Football Features

Early ‘fallen giants’ frontrunners for each of Europe’s top five leagues

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:04, 22 September 2021 | Updated: 15:00, 29 September 2021


The landscape is changing across Europe’s top five leagues this campaign.

Around Europe, footballing giants (by which we mean both on historical merit and based on recent successes) are falling off their perches. It’s business as usual in some leagues, but there is a script-defying feel to some of the continent’s top-flight tables. The general consensus is that these struggling heavyweights will pick up eventually, but for now the crisis klaxons are raising their decibel levels.

So, who are these struggling giants trying to get to grips with the new campaign? Read on below.

Juventus

Division: Serie A
Current standing: 18th

Juventus ruled Serie A before the Calciopoli scandal, then after a brief sojourn in Serie B they went right back to ruling Serie A, with nine titles won in a row, including one “invincible” season. Juve were unstoppable. Until suddenly, Inter stopped them last season.

The mishmash nature of their squad and the sheer number of mediocre players that the club continue to tolerate saw them finally drop the title last season, and then… they lost Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer. That move could have been liberating but it appears to have damned Juve, who are currently 18th and winless in Serie A this season, and looking like a side at sixes and sevens under what should have been the reassuring tactics of a familiar face in Max Allegri.

One can’t see them winning Serie A this season or for the foreseeable future if they keep going as they are.

Barcelona

Division: La Liga
Current standing: 8th

Barca are relatively new to the status of a fallen giant, in that since 2004 they have basically been one of the three biggest clubs in world football for one reason or another (first because of Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi, then Pep Guardiola and Messi, and then just Messi). They’ve won 10 out of 18 available league titles since then, but now Messi is gone, and they haven’t won La Liga in two years, and don’t look like winning it this year.

Barca are in decent health, really. Their new president is slowly rebuilding the club’s finances; the squad has more absurd young talent than almost any other club around; and they are only really lacking a great coach and an elite goalscorer to be truly competitive again.

Of course, the issue is that Barcelona have Ronald Koeman as coach and the goalscorers they signed this summer were the ghost of Sergio Aguero and Luuk de Jong. Moreover, they got battered 3-0 by Bayern Munich recently with the Bavarians rarely having to get out of first gear. So, look, it’s gonna be a lean year or two for the Blaugrana.

And the pressure appears to be getting to an under-fire Koeman, who refused to answer questions in his latest Barca press conference ahead of the club’s trip to Cadiz on Thursday night. He simply read out a brief statement, which urged for patience from the fans.

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Koeman said: “We count on your support in these difficult times. The club with me as a coach is in a situation of rebuilding.

“The financial situation of the club is connected to the sporting activities and vice-versa. This means we have to rebuild the team without being able to make any big financial investments. This needs time.

“We must ask for patience.”

Of course, as we know, patience is a commodity very rarely afforded to struggling coaches in an obsessively results-driven industry, so the pressure on Thursday night for Koeman is monumental.

Arsenal

Division: Premier League
Current standing: 8th

Granted Arsenal have been on a steep decline for some time now, perhaps best underlined by the fact they missed out on European football this season owing to an eighth-placed finish in the Premier League last term. They’re eighth as things stand, so it’s not so much a ‘giant’ plummeting, as a ‘giant’ plateauing.

But, having spent more money in the summer than any club in the division (around £130m worth of talent), and given their general status as a traditional ‘Big Six’ side, last season’s ‘blip’ felt like it was going to be just that: a ‘blip’. However, they are now in dangerous territory of turning an anomaly into normality if they don’t pick up soon.

It would be almost unthinkable for Arsenal to miss out on European football for consecutive seasons, a predicament bordering on the impossible only three years ago when Arsene Wenger was still at the helm, but a sluggish start in terms of points, coupled with some very abject, almost pedestrian displays, has just made that nightmarish possibility move closer to reality, unless Arteta can turn the tide.

 

RB Leipzig

Division: Bundesliga
Current standing: 12th

This is a relative bit of felled gigantism, as there is only one giant in German football and they’re not going to fall anytime soon. But Leipzig have the financial clout to emerge as rivals to Bayern’s shadow, and for a while it looked like they may do just that — but they never quite managed to actually win the title.

Then this past summer Bayern Munich signed their manager (Julian Nagelsmann), their best defender (Dayot Upamecano) and their captain (Marcel Sabitzer), cutting them off at the knees just as Bayern have done to every other opponent who rises to challenge their Bundesliga supremacy. The result? Leipzig are 12th in the league with just one win to their name. They’ve already lost three times and in truth it’s hard to see them mounting a credible challenge this season, so thoroughly have Bayern salted their earth.

Lille

Division: Ligue 1
Last league title: 15th

When Lille famously won the Ligue 1 title in 2011 the core of their group stayed on at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy. Rudi Garcia remained at the helm, Eden Hazard stuck around for another season before moving to Chelsea, while fresh talent was added in Dimitri Payet and Lucas Digne. The result: a respectable third-placed finish the following campaign.

This time around? Lille’s squad has been completely pillaged and ransacked by Europe’s covetous elite. Mike Maignan has joined Milan to succeed Gianluigi Donnarumma, Leicester picked up midfield fulcrum Boubakary Soumare, and even the manager called it a day, with Christophe Galtier joining Nice.

With the revolving door in full motion, that instability both in the dugout and on the pitch has culminated in a tumultuous start for Les Dogues, with now-manager Jocelyn Gourvennec overseeing just one win to leave the French champions languishing precariously outside the relegation zone by a single point.