European Football

Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance…

AC Milan

Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto?

I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may not be the most stylistically pleasing to watch in Italy, they can still score some goals, and their team spirit makes them an easy team to root for. Plus, they are full of talent. Zlatan is the obvious one, but they really have talent in every position. Ante Rebić, Alessio Romagnoli, Gigio Dommarumma, Ismaël Bennacer, Sandro Tonali, Franck Kessié, Jens Petter Hauge, the list goes on. They are definitely talented enough to win the Scudetto, especially in midfield, and Stefano Pioli deserves more attention and praise for the job he is doing. Plus, Milan look to be fairly active in the January window, with Strasbourg youngster Mohamed Simakan at the top of their list. An already talented team could be adding more young, promising talent, forming a team that could be contenders in Serie A for years to come. Milan are on their way back.

Manchester United

In a similar theme to Milan, are Manchester United back? Are they going to win the Premier League title this season?

Again, I have no idea, but I am interested to see what happens. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been under pressure as a manager, but he has now seemingly figured out how to get the most out of the talent at his disposal. United are clearly very talented, revolving around the talismanic Bruno Fernandes in midfield. Their other stars have had good seasons, with Marcus Rashford in particular impressing on and off the pitch. They have also gotten good performances out of role players, including the likes of Scott McTominay and Eric Bailly. Right now, their entire team is seemingly playing with confidence and are in good form, helping them start 2021 joint-top of the table. My one caveat with this team is their great run of form has come against mid-to-lower-mid table teams, not truly being tested in the league outside of forgettable draws against Man City and Chelsea. Their European form was also questionable, losing to PSG and RB Leipzig to get knocked out of the Champions League. Things can change quickly in football, though, and the match at Anfield in two weeks will be a great barometer to see where this United team are at. With Liverpool’s current slip ups, that match at Anfield becomes the biggest of the season so far, with United being fully in the thick of the title race alongside Liverpool and Manchester City should they leave Merseyside with all three points.

Even if they do not win the league this season, I do feel this United team are a right winger, defensive midfielder, and center back away from being serious contenders on the domestic and European stage. They will likely be busy this summer, and they will be a team to keep tabs on for the 2021-2022 season. Like I said before with Milan, Manchester United are on the right track.

Everton

We have just finished year one of the Carlo Ancelotti project at Everton, and despite some inconsistencies in form, as well as a rather dismal loss to West Ham on New Year’s Day, the Toffees still find themselves within reach of the top four after an incredibly hectic festive fixtures run and being without several major players. Ancelotti has done incredible work in just one year on Merseyside, but they are still not a team that will shatter the world this season. It is entirely possible that Everton finish in the top four this season, but I do not believe it will happen. Top six is likely, but that is not the reason why they should have your attention.

Especially if they get European football for next season, they will likely be active in the summer transfer window. Given how successful they were in the last window, attracting talents such as James Rodríguez, Abdoulaye Doucouré, and Allan Marques to the club, it is going to be interesting to see who else Ancelotti and Marcel Brands, the club’s sporting director, are able to bring in. I imagine they will be one of the teams that are able to take advantage of the potential talent exodus from Ligue 1, mentioned previously in this series when discussing players such as Sven Botman and Renato Sanches. Brands is known for being able to make smart, financially sound moves for hidden gem talents, so this window could be the perfect opportunity to put that reputation to the test. It is apparent that Everton have the man at the helm needed to lead their project, and as he gets more time and more windows to build his team, it is possible that Everton could improve and truly become the team that gatecrashes into the “Big Six”. It is very possible that the Toffees could look a bit different, and a whole lot better, just 365 days from now.

Southampton

Here is your feel good story for this year.

Fresh off of their 1-0 win at Anfield yesterday, I think it is safe to say that Saints have earned themselves some admirers this season. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s redemption arc at Southampton, and in his managerial career in general, is something quite remarkable. His reaction at the full time whistle against Liverpool says quite a bit. Unable to hold back the tears, he likely remembered his early struggles with Unterhaching and VfR Aalen, the rocky and rather cutthroat end to his time in Leipzig, the fears of losing his job on the South Coast after the infamous 9-0 game against Leicester, all of the struggles he overcame to reach the point where he can stand on the Anfield turf, having been victorious over a man he was often compared to. And he can look at his players, a group that bought into his philosophy and coaching despite the struggles and fears of relegation or his firing. Truly a heartwarming moment.

Hasenhüttl has demonstrated that he is one of the most, if not the most, underrated managers in the Premier League. The job he has done at Southampton is nothing short of remarkable. And the team he has assembled is not half bad either. It is a group of veteran players, many who were often overlooked or discarded at bigger sides but managed to find form and confidence under the management of the Austrian. Alex McCarthy, Ryan Bertrand, Stuart Armstrong, Danny Ings, Oriol Romeu, and Theo Walcott are just among the names that have found a second life at Southampton. There is even a solid set of younger, promising players in this team as well, including the likes of Che Adams, Kyle Walker-Peters, Moussa Djenepo, Ibrahima Diallo, and Jan Bednarek. Saints are still flying high, technically only four points off the top but, in more realistic aims, well within reach of a European place. On paper, you do not fancy this team’s chances of finishing in the top six places.

But they could. They really could. And if they did, that would be one of the best stories of the year.

Paris Saint-Germain

The Mauricio Pochettino era is about to begin in Paris. Having just been announced and made official, the ex-Tottenham manager looks to be returning to the club he once captained to become their next manager. This instantly becomes possibly the most interesting project in European football. He inherits an obviously talented team, one including two of the best players in the world, but one that has had a rocky season and currently is in the midst of a serious title race, something the club has not been accustomed to over the last few years.

In the short term, Pochettino’s project will be repairing the obvious deficiencies in this team in order to get them back on track and retaining their league title. They might do so by making some moves in January, with the club being linked with two of Poch’s former players in Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. The club has also made it clear that new contracts for Kylian Mbappé and Neymar are also major priorities. Obviously, though, he was brought in with the long-term aim of winning the Champions League. They made the final last season, coming within touching distance of the trophy they have long desired, but there is still work to be done to make PSG a true consistent European contender. Managerial expertise and ability to handle big situations has been something PSG has lacked on the European stage, with last season’s Final disappointment joining a long list of PSG failures in Europe under Thomas Tuchel, Unai Emery, and Laurent Blanc. Pochettino is a manager who, while he has very little in the way of silverware to his name, has managed in the big moments before, famously guiding Tottenham to the Champions League Final two years ago. It is this expertise and reputation that brought him to Paris.

In the meantime, he has some interesting decisions to make. How do they fix this midfield? Will he buck previous trends and trust their youth team? Do they make Moise Kean’s loan deal permanent? What happens with Neymar? With Mbappé? With Di María? With Icardi? Can they actually bring Lionel Messi to the club? Plenty of interesting possibilities are on the table, and it will be interesting to see what Poch is able to do with this team.

Italy

You have heard it here first: Italy have quietly assembled one of the most balanced national teams in Europe. They should be considered a dark horse contender for the Euros this summer, and I would not be surprised if they go far in the tournament.

People seem to have forgotten all about the Azzurri, though to be fair, failing to qualify for a World Cup does have that effect. After the disaster in 2018, the national team began their rebuilding process under new manager Roberto Mancini. While not the most famed and alluring coaching candidate, and with many wanting the return of Antonio Conte, Mancini has done a great job instilling a sense of discipline and team spirit back into the team, two things that was vacated under the fairly negative and somewhat toxic management of Gian Pieo Ventura. He also got the team attacking and scoring goals again, something that was also lacking under Ventura. Mancini’s time in charge also coincided with the rise of a new generation of Italian stars, one that makes up a substantial part of this team. And man, some of these players are quite exciting.

This is what brings this team balance. Not only do they have a great blend of youth and experience, but it is spread throughout the team and not just concentrated in a few positions. Leonardo Bonucci, Francesco Acerbi, and Alessandro Florenzi are veteran players in the heart of defense joined by the younger and potentially-future Italy captain Alessio Romagnoli. The delayed Euros could allow prodigal winger Nicolò Zaniolo to return fit in time for the competition, joining what could be a terrifying attacking front three with Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne. Should he not be fit for the competition, then no problem. Domenico Berardi, Federico Chiesa, and Vincenzo Grifo can fill in. Their midfield is probably the most remarkable part of their entire team. Marco Verratti has been a fixture in the Azzurri midfield for years now, and Jorginho has joined recently and has stuck. Verratti is having a fine season, but Jorginho is struggling for form. Who could they bring in to join Verratti if Jorginho cannot go? Well, they could use Inter’s Nicolò Barella, or Roma’s Lorenzo Pelligrini, or Milan’s Sandro Tonali, or Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli, or Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli, or Udinese’s Rolando Mandragora. The options in depth is remarkable, especially in an area of the pitch that is so crucial in winning the slower, more methodical style of match played on the international stage. And they go into the Euros with the added bonus that most of their crucial players are in good form. Immobile is scoring goals for fun, Insigne is back at his dynamic best. Romagnoli and Donnarumma have been solid. There are a number of very good midfielders they can use who are in great form. Even players once on the fringe of the national team, including Moise Kean, Davide Calabria, Mattia Zaccagni, and Leonardo Spinazzola, are in fine form, offering even more options for Mancini.

I am telling you, Italy are dangerous. I would not be shocked at all if they went far in the Euros, and even if they do not succeed this summer, keep them in mind for the World Cup next year.

Bayer Leverkusen

Home to Florian Wirtz, the main future star talent we highlighted a few days ago, Bayer Leverkusen have assembled a high-octane attacking team that, when they are at their best, are a joy to watch.

Leverkusen are seemingly the “other” team that has found themselves in the middle of Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig’s title fight. Sitting currently in third and only five points off first, they are most definitely in the hunt. While they are not the favorite, they are a dangerous team that could have their say in who brings home the title this season. They are the joint-second highest scorers in the Bundesliga through 14 matches, and they have the young talent needed to possibly not be weighed down by pressure and expectation when it comes to chasing down Bayern. They also find themselves in the Round of 32 in the Europa League, and with the talent in this team, I would not be surprised to see them go deeper into the competition.

And what about that talent? Well, there is a lot of it, a nice mix of youth and experience. Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz is not short of experience in working with younger players, coming from his time at Ajax and Dortmund, and this team is no different. We talked about Wirtz earlier in this series, but the rest of their attack includes the 21-year-old Moussa Diaby, 23 year old Jamaican forward Leon Bailey, and 24 year old Czech striker Patrik Schick. They are young talents to watch elsewhere in the team, including 22 year old midfielder Exequiel Palacios and 21 year old center back Edmond Tapsoba. Combining this with the experience from the likes of Lukáš Hrádecky, Charles Aránguiz, and Lucas Alario, and you find a very balanced and exciting team, with the youthful dynamism to be dangerous and the experience to be composed in big situations. Definitely fun to watch for the style of play and goals, but worth sticking around to see if they make some noise near the end of the season.

Real Sociedad

And finally, another team to watch purely because they are fun. Like Leverkusen, Real Sociedad are one to watch for those who want to see goals.

La Real started the year off in scintillating form, climbing to the top of the La Liga table while being the league’s top scoring team. Their form has tailed off recently, but they still go into 2021 in third place and only eight points off the top of the table. It is possible they can still contend for the title this season, but I do not believe they will. This does not mean they are not a team to watch, however, as they are, like Leverkusen, an incredibly entertaining side with plenty of young talent to keep an eye on. Imanol Alguacil has a team with a good blend of experience and youth, but they are a team that is fully committed to attacking and scoring goals. Despite losing Martin Ødegaard after last season, David Silva has arrived from Manchester City and showed that there is still magic in his left foot, taking up the role vacated by the Norwegian and performing very well. Mikel Oyarzabal is continuing to show why he is one of the top rising stars in La Liga, on pace to put together arguably his best year as a professional and captaining his boyhood club. In midfield, Mikel Merino and Igor Zubeldia form a strong partnership, with Merino in particular being one of the more impressive midfielders in the league over the last year. Alexander Isak has put his struggles at Dortmund behind him and is showing why he is such a special talent, and the emergence of young winger Ander Barrenetxea has given Sociedad another young, dynamic danger man to call on.

They may not win the league, and while they will likely win the Copa Del Rey Final against Athletic Bilbao (which was supposed to be last season but will likely be played sometime in 2021), they may not win anything else of note this season. However, still watch them. They are just such a fun team. Everyone needs to keep a tab of a few teams to watch just to see goals and attacking football. In the past, it has been Pep’s Barcelona or Klopp’s Dortmund and Liverpool or Sarri’s Napoli. Now, I am telling you, it is Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen this season. Keep an eye on them this year.

Those are just a few teams to keep an eye on this year among the major domestic leagues and the Euros this summer. In the final part of this series, we will talk about some of the biggest stories and sagas that will develop over the year that you should keep an eye on. Who knows, maybe it will be something that seriously impacts the team you support?

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