MARCH 3, 2016
International club soccer, unlike most professional sports in the U.S, is a very predictable sport. Before the season started, most would have predicted Barcelona to be atop the La Liga table (they would be right). Those same experts likely had Bayern Munich and PSG in 1st place in their respective leagues (right again). For the most part, the historically great teams (Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, etc.) typically come out on top at the end of the season. Additionally, one can typically predict the top players in each league (Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga, Eden Hazard in the Premier League, Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Ligue 1, etc.), as they belong to the top clubs in the world making the headlines. However, every season there are surprises that not even the greatest soccer experts could have seen coming. These are the ten biggest surprises (in no particular) of the 2015/16 European soccer season (so far).
10. Chinese Club Spending Sprees
While there is no doubt that the MLS (Major League Soccer) is a growing league with no shortage of quality players, it is still a major cut below the top leagues in Europe like the Premier League of England, the Bundesliga of Germany, and La Liga of Spain. Similar in quality to the MLS is the Chinese Super League, which was founded just 12 years ago in 2004 (Flowers). Like the MLS, the Chinese Super League is a young soccer league looking for big names to sign and improve the league. Recently, the MLS has signed a number of big name players (Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Kaka, etc.), but these players are largely considered to be past their primes.
The Chinese Super League, however, has signed a number of in-prime, well known players seemingly overnight. This past transfer window, Brazilians Alex Teixeira and Ramires both signed from FC Shakhtar and Chelsea respectively for Chinese Clubs (transfermarkt). Jackson Martinez, former striker for club Atletico Madrid also left a top European club for a spot on a Chinese Super League Club (transfermarkt).
So, why are these players, mostly in the prime of their careers, leaving teams and leagues with much better quality in favor of a league still in its infancy?Money. Unlike the MLS, the Chinese Super League has no restrictions on the money they can spend for player salaries and transfer acquisitions. The players coming from the more respected leagues are doing so for a massive paycheck much larger than what they would be making at even the top clubs in Europe.
9. Juventus’ Winning Streak
Since 2012, Juventus has won the Serie A Title four years in a row (SkySports), but that doesn’t mean the Italian team lacks any surprises. After 2014/15 season, Juventus leading scorer Carlos Tevez elected to leave the club in favor of hometown Boca Juniors in Argentina (Gladwell). Typically when a team loses their leading scorer, they experience a drop off in production as teams must find new ways to score. Since November of last year, that drop-off hasn’t happened for Juventus. Through 27 games, Juventus find themselves atop the table once again with 61 points. However, it was not long ago when Juventus found themselves struggling to find victories in Italy. Way back in October, sitting at 9th in the Serie A table, Juventus only had four wins in 11 games (Stratto). What would come next would surprise soccer pundits around the world. Starting with a 2-1 victory over Torino on Halloween, Juventus would go on an improbable win streak of 15 games spanning almost four months.
So what changed for The Old Lady? Goals; and a lot of them. Strikers Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata eventually began to account for the goal scoring absence left by Carlos Tevez. By the time the streak had reached 13 games, Juventus had supplanted themselves back on top of the Serie A table (Stratto).
When the streak was finally snapped on February 19th, 2016 against Bologna (a draw), Juventus had a winning streak good for 2nd all time in Italian soccer history (Rzouki). We all know Juventus is a very good team; we didn’t know that they were capable of such an incredible win streak.
8. Tottenham Hotspur Vying for a Premier League Title
For the most part, the 20 clubs in the Premier League can be easily placed into tiers according to historical and recent success. The first tier, containing the best English sides, includes Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Liverpool. The second tier, which varies from season to season, holds the teams that typically fill out the middle of the Premier League table (Everton, Southampton, Stoke City, Swansea City, and West Ham). And then there’s Tottenham. In recent years, the North London club has found themselves just outside the elite group of teams typically vying for the Premier League Title and Champions League spots. Since the 2012/13 season, Tottenham have finished 5th, 6th, and 6th in the table, just barely failing to secure a place in the prestigious Champions League (Premier League).
This season, however, is completely different for the Lilywhites; for the first time in the post-1992 Premier League era, Tottenham is second in the standings in the second half of the season (AP). Just three points off the top of the table in the Premier League, Mauricio Pochettino’s side have a chance to take home the top prize if they can continue their dazzling form.
7. Chelsea’s Meteoric Fall and Jose Mourinho’s Firing
Last season, the title race in the Premier League was never in doubt, with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side easily taking home the title with 87 points, 9 points clear of 2nd place (Premier League). With an almost identical roster returning for the 2015/16, many pundits predicted much of the same for the ever-spending London team.
Come December, however, Chelsea found themselves in 14th place (out of 20) scrambling for answers (Premier League). And as the snowy month drew to a close and Chelsea making no improvements (now 16th), Chelsea’s front office elected to fire manager Jose Mourinho after only 16 games (BBC). Now in March, Chelsea find themselves up to 8th place in the BPL table and steadily making ground on their atrocious start (Premier League). Although unlikely Chelsea make up enough ground to finish in the top 4 to qualify for the Champions League, a Euro League qualification may be within their reach if they can maintain their recent form.
6. Luis Suarez as the Top Scorer (and Assister) in La Liga
There is little doubt that Luis Suarez is one of the best strikers in the world right now, but few predicted his immense production with FC Barcelona this season. With 25 games played, the Uruguayan talisman has 25 goals and 11 assists (WhoScored); the highest total for both categories in La Liga. In a league with Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and fellow teammate Lionel Messi, the Pichichi Trophy, which goes to the league’s top scorer, has been won by either of those two for the past six years (Espangol). Will Luis Suarez continue his goal scoring and mark the end for the two footballing giants’ grasp atop the Pichichi record book? It is beginning to look more and more likely for the Blaugrana striker.
5. Leicester City’s Unlikely Title Run
Two years ago the Leicester City Foxes were in The Football League Championship, one division below the Premier League. After being promoted to the top flight for the 2014/15 season, Leicester City found themselves in last place of the table in December (Premier League). As the months went on, it began to look more and more likely that the Foxes would be relegated back to the The Football League Championship and in turn back to irrelevancy. Going into April, Leicester only had four league wins to their name, but after beating West Ham United 2-1 on April 4th, Leicester would make a complete 180 and start an incredible run that saw them finish six points clear of the relegation zone (Corless).
Since April, Leicester haven’t looked back. The 2015/16 season has seen Leicester rise all the way to the top of the Premier League thanks to the help from an incredibly in-form squad full of formerly unheralded players. Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kanté, and Jamie Vardy were virtually unknown at the start of the season. Now, however, those three are household names leading a legitimate push for the Premier League title.
Just how surprising would Leicester City’s League Title be? Since 1995, only four teams can lay claim to the Premier League Title: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City (Premier League). If Leicester can maintain its position, it will be one of the greatest seasons witnessed in the English Premier League.
4. Rafa Benitez’ Firing Mid-Season
Real Madrid is the richest sports team in the world (Forbes), continually competing for both La Liga and Champions League titles (almost always with rival FC Barcelona). Chairman Florentino Perez has shown in the past: if you’re not winning silverware, changes will be made. Last season, coming off of a Champions League title victory over fellow La Liga outfit Atletico Madrid, expectations were extremely high for the Galaticos. Real Madrid’s season started off strong with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the way alongside forwards Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. However, soon after Ronaldo won the Ballon D’Or in January, Real Madrid’s season seemed to take a turn for the worst. In the end, Real Madrid failed to win any silverware in the 2014/15 season, losing to Juventus in the Champions League semifinal and Barcelona in the La Liga title race (SkySports).
With Real Madrid failing to meet the immense expectations put forth by Perez, manager Carlo Ancelotti was fired in favor of ex-Napoli manager Rafa Benitez. This season, much like Madrid’s tail end of last season, Rafa Benitez’s side failed to impress. At the end of December, Real Madrid found themselves 3rd in the La Liga table failing to put up the goal scoring numbers their fans are accustomed to (Sky Sports). On January 4th, 2016, after just seven months in charge, Rafa Benitez was fired (Wood). With only 18 games managed, Rafa Benitez had very little time to truly influence the Spanish giants. Perhaps if Benitez had been given one full season as manager, the board could have made a more informed decision about the future of the club. Replaced by former Real Madrid player Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid has still not looked like its capable self.
3. Jamie Vardy: Premier League Top Scorer
Jamie Vardy, striker for Leicester City, turned 29 this January, much older than the average breakout star in the Premier League. Before joining Leicester in 2012, Vardy spent many years playing in England’s lower divisions, and although the Englishmen put together a number of great seasons, he never gained the attention of the top clubs in Europe (Shergold). After signing for Leicester City, Vardy finally had his chance, becoming an integral member of the team and leading them to a promotion to the Premier League during the 2013/14 season.
Now in year two of the Premier League, Jamie Vardy is on fire. Having scored 19 goals this season, Vardy is well on his way to the Premier League scoring title (WhoScored). The greatest feat accomplished by Vardy this season, however, was his streak of consecutive games with a goal. On November 28th, 2015, against Manchester United, Jamie Vardy recorded his 11th consecutive game with a goal, breaking former Manchester United striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s elusive record (Morgan).
Much like Leicester City’s assertion atop the Premier League, no one saw Jamie Vardy’s meteoric rise in European soccer. Just four years ago, Jamie Vardy was playing in the fifth division of English soccer, now he is the leading scorer in Europe’s most competitive division.
2. Eden Hazard’s Scoring Drought
Chelsea forward Eden Hazard has experienced a downfall as impactful and surprising as Jamie Vardy’s rise. Last season, in the Premier League, Eden Hazard finished the season with 14 goals and 9 assists, coming away with the Premier League Player of the Year Award (WhoScored). This season has been a completely different story. With 28 games played this season, Eden Hazard has yet to register a goal, a distressing statistic for the 25 year old Belgian. Eden Hazard’s disappointing season can be directly linked with Chelsea’s performance thus far in the Premier League. As mentioned, current title holders Chelsea F.C. were near the relegation zone just a few months ago (Premier League). If Chelsea are to make a resurgence and attain a Champions League position, Eden Hazard will need to start banging in some goals.
1. Sepp Blatter Resigns as FIFA President
If you have seen any news regarding FIFA in the past year, it is likely not positive. Known for being one of the most corrupt institutions in the world, FIFA was investigated on corruption charges by the FBI during the summer of 2015 (Gibson).
If you want to learn more about FIFA’s unbelievable corruption, watch comedian John Oliver’s segment here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlJEt2KU33I
From 1998 to 2016, Sepp Blatter of Switzerland served as FIFA’s president. In 2015, even during the FBI’s investigation into FIFA, Blatter ran for his fifth consecutive term as FIFA president (Gibson), eventually winning against Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein (who the United States voted for). Throughout the FBI’s investigation, Blatter denied any and all accusations about bribes, tampering, and general corruption, but would later be suspended by FIFA during the ongoing investigation.
The general soccer population knew of Blatter’s corruption, few however, thought he would actually step down as the president of FIFA (The 133 nations that supported Blatter were mostly poor countries who greatly benefited from the wealth distribution put forth by FIFA). Nevertheless, amid numerous investigations, on June 2nd, 2015, Sepp Blatter resigned as president of FIFA (BBC Sport). Moreover, on February 26th, 2016, FIFA’s ethics committee banned Blatter from soccer for six years (BBC Sport).
With Blatter’s banishment from soccer, perhaps FIFA can get back on the right track and become a more fair and just institution. New FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, vows to put football first (ESPN FC); how true to that statement will Infantino be? Time will only tell.
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