Ligue 1

Premier League money obscures European football’s concerning trend – but these 5 clubs could buck it

Premier League money obscures European football’s concerning trend – but these 5 clubs could buck it

Stuttgart finished ahead of Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga (Getty Images)

It is no secret that one major concern for some of the biggest teams and leagues around Europe – namely the wealth of Premier League clubs – is seen as a blight on the potential for competition, a problematic pox which must be beaten down at all costs.

There were, indeed, reports of some top European sides being in a somewhat celebratory mood when a succession of Premier League teams exited Uefa competitions in the same week earlier this term, the “perceived hubris” of the English top flight brought low by the likes of Bayern Munich, Atalanta, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Madrid.

But, it appears, that neither the Premier League’s finances nor isolated teams succeeding in the latter stages of continental competitions can hide a clear truth which has been shown this season: there’s a woeful lack of jeopardy or excitement at the pinnacle of mainland Europe’s own top leagues.

In Uefa’s top seven ranked divisions, England stands alone not just as having a title race which went to the wire, but in having one which wasn’t done with a minimum of two or three matches to spare.

League/nation

Title-winning team

Margin of victory to second place

Serie A/Italy

Inter Milan

19*

Bundesliga/Germany

Bayer Leverkusen

17

LaLiga/Spain

Real Madrid

12*

Primeira Liga/Portugal

Sporting CP

10

Ligue 1/France

Paris Saint-Germain

9

Eredivisie/Netherlands

PSV Eindhoven

7

Italy and Spain still have a gameweek remaining but little will be decided there beyond the odd place or two – the Champions League places are all sewn up. That is precisely where supporters – and the leagues themselves – may be offered a glimmer of hope. But first and foremost it’s about the chasm between best and the rest.

Even below the title-winners, there is little in the way of ferocious competition in some of those leagues: third to sixth in the Bundesliga were separated by 25 points; in Spain ahead of the final day, five-point gaps separate second to third, third to fourth, fifth to sixth. In Portugal, the gap from second to third is almost as big as that of first to second; in the Netherlands it’s more than twice as big.

Only Turkey’s Super Lig can claim to have some sort of excitement at the top: Galatasaray lead Fenerbahce going into the final day but are three points clear. A draw wins the league for them and they’ve lost only two of 37 so far. Even there, beyond the top two, it’s a humongous 32-point drop down to Trabzonspor in third.

The gap is widening almost everywhere, it seems, and with it goes the frenzy of disruption, the sense of possibility, that supporters generally crave.

And yet, in among the familiar names and repeat (if ultimately futile) challengers for European spots, there are some stand-outs, a handful of surprises.

Perhaps it’s not outrageous to go further: some sides have outperformed themselves to a historic level, a staggering achievement to secure a place in among the finest in the land, making the most of others’ slip-ups but notably improving themselves even further.

In the Premier League, of course, it’s Aston Villa. Unai Emery’s side showed enough consistency to land fourth place ahead of Tottenham, Chelsea, Newcastle and Manchester United, earning themselves a shot at the European Cup for the first time since 1983, when they competed as reigning champions.

Bologna’s players celebrated guaranteeing themselves a Champions League spot after a draw with Juventus (Getty Images)

Around Europe’s top leagues, it’s similar.

Girona will finish third in LaLiga. Brest’s final-day win sealed third place for them in Ligue 1. With one match to go, Thiago Motta’s Bologna side are guaranteed a Champions League spot, regardless of whether they finish third, fourth or fifth in Serie A. And in Germany, Stuttgart produced the biggest overperformance of all, ending the season runners-up behind Bayer Leverkusen – ahead of the mighty Bayern Munich – having finished 16th in the past two Bundesliga seasons.

Of the quintet, only Stuttgart have ever played in the Champions League before, the last time being in 2010.

It will be a new experience for all of them, however, in 2024/25, given the competition’s overhaul and new league system replacing the group stage.

Stuttgart players celebrated with the fans after finishing second (Getty Images)

Perhaps it’s also fair to similarly point out that for each of the big leagues having an improbable face qualifying for Europe, several of them have a massive underperformer too: for Man United finishing eighth, see Marseille in eighth, Ajax in fifth, Napoli in tenth.

Yet maybe that’s as needed in its own way as the surprise names finishing in the top three or four: it prompts readjustment, improvement and eventual challenging again in many cases.

That, after all, is what European football has long thrived on. Multiple winners, multiple teams capable of upsets.

Perhaps some of those surprise inclusions can upset matters even further next year – be it keeping their place domestically or, more probably, impacting the Champions League to the extent that yet another big-name club feels the shock of being overhauled by an unexpected and gleeful set of fans.

Aston Villa fans have been waiting a long time to return to Europe’s top competition (Getty Images)

But beware leaning too far from joy into over-optimistic territory. Union Berlin are a good lesson in this. Fourth in Germany last year, they were almost relegated this term. The adaptation is enormous, the alteration of demands increasingly pronounced – there is more than one reason the same old faces end up qualifying most frequently.

Nonetheless, Girona et al must be embraced, not just for the fact they are potentially fresh opponents who can mix up a tired competition, but because above them it’s getting increasingly stale, increasingly tough to see any new names – or even, as this year has shown, to have any kind of title fight at all.

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