Monday, February 26, 2024
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Europe’s surprises: From Aston Villa chasing Man City and Arsenal to Girona tied with Real Madrid and more

European soccer has thrown up a number of interesting stories so far this season and few are more interesting than the team currently taking everybody by surprise in the top five leagues. The makeup of the continental power rankings is currently changing again with UEFA’s coefficient seeing France rise back into the top five ahead of the Netherlands, after improved showings across the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League. However, will any of these five seemingly over-performing sides actually end up finishing where they currently rank now?

We take a look at the teams from England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France who deserve credit for their strong form so far this campaign.

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Italy: Bologna

Currently seventh in Serie A and just two points behind fourth place and a potential Champions League berth is Thiago Motta’s Bologna side. With just two losses all season and the third best defensive record in the Italian topflight, the Rossoblu are unexpected contenders for a potential European berth by the end of this term. Only Inter and Juventus are tighter at the back than Motta’s men, who have only conceded 11 goals all season. Bologna’s underlying numbers also support their strong run of form. Their expected goal difference on the season is 3.56, seventh best in the league, but less than half an xG behind AC Milan and Atalanta. Strip out penalties and Bologna look even better, jumping ahead of Milan. Unsurprisingly, the former Italy international has already attracted interest from some big names across Europe after making his name as a tactician with Genoa and then Spezia. His arrival at Stadio Renato Dall’Ara has coincided with steady progress since 2022, so expect to hear more about Motta the head coach regardless of whether or not Bologna qualify for UEFA competition.

Germany: Stuttgart

Sitting third in the German Bundesliga and five points clear of Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League places is a surprise name: Stuttgart. Equally, five points behind leaders Bayer Leverkusen despite Bayern Munich’s game in hand, Sebastian Hoeness has taken last season’s 16th place finish in an 18-team league which required relegation playoff success over Hamburger SV and turned it into an impressive campaign with 10 league wins so far, a total which is only bettered by Xabi Alonso’s Werkself and otherwise equaled only by Bayern. In Serhou Guirassy, Stuttgart have one of Europe’s standout performers with 16 goals which is just two shy of Harry Kane’s leading total of 18 and that is despite an untimely injury for the Guinea international. Dortmund and VfL Wolfsburg are the only other two teams to have won the Bundesliga — aside from perennial champions Bayern — since Stuttgart’s 2007 success. Could this be another unheralded triumph for Die Schwaben?

France: Nice

Unbeaten until this past weekend’s unexpected loss away at FC Nantes, Francesco Farioli has Les Aiglons flying high in France just four points behind Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain in second place. Although the young Italian’s side are far from prolific, they are incredibly tight defensively and have conceded just five goals all season long, which is the best defensive record across Europe’s top five major leagues at a time when France is making a return to the top group of the European table, ahead of the Netherlands. Nice are unlikely to keep up with PSG, but a Champions League spot should not be ruled out if this form continues.

England: Aston Villa

Unai Emery’s men currently sit fourth in the Premier League, but that position could look even prettier by the end of the week given that Manchester City and Arsenal both visit Birmingham this week in a massive doubleheader of big games. Four points off of top spot, only Pep Guardiola’s men have scored more goals than the Villans’ tally of 33 with Ollie Watkins one of the EPL’s top performers across both goals (eight) and assists (six) for a direct goals contribution of 14. Only Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah have more total xG than the Villa strike’s 8.08 on the season. Villa might not be watertight defensively, but factor in the long-term losses of Tyrone Mings and Emiliano Buendia to injury since the start of the season as well as playing in Europe for the first time in over a decade, and Emery’s side are coping marvelously well so far. More on the Spaniard’s impact shortly…

Spain: Girona

First to Spain, though, where Girona have stunned everybody to sit level on points at the top of La Liga with Real Madrid with 38. The City Football Group club has lost just once all season in the league and scored more goals than anybody else with 34. Interestingly, those goals and assists are so spread out over the entire team that there is no one outstanding individual which bodes well in terms of keeping this incredible run going. However, Girona’s defense has shipped twice as many goals (18) as Real’s (nine) which suggests that there could come a moment when the Catalan outfit are outstripped — at least as far as the title race goes. Qualification for a European competition for a side which finished midtable last season would be an extremely impressive achievement, especially ahead of the likes of a Barcelona or an Atletico Madrid. The stats certainly support that possibility. Their non-penalty xG per match of 0.63 trails only Spain’s traditional big three of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid.

Who is most likely to stick at the top

Picking one single team from this band of five, though, brings us back to Villa and Emery. Ahead of the visits of City and Arsenal to Villa Park, the Birmingham-based club has a huge opportunity to truly enter not only the race for a Champions League spot, but tentatively the title race. It sounds crazy to suggest, but the numbers back this position up — Emery’s Villa have racked up 78 Premier League points since the Spaniard’s arrival back in late October of 2022. Only Arsenal and Manchester City have more points per game than Villa’s 2.0 over that stretch. Although Villa will need more than just victories against the likes of City and Arsenal to truly compete for top spot in the Premier League over the second half of this season, the reality is that they are knocking on the door right now. Four points or better this week could even position them top of the pile heading towards the tricky Christmas period, which will be especially testing for a Villa squad already thin in certain areas and dependent upon Watkins’ goals and assists going forward. Despite that, there is no denying that Villa and Emery have earned their current lofty position through an incredible turnaround in form since Steven Gerrard’s departure which ranks as one of the most stunning transformations of team form in recent EPL history.

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