Champions League-chasing Atalanta and Getafe among Europe's biggest overperformers

Matt Jones 16/05/2019
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Getafe have a chance at qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history.

The dust is just about settling on an enthralling 2018/19 season across Europe – and there’s been plenty of highs and lows for clubs and individuals.

Manchester City and Liverpool played out an epic battle for the Premier League crown in England, while Borussia Dortmund went toe to toe with Bavarian behemoths Bayern Munich in Germany, even though it looks like they’ll come up just short.

Juventus proved their enduring class in Italy where they will hoist a record-extending eighth Scudetto. Likewise in France, Paris Saint-Germain lifted a sixth league crown in the last seven years. Meanwhile, in Spain, Barcelona also continued their recent dominance by winning an eighth La Liga title in the last 11 years.

But while there is much to celebrate in terms of title successes, what about teams that have surpassed all expectations? Maybe by finishing higher than anyone thought possible, qualifying for Europe or completely flipping their fortunes?

We pick out our top five overperformers from Europe’s top five leagues.

ATALANTA

Gian Piero Gasperini has worked a miracle at Atalanta.

Gian Piero Gasperini has worked a miracle at Atalanta.

High up in the hills of northern Italy, there is a story unfolding this season that – if realised – will seem taller than the mountainous Alps in which the city of Bergamo is situated.

However, it is very real, as the city’s Atalanta football side sit perched on the cusp of true greatness. A maiden campaign of elite cross-continent football beckons next season as La Dea (the Goddess) dare to dream of a first brush with the Champions League.

One more victory from their remaining two games – admittedly they face a tall task in Turin this Sunday as they travel to Serie A champions Juventus – will likely be enough for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side to claim fourth spot and send them into the Champions League. At the expense of national giants AC Milan, Roma and Lazio.

They finished fourth two seasons ago when it came with a Europa League berth – an end to a 27-year European drought was exciting enough. But this would mean so much more.

Gasperini’s side are Italy’s great entertainers. No-one has scored more goals (73) – not even Juve. But only Roma (47) have conceded more than their 44 in the top eight.

The sky is the limit.

GETAFE

Getafe head coach Jose Bordalas has steered his side onto the cusp of the Champions League.

Getafe head coach Jose Bordalas has steered his side onto the cusp of the Champions League.

Another epic story is being told in Spain this season, where Getafe go into the final day of the La Liga campaign needing to better the result of Valencia in order to make a maiden Champions League appearance.

It would bring European football to the Coliseum Alfonso Perez for just the third time after featuring in the Europa League in 2010/11 and its predecessor the UEFA Cup three years earlier.

It would be the biggest chapter yet to be written in the history of a fledgling club that is only 35-years-old, founded in 1983 beneath the shadows of mighty Madrid neighbours Real and Atletico.

Jose Bordalas’ Azulones (Deep Blues) have lost only nine games this season – two fewer than Los Blancos – and conceded one less goal than champions Barcelona.

They are tied with Valencia on 58 points in a tussle for the final Champions League spot that could not be more tense ahead of the final day.

WOLVES

Wolves

Two of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ four previous Premier League campaigns ended with them finishing 20th and going straight back down – their other two visits yielded finishes of 15th and 17th.

On the last occasion that happened in 2011/12 they followed it up with successive relegations, to League 1.

Wolves have had to claw and scratch their way back to England’s top table in the ensuing five years. How fitting then that a blistering return to the top-flight in 2018/19 might yet end in Europa League qualification.

Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have taken four points from home and away meetings with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea this season, as well as beaten Tottenham and drawn with champions Manchester City.

They have played a bold and brilliant counter-attacking style that many giants have been unable to trample – they even beat United and Liverpool on their way to the FA Cup semi-finals.

Wolves have shown plenty of bite and they will be howling at the moon with delight should City complete a domestic treble and beat Watford at Wembley on Saturday.

LILLE

Lille

Amid all the hype – but mostly boredom – surrounding Paris Saint-Germain and their dominance of Ligue 1, many more interesting storylines often go unheard.

Take Lille for example. They’ve led a fairly mediocre existence since lifting their fifth French title eight years ago. 2010/11 ended a 57-year title drought – but since then the powerful Parisiens have lifted six trophies in eight years.

So bad had the malaise become for Lille, that they finished fourth from bottom and narrowly avoided facing a relegation play-off with the third-placed team in the second tier last year, finishing a point ahead of Toulouse.

Christophe Galtier, in his first full season in charge, has transformed the Great Danes – driving them to 34 more points than a year ago and firing them 15 places up the league table to second, and back into the Champions League, courtesy of the league’s best defensive record.

BORUSSIA MONCHENGLADBACH

Dieter Hecking

It seems strange now that Gladbach announced in early April they would not be extending manager Dieter Hecking’s contract, considering he has brought them to the cusp of Champions League qualification after two below par ninth-placed league finishes.

True, Die Fohlen (The Foals) need to beat Borussia Dortmund – who have an outside chance of winning the league title – on the Bundesliga’s final day on Saturday in order to return to Europe’s top table. But the fact they are even fighting for just a fourth shot at Champions League participation in its 27-year history is remarkable.

Alassane Plea’s arrival from Nice last summer has paid off with 12 Bundesliga goals, while the younger Hazard brother, Thorgan, continues to shine, with 10 assists.

The hierarchy made the Hecking call when the club briefly slipped out of the top four for the first time since September in April. If he ends up leading them into the Champions League next season, it could prove a poor one.

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Man United and Real Madrid feature in Europe's biggest underperformers in 2018/19

Matt Jones 15/05/2019
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The dust is just about settling on an enthralling 2018/19 season across Europe – and there’s been plenty of highs and lows for clubs and individuals.

Manchester City and Liverpool played out an epic battle for the Premier League crown in England, while Borussia Dortmund went toe to toe with Bavarian behemoths Bayern Munich in Germany, even though it looks like they’ll come up just short.

Juventus proved their enduring class in Italy, where they will hoist a record-extending eighth Scudetto. Likewise, in France, where Paris Saint-Germain lifted a sixth league crown in the last seven years. Meanwhile, in Spain, Barcelona also continued their recent dominance by winning an eighth La Liga title in the last 11 years.

But while there is much to celebrate, there are also plenty of shaking heads too. Just who has disappointed the most this term. We pick out our top five underperformers from Europe’s top five leagues.

MANCHESTER UNITED

WHAT. A. MESS. You might well have thought United had been slowly stumbling toward a painful demise ever since the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

But in 2018/19 that decline rapidly accelerated. Things looked bleak in pre-season when, on the cusp of his dreaded third year in charge – the point at which disaster sets in at all his other clubs – Jose Mourinho appeared to be writing this season off before it had started.

He criticised the World Cup, a lack of transfer activity, youngsters he’d picked for the summer tour of America and even Anthony Martial’s new-born baby as things he was irked by.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in after Mourinho was eventually jettisoned in December and corrected the ship – the Norwegian’s run of 14 wins and just one defeat in his first 17 games was arguably the brightest period since Fergie retired.

But a tumultuous end to the campaign has brought to light just how much of a shambles the club is really in. Ole’s at the wheel, but can he steer the club off its current course towards utter disaster?

REAL MADRID

Zinedine Zidane is back at the Santiago Bernabeu, but he has his work cut out.

Zinedine Zidane is back at the Santiago Bernabeu, but he has his work cut out.

Another big club in a Real mess. Barcelona’s continued dominance of La Liga masks the increasing fragility of an aging squad, which was brutally exposed by Liverpool in the Champions League semi-finals. And yet, despite how much the Blaugrana have regressed, Los Blancos remain on course to finish more points adrift of their great rivals than the 17 (they are currently 18 behind) they trailed behind a year ago.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the superhuman glue that somehow held this creaking ship together over the last three seasons but, with him gone, Real have sunk completely.

The ugliness of Julen Lopetegui’s exit from the national team job to take over from Zinedine Zidane didn’t bode well. And, after he was dispensed with, it became clear Santiago Solari was just a stop-gap. Even the fanfare over Zidane’s return quickly dissipated as he’s overseen just five wins in 10 games.

Karim Benzema has been the sole shining light in a season during which even ‘old faithful’, the Champions League, couldn’t save them, as the old masters were blown away by Ajax’s young guns.

SCHALKE

Domenico Tedesco and Schalke sunk after a memorable 2017/18 campaign.

Domenico Tedesco and Schalke sunk after a memorable 2017/18 campaign.

Schalke have had a shocker. After hitting the heady heights of second in the Bundesliga a year ago, it’s been a season of struggle for the Gelsenkirchen-based club.

Rookie Italian coach Domenico Tedesco was revered in Germany’s North Rhine district when he led Schalke to runners-up spot behind Bayern Munich and the semi-finals of the DFB Pokal in his first season. But he was sacked in March following an 10-2 aggregate defeat to Manchester City in the Champions League round of 16.

From second, Schalke have unfathomably slipped to relegation contenders. They’ll avoid the ignominy of a relegation play-off as they’re five points clear of 16th-placed Stuttgart with a game to go. But, currently 15th, they’ve never finished lower than 14th in the 28 seasons they’ve featured in Germany’s top-flight.

REAL BETIS

Quique Setien has endured a poor second half of the season at Betis.

Quique Setien has endured a poor second half of the season at Betis.

Quique Setien was being primed for a Barcelona blazer when his Betis side blew the Blaugrana away with a virtuoso display at the Camp Nou back in November.

A 4-3 triumph had vibrant Los Verdiblancos riding high in La Liga and the Benito Villamarin faithful dreaming of an even more glorious campaign than the one Setien led them to in 2017/18, when they finished sixth and qualified for the Europa League.

Hopes were high that Setien’s stylish play could land them just a second bite at the Champions League in the club’s history, and first in 13 years. But after that brilliant Barca display, their season has taken a bizarre twist, victorious in just nine of their ensuing 25 league games.

They’re 13 points worse off than a year ago and are likely to finish 10th, while they crashed out of Europe at the last 32 stage to Rennes despite condemning AC Milan to a Europa League group stage exit.

FULHAM

Claudio Ranieri was sacked in February after just three wins in 16 games.

Claudio Ranieri was sacked in February after just three wins in 16 games.

A little harsh to put Fulham here for going straight back down after only gaining Premier League promotion a year ago?

Maybe, maybe not. Simply being relegated is not why they feature.

The Cottagers spent a huge amount of cash last summer in order to set up home in England’s elite. But they struggled to settle from the off and many of their eye-catching acquisitions were flops – while they ended their campaign with former player Scott Parker as their third manager of the season.

Incredibly, Fulham were the third-highest Premier League spenders last summer, forking out £105.3m – becoming the first newly-promoted club to smash the £100m mark in a window.

They outspent the likes of United, City and Arsenal and yet failed to get out of the relegation zone after they were put there following a 4-2 defeat at Cardiff on October 20.

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Wonderkids: It's time to call Trent Alexander-Arnold the best right-back on the planet

Chris Bailey 13/05/2019
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A player who can lay claim to being the world’s best in his particular trade, and a few more who have the potential to be right up there all feature in the latest edition of Weekend Wonderkids.

The aim of this weekly column is to shed light on the players, aged 21 or under across Europe’s top five leagues, who aspire to lead the game into a bold new era.

The likes of Kylian Mbappe, Marcus Rashford and Ousmane Dembele are sure to regularly pop up but as every week passes, we hope to sift out a few starlets who may have gone unnoticed.

Without further ado, here’s our five picks from this weekend’s action.

Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) Age: 20 Position: RB

Key stat: 12 – record EPL assists for defender after 2-0 win v Wolves

If you were starting a new team from scratch and had the pick of any player in world football, is there any doubt who you’d select at right-back?

The thing with Trent is that he’s not just a full-back. The 20-year-old seemingly spends as much time in the attacking third as he does deep in his own half, while his routine switches of play over to partner-in-crime Andy Robertson out on the left casts him as a playmaker as much as anything else.

Against Wolves, both these aspects combined. It was his speed of thought that saw him set up a one-two with Jordan Henderson as he bombed on before picking out Sadio Mane in the middle.

Liverpool may have finished second to Manchester City in the title race, but Trent at least has the make-up of a serial winner.

Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen) Age: 19 Position: CM

Key stat: 7 – goals in nine games as winger after 1-1 draw v Schalke

Here’s another stat for you. Even though Kai Havertz has been playing on the right of a 4-3-3 for the best part of three months, in each of his last three matches he has attained more than a 90 per cent pass completion rate.

A traditional touchline hugger he certainly isn’t, but it speaks for how influential he is having taken nearly as many touches (86) as the central playmaker Julian Brandt (87) against Schalke.

His nominal position change has allowed Leverkusen to become a little more rugged in midfield with usual right winger Karim Bellarabi out of action.

The 19-year-old certainly likes to drift in, but it’s no surprise he is finding joy there – he has the complete arsenal for a modern footballer. He is 6ft1 with lightning feet, has the vision of an architect and has reached a top speed of 21.76 mph this year. The German can evidently score goals too, lashing home his 14th of the Bundesliga season on Saturday.

What a guy.

Ander Barrenetxea (Real Sociedad) Age: 17 Position: LW

Key stat: 1 – first goal of his career in 3-1 win over Real Madrid

There can’t be many 17-year-olds to have scored against Real Madrid before, yet Ander Barrenetxea’s exploits went relatively unnoticed during the weekend.

Much of the focus was of course on Real Madrid’s demise – but onlookers may have been fooled by the fact that Barrenetxea looks like a fully grown man.

The Basque, who became the first player born in the 21st century to play in La Liga last year, is also pretty mature between the ears.

His simple passes back in the build-up for two goals – when he could have run at a defence weakened by the red card to Jesus Vallejo – deserves as much applause as his six successful dribbles.

Then came his crowning moment, smartly tucking away a rebound for his first-ever senior goal. Real Sociedad have a talent on their hands.

Louis Beyer (Borussia Monchengladbach) Age: 18 Position: RB

Key stat: 7 – successful tackles in 4-0 win v Nurnberg

The Bundesliga’s answer to the Premier League’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka? Louis Beyer has been remarkably sturdy whenever he has appeared for Gladbach this season.

It was nowhere more evident than at Nurnberg on the weekend, where the 18-year-old made a pressure-relieving seven successful tackles, as well as three interceptions.

In only his second appearance of the season, with Gladbach have recently reverted to a 4-4-2, the teenager has capitalised on recent injury problems for the experienced right-sided option in Michael Lang.

Houssem Aouar (Lyon) Age: 20 Position: CM

Key stat: 87% – Ligue 1 pass success rate for season after 3-0 win v Marseille

It was one of the goals of the weekend. Houssem Aouar extricated himself from the clutches of two Marseille players and found Tanguy Ndombele, whose outrageous flick reached Moussa Dembele in the box – and the ball proceeded to arc into the net.

That no one would bat an eyelid if the trio don’t play for France speaks for how deep the talent runs in those parts. All have been linked with moves abroad, and Aouar’s link to Liverpool makes the most sense.

If Liverpool lack anything it is genuine creativity from midfield and the 20-year-old is Adam Lallana at his peak – and then some.

Ingenuity, high work ethic – as he has shown in a two-man midfield – and a certain craftiness on the move, as exhibited again in Lyon’s trouncing of Marseille, mark him out as a name to watch in the transfer window.

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