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The Old World's New World Order

by Michael Huguenin on Nov 07, 2011

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*Note stats and table standings in this blog are accurate heading into this weekend just past’s matches

It’s finally over.

Just over 10 rounds into La Liga’s 2011-12 season and the fairytale is over.

In a result that would rarely have garnered a tenth of the interest in other seasons, Levante lost 2-0 to Osasuna last Sunday. The Guardian’s Spanish correspondent, Sid Lowe, summed it up with the statement that La Liga had become “a more boring place”.

“What?” I hear you ask.

“Levante? Never heard of them.”

Well, just hang on; I’ll start at the beginning.

Levante Unión Deportiva is a small club from Valencia. In the last ten seasons Granotes (‘Frogs’ in Spanish) have been promoted three times and relegated twice. In that time, Levante’s highest position in La Liga has been 14th.

But this season Levante has leap-frogged up the table and despite having a bank account, which gathers more dust than dollars, the minnows led La Liga for four weeks in a row thanks to a nine-game unbeaten run.

‘The Frogs’ have been the darlings of Europe. Levante’s squad, a motley crew of veterans and journeymen footballers, injected some much-needed unpredictability into the Spanish league and football pundits around Europe have lapped it up, even if they’ve had no idea who the players are in Levante’s squad. During its unbeaten streak, Levante knocked off Real Madrid, big-spending Málaga and local rivals Villarreal.

Levante’s captain, Sergio Ballesteros, sums up his side perfectly. 36 years old and slightly overweight, the central defender wears his shirt baggy and looks like the kind of guy that waddles around suburban grounds on a Sunday morning, trying to remember past glories as he is torn apart by teenagers. Despite his appearance Ballesteros outsprinted Cristiano Ronaldo in Levante’s 1-0 victory over Madrid and has been a key to his side’s success.

Levante’s manager Juan Ignacio Martinez has assembled a squad of players who know what needs to be done at the top level. Levante’s players may not be sprightly (seven of the starting eleven against Osasuna were in their 30s), but they don’t need to be. Martinez’s men have had the least possession of any team in La Liga this season, but their counter-attack style has worked a treat.

Unfortunately, Levante’s loss to Osasuna means they drop to third behind both Real Madrid and Barcelona. There’s a sense of inevitability that ‘the Frogs’ will slip down the table now to be almost forgotten by the end of the season. But Levante’s brief time at the top, and the reaction it caused, outlines the yearning that European football followers have for unpredictability. La Liga, in particular, has desperately needed something different. You have to go back to the 2003-04 season for the last time neither Barcelona or Real Madrid won the title.

Luckily, this season, there’s been a bit more volatility in the main leagues of Europe.

In England, a lot of the focus has been on Manchester City. Justifiably, the blue half of Manchester has been praised for its stunning start to the season. But to say the Sky Blues are a surprise would be slightly off the mark. You don’t spend the kind of money City has and still be considered dark horses.

Newcastle United’s season, on the other hand, has been unexpected. After losing four key players (Joey Barton, Andy Carroll, Jose Enrique and Kevin Nolan) in the space of 12 months, Newcastle was predicted by many to be around the relegation zone at the end of this season. But the Toon Army has had plenty to be happy about so far. The Magpies are currently third and looking rock solid.

Yes, Newcastle has pedigree, but few would have guessed that this team would be a serious contender for Europe this season. The Magpies are ahead of Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal and look sturdy enough to stick around at the top.

Newcastle’s 3-1 win away to Stoke last Monday night is a result many of the biggest clubs in the Premier League couldn’t manage. Demba Ba was the star, scoring his second hat trick this season, but it is the Toon’s defence that is the biggest strength of this team. Argentine defender Fabricio Coloccini heads the most miserly defence in the Premier League. Newcastle has only conceded seven goals in 10 league matches.

After years of signing under-achievers for too much money (Alan Smith anyone?), Newcastle has suddenly become one of the clever clubs in the transfer market. Ba was a steal on a free transfer plus the likes of Cheik Tioté, Yohan Cabaye and Gabriel Obertan have been class this season and haven’t broken the bank. Cabaye and Obertan add a touch of style to a very well structured side. Whoever’s doing the scouting up north deserves a pay rise.

In Germany, another club with plenty of pedigree that’s back in the upper reaches of the league is Borussia Mönchengladbach. Die Fohlen (‘the Foals’ in German) haven’t won a national title since 1976-77. In the last decade, ‘the Foals’ haven’t finished higher than tenth in the Bundesliga and have been relegated once. Currently, however, they’re fifth and only one point off second spot. Mönchengladbach started the season with five wins in its first seven games (including a first up victory against Bayern in Munich).

Gladbach are one of my favourite teams to watch at the moment. Venezuelan midfielder Juan Arango pulls the strings for a team with plenty of zip and stamina. They genuinely try to play quick football with the ball on the floor. ‘The Foals’ harass their opposition all over the park and when they win the ball back their counter-attacks are like lightning.

The team from the far west of Germany has had injuries to many of its forwards this season so a lot of responsibility has fallen on 22-year-old Marco Reus. The young winger has been brilliant and is really too good for ‘the Foals’. Reus has scored five goals and is already being sized up by Bayern Munich. For Mönchengladbach’s sake, he will hopefully stick around at least till the end of the season.

It’s been a good season for the underdogs in Spain, England and Germany. It’s been a great season as a fan to see shocking results. But maybe the biggest shock of all has been that, in terms of a close competition, the best league in Europe has been Italy’s Serie A. That’s right, the fading star of European football is suddenly interesting again.

After nine rounds, five points separated the top six teams in Italy. Another three clubs were just one point behind sixth-placed Catania. Juventus was on top and exemplify this closeness. The Old Lady was undefeated but has only had five victories.

Juventus’ early season form has many in Europe predicting a return to glory for Serie A’s most successful club. Juve hasn’t won the Scudetto since 2002-03 (their 2004-05 and 2005-06 titles were rescinded following the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal). But under new manager Antonio Conte, Le Zebre (‘the Zebras’ in Italian) could be on their way back to the top.

Juventus spent €87.55 million in the summer but there’s been no teething problems with a new-look side. Juve has beaten both Milanese clubs and scored fifteen goals in its unbeaten run. Against Inter Milan last weekend, Conte started seven of his summer signings in a 2-1 victory. Conte seemingly has a deep enough squad to go all the way. Fabio Quagliarella and Eljero Elia (both signed for over €9 million) stayed on the bench against Inter.

But the biggest surprise in Serie A’s top six is Catania and it’s not like Gli Elefanti (‘the Elephants’ in Italian) have had an easy start to the season. Catania has beaten Inter and Napoli and snagged draws with Juventus and Lazio.

There’s plenty of excitement in the small Sicilian city. The locals are enjoying the way former Roma striker Vincenzo Montella has Catania playing. Montella’s side is developing a reputation as a tough side to beat. It’s not something the Catanesi are used to.

Montella’s side has recovered from being behind in its last five matches to claim nine points (two wins and three draws). ‘The Elephants’ teamwork is clear when you look at who’s putting the ball in the back of the net. Catania has had eight separate goal scorers for a total of 12 goals.

Football in Europe can sometimes be quite predictable. This season, thankfully, has so far been a bit different in Europe’s four major leagues. Hopefully, Levante’s loss to Osasuna isn’t the point where unpredictability stops and routine resumes. Continued success for the likes of Levante, Newcastle, Mönchengladbach and Catania will only make their respective leagues more interesting.