Opinion

Why fresh faces top Europe’s big leagues

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Tottenham Hotspur, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad, AC Milan, Lille. You could have picked up long odds indeed had you placed a bet on these teams being top of the big five European leagues just before Christmas.

There may be a long way to go still but as we reach roughly the one-third stage of the season, league tables have taken shape but they don’t look quite the same as in recent years.

It is a decade since Lille and Milan won the French and Italian titles. For the others, you have to go further back: Real Sociedad last lorded it over Spain in 1982, more than 20 years after Spurs topped England’s league. Leverkusen, well, their nickname of ‘Neverkusen' - one of the best and cruellest in football - tells you all you need to know.

For this year at least, gone are the title processions that have become more common in recent years with Liverpool, Paris St-Germain and Bayern Munich finishing top by a margin of more than ten points.

At least Liverpool had not won for three decades as the winners elsewhere were all boringly familiar. Bayern have won eight out of the last eight, one more than PSG in that time. Juventus have lifted the last nine. That none of the defending champions, often so dominant, are currently in pole position has to be welcomed.

The question is why. To have one or two leagues throwing up surprises is one thing but all five suggests that there is more going on.

Coronavirus obviously plays a big part, just a quick look at the games will show that. Stadiums have been empty or largely empty. The big clubs usually have the biggest crowds and this can be as intimidating for visiting players and referees as it is encouraging for the home team. Take away the fans then you reduce the atmosphere and advantage. Away teams have often been more aggressive and referees, perhaps, a little less influenced by the shouts of 60,000 supporters.

Then there are more games squeezed into a shorter space given that the seasons started later than usual. This would usually help the big clubs with their big squads and star-studded benches but then they also have to compete in the UEFA Champions League. Notably, not one of the five leaders are playing in Europe’s elite competition. They are taking part in the Europa League but the pressures in the second-tier tournament are different - PSG, for example, is desperate to win the Champions League in a way that doesn’t happen with the Europa League - and more scope for rotation and resting of stars.

Then there are certain financial impacts. The COVID outbreak led La Liga to reduce salary costs with Real Madrid seeing their limit reduced by almost 200 million euros. They can still pay more than most but it does level the playing field somewhat.

It is not all about COVID or problems that the big boys may be having. The current leaders have improved. Real Sociedad have a solid defence but recruiting the likes of David Silva from Manchester City has made a difference especially with Mikal Oyarzarbal, the league’s top scorer, in fine form.

Lille, hard to beat and aggressive, have a pleasing blend of youth and experience and if they can keep their squad together, look capable of challenging a PSG distracted by Europe.

Leverkusen are going strong even with missing several players due to COVID and Milan have the mighty Zlatan Ibrahimovic and little pressure on their shoulders.

Spurs have, in Son Heung-min and Harry Kane, probably the most dangerous pairing in football at the moment and have a coach in Jose Mourinho, who knows how to win a title.

There is, of course, still a long way to go. It is entirely possible that none of the five leaders will be lifting the league trophy at the end of the season. It is even possible that all of last year’s champions will bounce back - none of them are a long way off the pace.

But that is far from a given and at least the usual suspects are going to face a challenge and fans around Europe are seeing genuine title races. For the first time in years, as we reach Christmas, it is impossible to say which teams will win any of the big five leagues.