Football Features

The biggest surprise package in each of Europe’s top five leagues right now

By Chris Smith

Published: 10:18, 2 March 2021

Such has been the wild nature of the 2020/21 season so far, we’re seeing a very unfamiliar outlook at the top of Europe’s big five leagues.

Sure, Bayern Munich still lead the way in Germany, and Manchester City have re-established themselves as England’s dominant force, but the likes of Juventus, PSG, Barcelona and Real Madrid have slipped off the pace in their respective leagues.

What’s more, a host of clubs are mounting unexpected yet serious bids for Champions League qualification, going from relegation strugglers to serial point-winners in the space of a season.

So, who are the biggest surprise packages in each of Europe’s top five leagues so far this season? Let’s take a look.

Premier League: West Ham United

2019/20 final position: 16th

Current position: 4th

Top goalscorer: Tomas Soucek (8)

“The season speaks for itself. The way he understands football, he does it perfectly,” Pep Guardiola said of West Ham manager David Moyes recently.

“He has a lot of experience. I dream of one day arriving in this position, where everything is calm. They live like a Buddha life – in good and bad moments they are calm.”

After years of suffering, underperformance and ridicule since leaving Everton, Moyes finally has his career back on track in his second spell at West Ham. The Scotsman helped the Hammers remain in the Premier League with a 16th-placed finish after taking over from Manuel Pellegrini last season, before turning them into genuine contenders for European qualification.

At the time of writing, despite a 2-1 defeat to Man City, West Ham sit in the fourth and final Champions League spot, a point clear of London rivals Chelsea in fifth. That loss to City was just their second in 10 Premier League games since the turn of the year, with the other coming against Liverpool. That means that against teams that haven’t won the title in the past three seasons, West Ham have taken 22 points from a possible 24 this year.

Just as he did during his 11 years at Everton, Moyes is getting the very best out of unfancied players like Jarrod Bowen, Michail Antonio and Tomas Soucek. If the Hammers can maintain their pace until the end of the season, the 57-year-old might well be in the conversation for a first LMA Manager of the Year award since 2009.

Bundesliga: Eintracht Frankfurt

2019/20 final position: 9th

Current position: 4th

Top goalscorer: Andre Silva (19)

Whether they’ve been winning DFB-Pokal titles or challenging for European places in the Bundesliga, Eintracht Frankfurt have been one of the stronger teams in Germany across the past few years. However, the start of the 2020/21 campaign was a small-scale disaster, with the Eagles winning just two of their first 12 Bundesliga games in a run which left them 10th in the table.

But Frankfurt quickly became a force of nature, winning nine and drawing one of their next ten games to climb into the top four before finally succumbing to a 2-1 defeat to Werder Bremen in their last match. During that run, Adi Hutter’s men picked up wins against Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen while always scoring at least two goals per game.

Of course, the form of Andre Silva has been a key factor in their rebound, with the Portugal international netting 19 Bundesliga goals so far. Only Robert Lewandowski (28) has scored more this season, while Silva strung together a remarkable five-game scoring streak.

Frankfurt have a horrendous run of fixtures coming up, including trips to RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund. However, they’ve already stung Bayern this season and will not be intimidated by Bundesliga heavyweights. If Hutter can keep them in the top four, where they currently sit three points clear of Dortmund, that would represent a monumental achievement.

Serie A: AC Milan

2019/20 final position: 6th

Current position: 2nd

Top goalscorer: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (14)

AC Milan may have been knocked off their perch by rivals Inter in recent weeks, but they’re still second in the Serie A table and the fact they’re involved in a title race at all is a, quite frankly, a miracle. Despite being one of the most decorated names in Italian and world football, the Rossoneri are without a Scudetto since 2011 and they haven’t even managed a top-four finish in any of the last seven seasons.

However, against all the odds, Stefano Pioli kept Milan unbeaten across their opening 15 games this season, while they remained top of the table from matchday four until matchday 22. Unfortunately, the seven-time European champions have regressed in recent weeks, losing four of their last nine Serie A games. They have dropped to second in the table, but remain just four points adrift of leaders Inter, while there is a healthy eight-point gap between themselves and Roma just outside the Champions League spots. Given their struggles over the past decade, Champions League qualification must be the priority.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (14 goals) has been rolling back the years this season, with only Cristiano Ronaldo (19) and Romelu Lukaku (18) ahead of him in the Capocannoniere race. Milan team-mate Franck Kessie has eight goals and has established a wonderful double-pivot with Brescia loanee Sandro Tonali, while Davide Calabria and Theo Hernandez offer serious dynamism going forward in wide areas.

Inter are on fire right now and though Juventus are making up ground, a top-four finish and a return to Champions League football would be a landmark achievement for Pioli’s Milan, who are surely due a return to Europe’s biggest stage.

La Liga: Real Betis

2019/20 final position: 15th

Current position: 6th

Top goalscorer: Sergio Canales (7)

While Moyes is working wonders at West Ham, the man he replaced is doing similarly impressive things in Spain with Real Betis. During his 30 games with Los Verdiblancos across all competitions so far, Manuel Pellegrini has picked up 16 wins and lost just 10 times. In the process, he’s taken a club that could only manage a miserable 15th-place finish last season and guided them to sixth at the time of writing.

Sure, Betis have been on the end of a few thumpings, namely 5-2 and 4-0 defeats to Barcelona and Athletic Club, respectively. However, they only serve to skew the stats, with Betis conceding the fourth-highest number of goals (38) in La Liga this season and sporting a goal difference of -5.

Their last three games have been a much better representation of what Betis are all about, with 1-0 wins over Cadiz and Getafe following on from a 2-1 triumph over Villarreal. As a result, the Seville-based club are just two points adrift of an automatic Europa League spot, while the nine points which separate them from local rivals Sevilla could conceivably be cut down.

Betis are fluid, relying on the likes of Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir to run beyond forward Antonio Sanabria, while at the back, Aissa Mandi and Victor Ruiz have long been experts when it comes to possession football. Given the hit Pellegrini’s reputation took at West Ham, guiding Betis from 15th to European qualification would likely rank very highly among the Chilean’s achievements, even considering his well-stocked trophy cabinet.

Ligue 1: RC Lens

2019/20 final position: 2nd (Ligue 2)

Current position: 6th

Top goalscorer: Gael Kakuta (9)

From top goalscorer and former Chelsea prospect Gael Kakuta to ex-Fulham midfielder Seko Fofana, RC Lens really do have a ragtag band of players at their disposal. However, it’s one that earned the club promotion last season, finishing second in Ligue 2, and now they’ve proved they can mix it with the big boys in Ligue 1.

At the time of writing, Lens sit sixth in Ligue 1 and although there is a 13-point gap between themselves and Monaco in fourth, they are level on points with Metz in the Europa League playoff spot.

Middle of the road in terms of goals scored (39) and goals conceded (37), Lens’ most impressive habit this season has been grinding out unlikely draws and going above and beyond to avoid defeat. Only Marseille and Ligue 1’s top four have lost fewer games than Franck Haise’s men (8).

Lining up with three centre-backs and a double-pivot in midfield, Sang et Or‘s squad has a wonderful blend of robust defenders, precise passers and maverick talents in the final third – the most obvious of the latter being Kakuta, who has nine goals and four assists.

Lens haven’t finished in the top half of Ligue 1 or qualified for Europe since 2007, while they’ve only spent just over £17m on transfers across the entire season. Given their second-tier status in 2019/20, what an achievement it would be to haul themselves into fifth and back into the Europa League.

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