cases more than one. Did they replace them adequately? Not likely. What this means is that you can expect Barcelona and Real Madrid to be approximately 30 points away from the rest of the pack but it also means that one should keep an eye on the battle for the rest of the Champions League and Europa League spots. The summer’s biggest saga involves Barcelona’s pursuit of a center back. As the transfer window draws to a close it remains to be seen who they draft into the squad in a position that has hampered them over the past 2 seasons.
Champion – Real Madrid
Rest of the Top 4 – Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Athletic
Bottom 3 – Elche, Almeria, Valladolid
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Sevilla in bottom 6
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Morata
The biggest action was off-the-field this summer in Germany. Bayern Munich replaced treble-winning manager Jupp Heynckes with former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola. When it was announced some critics argued that the Spaniard took the easy way out by choosing a side that’s already on top, making it “easier” to add trophies to his already impressive haul. However, as the season started, signs suggested that it would not be as clear sailing as they had thought. Firstly, Guardiola has tried to stamp his authority on the team’s tactics as one would have expected. He has experimented with Lahm in midfield and going with a 4-1-4-1 which has seen Muller play as the main striker more than Croat Mandzukic. At the same time some question marks have been raised about his preference of Thiago in the hole which means that main-stay Schweinsteiger may not be an automatic choice. Whilst its still early days, there are sure to be some fireworks around the side that worked hard to lose the label of FC Hollywood in recent years. Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp has arguably strengthened his side far more than one could have imagined. Having lost Mario Gotze, Dortmund fought tooth and nail to resist the sale of Pole Lewandowski, instead choosing to lose him on a free transfer next summer. They brought in Sokratis to add cover in defence with Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang in the more advanced roles. The latter scored a hat-trick on his debut and adds immense pace to the Dortmund attack. Mkhitaryan is not only a goal threat but is considered one of Europe’s most exciting up and coming players.
Champion – Dortmund
Rest of the Top 4 – Bayern Munich, Schalke, Leverkusen
Bottom 3 – Braunschweig, Augsburg, Frankfurt
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Hamburg to break into top 6 finally
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Max Kruse & Son
Juventus finally brought in the striker they had been aiming for the past couple of seasons. In fact, they purchased two this summer. Fernando Llorente and Carlos Teves. On paper they have all the credentials to form a lethal partnership but the team has not gelled as quickly as one would have expected in pre-season. Question marks already hang over Llorente’s long-term future at the club. As a new season begins, a lot of pundits are tying Juve’s chances with Andrea Pirlo’s form and ability at the winter stage of his career. That is also what Milan fans are being driven by. They expect Pirlo to wane sooner rather than later and allow their side to close the gap. The most interesting project seems to be the one at Napoli. Rafa Benitez has a winning track record however tactically it will be a lot of work to get things smoothed out quickly as Napoli aim to successfully convert a back 3 to a back 4. Question marks exist over Maggio and Zuniga’s ability to slot into full back positions. However, the most exciting signing of the summer is at the other end for Napoli. Gonzalo Higuain is Europe’s most lethal finisher and he will help the Naples faithful forget the name of Edinson Cavani sooner rather than later. If Benitez is successful expect Napoli to push Juventus as close as they have been pushed in recent years. Inter Milan continue their rebuilding phase under Walter Mazzarri. It remains to be seen whether they can get back into the Champions League positions this summer, as the top 3 are likely to remain the same top 3 of the past season.
Champion – Milan
Rest of the Top 3 – Juventus, Napoli
Bottom 3 – Sassuolo, Verona, Chievo
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Fiorentina
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Martens
As Euro 2012 dawns upon us, football supporters, analysts, and commentators have undertaken months of preparations in order to get ready for the tournament in Poland/Ukraine. Getting accustomed to pronunciations and playing backgrounds is just a couple of aspects that needed attention. Whilst players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Mario Balotelli and Frank Ribery are established enough to expect them to star at the event, each country has a group of players who have quietly made enough noise to be highlighted by football connoisseurs but maybe not by the couch football fan. We’re going to highlight one such player from each team in order to keep an eye out for during Euro 2012.
Ivan Perisic (Croatia)
The Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder is only 23 years old and has made a solid start to his first season with the reigning two-time German champions, scoring 7 goals in a Bundesliga campaign where he found himself making an impact off-the-bench more than he would have liked. Perisic gives options across the midfield and is likely to find himself playing a similar role that he has been accustomed to with his club during the past season. What he does offer though is goals. He has scored over 31 goals during the last two club campaigns in Belgium and Germany.
Petr Jiracek (Czech Republic)
Already an established international midfielder, he is seen as the current hope of the generation after the golden one that had emerged in Czech Republic. Now 26, he made his international debut in September 2011, and scored a vital goal in the Euro 2012 play-offs against Montenegro. Wolfsburg pounced to sign him during the January transfer window as it was expected that his value would soar with an impressive tournament in Poland/Ukraine.
Andreas Bjelland (Denmark)
A strong center back who finished the season playing in Denmark’s Superliga with Nordsjaelland, he has signed on to join Twente after Euro 2012. He is yet another potential star who has already been scouted adequately enough and moved to a new club before the tournament has kicked a ball. Bjelland has displaced Simon Kjaer as the likely partner for Daniel Agger, such has been his progress during the past 18 months. At a push, he is also able to fill in at full back as well as central midfield. He scored his first international goal against Australia in a recent friendly in June.
Danny Welbeck (England)
The Manchester United striker impressed Sir Alex Ferguson during a loan spell at Sunderland in the 2010/11 season. That ensured his position in the first team for United during the recently completed campaign. He is usually praised for his team-work and off-the-ball movement more so than his goal-scoring prowess. He scored 12 goals in 40 matches for his club in all competition and netted his first international goal against Belgium during England’s final friendly before Euro 2012. He is expected to lead the line during Wayne Rooney’s absence through suspension.
Mathieu Debuchy (France)
The Lille full back has emerged as a consistent and sometimes spectacular player in Ligue 1 during recent seasons. He does pitch in with a few goals from right back and has already scored his first international goal recently. He is expected to start for Laurent Blanc’s side against England in Bacary Sagna’s absence. Nevertheless, it had been speculated that Debuchy may have displaced Sagna as first choice right back before the Arsenal defender’s unfortunate injury. He has been scouted by Manchester United during the past season.
Mats Hummels (Germany)
The former Bayern Munich reject has emerged as one of the leading central defenders in European football during the past two seasons. Forming a solid center back partnership with Nevan Subotic at club level, he has been unable to dispose either of Per Mertesacker or Holger Badstuber at international level yet, even though calls are increasing for his inclusion. In terms of overall attributes, he is arguably a better player than either of those two but his lack of international experience has counted against him. Whilst he is expected to start as 3rd choice center back, if he is to get a lucky break and come onto the pitch, expect him to take the opportunity with both hands. Currently rated in the €15m range.
Ioannis Fetfatzidis (Greece)
The miniature midfielder is adept in an attacking role or a place on the wings. He has been playing a central role for Olympiacos during the past two league campaigns. Calls for his inclusion in the Greece starting line-up have been increasing. He already has 3 goals to his name for his country. Nevertheless, he may have to be satisfied with a place on the bench initially, but watch out for his introduction. He faced a similar growth hormone deficiency as Leo Messi.
Claudio Marchisio (Italy)
The Juventus midfielder is known for his goals from midfield. He has consistently improved his tally season on season and finished the recent campaign with 9 goals in Serie A. He is expected to play next to Danielle De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo in central midfield and will be the one Prandelli looks for in making late runs into the box. He will aim to add to his solitary international goal to date.
Ibrahim Afellay (Holland)
Even though Afellay, known as Ibi to his club team-mates, is playing for one of the best club sides around, he has slipped under the radar, so to speak, during the past two seasons. Having joined in hype from PSV Eindhoven, he enjoyed a quiet first 6 months at Barcelona before being ruled out for the majority of the 2011/12 campaign through injury. That may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Oranje fans and Bert van Maarwijk alike. Afellay has looked fresh and hungry during recent friendlies and has cemented a place in the starting line-up at the likely expense of Dirk Kuyt.
Ludovic Obraniak (Poland)
The French-born Polish international was a Ligue 1 winner with Lille before joining Bordeaux. He is an attacking midfielder who can play on the wings too, although he lacks blistering pace. He has always scored goals at every level and already has 5 goals in twenty-odd internationals. He will be a key creative force for Poland during Euro 2012 and his set piece acumen may be key in deciding how far the Poles can progress.
Nelson Oliveira (Portugal)
The young Benfica striker is seen as the most naturally gifted striker to come through the ranks of his country for decades. One of Portugal’s biggest downfalls during the past 20 years has been the lack of a truly world class finisher. Whilst Oliveira is not at that level yet, there is no doubt with his natural instincts for goal-scoring, he may have a good chance at breaking that hoodoo. He is likely to start as a back-up option but with the pressure Paulo Bento is under in the “Group of Death”, Oliveira may find himself on the pitch sooner than he would have imagined.
James McClean (Ireland)
The Sunderland winger has been the wildcard entry into Ireland’s squad. Trapattoni largely stayed loyal to the core of players that helped his side qualify but it was too difficult to neglect McClean’s emergence during the last 5 months of the season. The Italian has tried McClean at left wing during his international debut in May and it is likely that he will provide an option on either wing off the bench.
Roman Shirokov (Russia)
The 30 year old Zenit central midfielder can play as a holding player, deep-lying player or in central defence, although it is likely that he will play in midfield for Russia as he has done throughout his career. What he offers is late runs into the box and an eye for goal. He recently scored 2 goals against Italy in an international friendly in Zurich. As the Russian strikers may have trouble scoring too many goals, it is likely that their progress may depend on players like Shirokov popping up with important goals.
Jordi Alba (Spain)
One of the last truly “unknown” quantities in the Spain national side. The Valencia left-sided player is on Barcelona’s shopping list and is expected to join them later this summer. He is currently valued circa €15m and offers surging runs from a full back position. His defensive capabilities are better than one would expect for someone of his stature and size. He is equally adept at playing on the left wing. He is seen as the long-term replacement for Joan Capdevila at international level.
Ola Toivonen (Sweden)
The Finish-born PSV Eindhoven striker is seen as one of Sweden’s main goal threats. He scored the winner against Holland in the Euro 2012 qualifier which effectively sealed Sweden’s spot in the tournament. It is likely that he will start for his country giving captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic a freer, deeper, play-making role in the side. He has scored 35 goals during his 3 years at PSV.
Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)
The left-footed Dynamo Kiev forward is one his nation’s main goal-threats during Euro 2012. He is able to play a more withdrawn role too. His international scoring record is impressive with 8 goals in 20 matches although he has not scored during his past few games. With the problems Oleh Blokhin is facing with selection in goal, it is likely that players like Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka may have to play at their full potential if Ukraine is to progress from the group stages.
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