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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European Teams of the Week: Roma top, Man City close behind, while Milan and Borussia Dortmund also make cut

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Roma pulled off a crucial win against Juventus.

The only thing in football more contentious than a dubious refereeing decision is a rankings system.

There are plenty of them out there – though many are deliberately divisive – but given the tribal nature of football they do drum up some interesting debates among supporters.

We’re going to add our twist to the list. Each week we pick out the 10 best teams from Europe’s top-five leagues (minus cup competitions).

It’s not cumulative, the rankings is based on a team’s performance in that particular game week.

So, who makes the top-10 this week? Check out below.

1. Roma (beat Juventus 2-0)

Milan and Atalanta had already won by the time Roma took to the field on Sunday night – and Claudio Ranieri’s side had the toughest task of all, hosting champions Juventus. The returning manager’s defensive tactics have brought a mixed reaction from the Roma faithful but they worked perfectly at the Stadio Olimpico on this occasion, and vindication could have arrived sooner had first-half chances been taken. Instead it took until the 79th minute, but after Roma had soaked up some pressure from Juventus, Alessandro Florenzi, captaining the side, found the back of the net – minutes after he had seemingly been mocked by Cristiano Ronaldo for his lack of height – and Edin Dzeko sealed the points in injury time to ensure they stayed in the hunt for a Champions League spot.

2. Man City (beat Brighton 4-1)

The title was slipping away. Liverpool scored at Anfield to take the lead in the as it stands table, then Manchester City conceded a shock opener to Brighton and it seemed like the twists and turns of a dramatic title race were set to claim Pep Guardiola’s side as their final victim. What followed was typical City, however. Sergio Aguero levelled the scores almost instantly, Aymeric Laporte put his side back in the driver’s seat before half-time, and the second half ended up being a procession as club-record signing Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan both scored wonderful goals to seal the title. 100 points last season, 98 points this, it’s been a remarkable two-year spell from City and they show no signs of slowing down.

3. Lyon (beat Marseille 3-0)

This was the toughest assignment left for Lyon in their bid for a top-three finish in Ligue 1, and the Champions League spot that comes with it. Saint-Etienne had lost earlier in the weekend to give Bruno Genesio’s side the advantage in the race and they didn’t waste the opportunity. Maxwell Cornet opened the scoring in the first half and after Marseille went down to 10 men, Lyon held all the cards and they duly wrapped up the win, with Moussa Dembele scoring and Cornet grabbing a second, to go four points clear of Etienne with two games to play.

4. Atalanta (beat Genoa 2-1)

Atalanta’s dream of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history remains on track. The side, which has thrilled Italy in recent years with their promotion of youth and free-flowing football, are three points ahead of nearest challengers AC Milan after a 2-1 win over Genoa. Gian Piero Gasperini’s team have been guilty of not taking their chances in recent games but on Saturday they did just enough, scoring two goals in seven minutes after half-time through Musa Barrow and Timothy Castagne before holding on. The result vaulted Atalanta into third place prior to Inter Milan’s game on Monday night, ahead of a momentous week for the club: on Wednesday they play Lazio in the Coppa Italia final, before facing Juventus on Sunday in their last major hurdle in the top-four race.

5. Real Sociedad (beat Real Madrid 3-1)

Zinedine Zidane may believe that Real Madrid‘s performance didn’t deserve a loss, but for Real Sociedad this was a worthy win. They bounced back from conceding an early goal, and ended the game with more possession (55 percent – 45 percent), more passes (535 – 452), better passing accuracy (85 percent – 82 percent), and far more shots (19-7) and shots on target (6-2). Mikel Merino, Joseba Zaldua, and Ander Barranetxea scored for the hosts, who are still in with a shot of qualifying for the Europa League. They need to win next weekend against Espanyol and hope Athletic Bilbao lose to Sevilla.

6. Milan (beat Fiorentina 1-0)

Fiorentina away is never an easy game and for a team which had lost three of their last 10, a run of form that saw Milan’s top-four hopes fade while they also lost the Coppa Italia semi-final, this was a crucial result. Hakan Calhanoglu’s goal sees Gennaro Gattuso’s men stay within three points of Atalanta, and they’ve closed the gap on Inter as well to just one point, though their derby rivals will play later on Monday. That all-important Champions League qualification remains up for grabs.

7. Borussia Dortmund (beat Fortuna Dusseldorf 3-2)

A topsy-turvy day in Germany saw the title race stay alive for one more week. Borussia Dortmund, as has become their norm, dominated but nearly threw the game away against Fortuna Dusseldorf. Christian Pulisic opened the scoring on his final home game for the club, but Dusseldorf equalised and then, after Thomas Delaney put Dortmund back in front and Mario Gotze grabbed an injury-time goal to seemingly seal the points. The visitors – by this point down to ten men – got one back and nearly found an equaliser that would have handed the title to Bayern Munich. But Dortmund held on and now go into their final game, against Borussia Monchengladbach, needing a win and a Bayern loss to win the Bundesliga.

8. Cardiff City (beat Manchester United 2-0)

It’s been a poor end to the season for Manchester United, but a relegated side showing up to Old Trafford and winning comfortably? Cardiff’s victory, courtesy of two goals from Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, was perhaps made even sweeter because it came against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, their manager when they were last relegated from the Premier League. It’s one of the biggest results in the Welsh club’s history.

9. RB Leipzig (drew with Bayern Munich 0-0)

That the title race isn’t over in Germany has a lot to do with Bayern’s own stumbles, but it’s hard to classify this particular result as one. Third-place Leipzig on their home turf were always going to be tough opponents and they had their chances to beat the Bundesliga leaders, who might feel hard-done by when an incredibly tight offside call went against them, courtesy of VAR, when it looked liked Leon Goretzka had given them the goal that sealed the title. But Leipzig fought tooth and nail against the top-placed side, as one would expect, and ensured a nervous, dramatic finale to the season is still possible in Germany.

10. Stuttgart (beat Wolfsburg 3-0)

Nursing a six-point lead over Hannover for the dubious honour of playing in a relegation playoff rather than heading down to 2. Bundesliga automatically, Stuttgart needed a win to be mathematically safe from that possibility. But with a Wolfsburg side chasing a Champions League spot coming to town, there was a danger that this particular race could also come down to the final day. Instead, Stuttgart pulled off a stunning 3-0 win. They saw far less of the ball but matched Wolfsburg for chances, sealing their spot in the playoff.

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