With the break in international play now in the books, the European football leagues are set to resume play this weekend.
While still early in the season, the top contenders are at or near the top of their respective tables. However, a closer look finds some storied clubs woefully underperforming. For some, however, there is reason for optimism.
Olympique de Marseille- Founded in 1899, Marseille has spent almost their entire time in the top tier of French football. With a strong fan base and a newly-renovated Stade Velodrome holding over 67.000 supporters, they have produced some of the finest players in France. Financially, the club has consistently ranked among the top 20 teams globally in terms of overall revenue. However, the last few seasons has seen a drop in table rankings from Les Olympiens, declining to 13th place in Ligue 1 by May, 2016. Their current campaign finds Marseille mired in 14th place after eight matches. A closer look finds that the team problem revolves around their current ownership. After the death of majority owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus in 2009, the team found itself in a downward spiral under the control of his widow Margarita. She has appointed seven different managers since then, creating a lack of team continuity. However, the team has finally been sold to Frank McCourt, former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. While Mr. McCourt has acknowledged his lack of football guise, he has also said that he intends to provide the resources to propel Marseille to a top flight club. Based upon the current crop of players on the squad and stable field management, look for Les Olympiens to regain their prominence in Ligue 1 in short order.
Valencia CF– Finishing mid-table last season, it is almost shocking to see Valencia currently languishing in the relegation zone of La Liga. Currently their only two wins have coming against newly-promoted teams. Los Che has a solid starting 11, beginning with goalkeeper Diego Alves, who was courted by Barcelona in the off-season. Anchoring their defense is former Real Madrid fullback Ezequiel Garay, with Portuguese international Nani in the midfield and a talented group of forwards. What has held this club back? With Pako Ayesteran being replaced by veteran manager Cesare Prandelli earlier this month, owner Peter Lim has changed managers nine times since 2012. With Prandelli having been at the helm of several Serie A teams as well as the Azzurri, expectations are high that Los Che will find themselves mid-table when the winter transfer window opens and at least among the top five teams in La Liga at the end of the current campaign.
VfL Wolfsburg- With 18 teams currently competing in the Bundesliga, one would not expect Wolfsburg to be only three points out of the relegation zone. While not quite ready to compete with Bayern Munich at the top of the table, one win after six matches is not what we’ve come to expect from Die Wolfe. Their ownership is stable as is their field management, with Dieter Hecking at the helm since 2012. With an overall record of 81-39-42, it is far too early to pull the plug on a veteran manager who has had this level of success. The club has several players who play for the German national team, including striker Mario Gomez and midfielder Julian Draxler. Unlike other teams, however, no corrective needs to be taken. After six matches, their forwards have failed to score a goal, with the team garnering three goals in total. While the team might have to add an additional forward to their starting 11, a talent like Mario Gomez will eventually break his scoring drought and rise Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga table.
A.C. Milan– After finishing their last campaign in 6th place in Serie A, it was believed that the Rossoneri would be near the top of the table this season. While only seven games into the season, the team finds itself in 7th place. While having been patient, the San Siro faithful have been awaiting for a resurgence to their former glory days for several years. Their patience will be further tested for the next six months with defender and team captain Ricardo Montolivo tearing knee ligaments while on international duty for Italy. Yet patience is exactly what will propel AC Milan as a top contender. Recently purchased by Fininvest, a holding company controlled by the Berlusconi family (the former Italian Prime Minister), their financial issues should abate. Their new manager, Vincenzo Montella, has spent his entire playing and managerial career in Serie A and is well versed on what it takes to be a winner in the league. For the Rossoneri, it is only a matter of time before they return to their glory days. Expect to see AC Milan as a top three team by the time the winter transfer window opens.
Aston Villa FC– After 104 seasons competing in the top flight of English football, last season saw this storied club relegated to the Championship division after finishing in 20th spot of the EPL table. The club immediately made plans for promotion back to the EPL by hiring Roberto di Matteo, and Chairman Tony Xia spent over $61 million on new talent over the summer. After garnering one win after ten matches this season. Di Matteo was given his walking papers, the fourth manager released by the Clarets in less than two years. With a talented squad and management willing to invest money and resources in the team, what will turn their fortunes around and make them winners again? Their savior is Steve Bruce, who was just announced as the new man at the helm of Villa. Besides having a wealth of experience managing teams in England, Bruce has also seen Birmingham City and Hull City promoted to top flight English football (twice with each club). With all the other pieces in place, after a sluggish start to their season, expect the Steve Bruce-led club to steadily advance in the standings and enter the four-team playoff picture for the final promotion spot to the EPL next May.