The teams that you might not know about but should be watching…
As we go into this 2022/23 season, there are plenty of reasons to be excited for the return of European football at all levels. Several exciting moves and additions to Europe’s biggest teams makes discussions around league titles and Champions League winners incredibly fascinating.
But what about the teams who are flying under the radar? What about those outside of the big brand names? There are still plenty of teams who could make a major splash this season outside of the continent’s big boys, and I am here to tell you all about them. While some big teams like Arsenal, PSG, and Barcelona certainly fit this topic, we will not be talking about them here. These are the teams that might not be getting attention but certainly are deserving of your viewership this season.
Napoli (Serie A)
AS Roma have certainly been the headline grabbers of the summer in Italy. Fresh off of winning the Europa Conference League last season and adding Paulo Dybala to an already talented team, many pegged Mourinho’s Roma as being a major contender for the Scudetto this season. And they still might be, despite injuries to Gini Wijnaldum and Nicolò Zaniolo early in the season, but they are not the only dark horse in Serie A.
We are here to talk about Napoli, who, despite some serious movement in the Summer Market, have piqued my interest.
There has been a major generational change in Naples this summer. With the departures of Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne, and Dries Mertens, the core of the Partenopei side that famously went toe-to-toe with Juventus for the league title in 2017/18 is now gone, with Polish midfielder Piotr Zieliński, Algerian winger Adam Ounas, and Portuguese fullback Mário Rui being the only remaining players of any significance from that team. Add on to this the departure of star midfielder Fabián Ruiz and you might wonder why I am so high on the Neapolitans this season.
Well, they have certainly signed well. Kim Min-Jae is not Koulibaly, at least not yet, but the South Korean is a great young player who will be an immediate impact in the defense when paired with the experienced Amir Rrahmani. The permanent addition of André-Franck Zambo Anguissa along with the new loan of Tanguy Ndombele give them some additional steel and technicality in the midfield, which should fit well with the underrated Zieliński and another year of experience for Stanislav Lobotka and Eljif Elmas. Mathías Olivera gives them an heir-apparent to the now-departed Faouzi Ghoulam at left back.
And the attack, boy the attack looks incredibly potent. Victor Osimhen remains in Naples despite interest from abroad, and the addition of Giovanni Simeone, who scored 17 goals last season for Hellas Verona, gives them a capable foil and extra attacking option at striker. Around the striker, they still have the mercurial but still talented on his day Hirving Lozano and have added Giacomo Raspadori, fresh off of a breakout season at Sassuolo, and Khvicha Kvaratshkelia, the Georgian wonderkid winger who had left Rubin Kazan following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kvaratshkelia in particular has started the season on fire, and the potential front three of Osimhen flanked by some combination of Lozano, Kvaratshkelia, and Raspadori could be among the best in Serie A. Couple all of these moves with the rumored move for experienced goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who could be joining Napoli as part of Fabián Ruiz’s deal with PSG, and you have a team that could certainly contend for a Scudetto this season.
Generational changes can be hard. But at Napoli, they have certainly got themselves a team to enjoy, if not maybe win something as well.
Stade Rennais (Ligue 1)
Rennes were probably the surprise of the season in Ligue 1 last year. Bruno Génésio built an exciting and dynamic attacking team that created plenty of chances and scored plenty of goals, and they were able to ride that attacking power to a fourth place finish and being within touching distance of the Champions League places. This team was incredibly fun to watch last season, and most of the reasons why they were fun are still at the club.
While they lost prodigal striker Mathys Tel to Bayern Munich and defensive leader Nayef Aguerd to West Ham, they did not lose any other key players. Club top scorer Martin Terrier and creative lynchpins Benjamin Bourigeaud and Lovro Majer all remain at the club despite significant interest, and promising youngster Adrien Truffert and club captain Hamari Traoré also remain. Pair this with the additions of experienced goalkeeper Steve Mandanda from Marseille, young promising center back Arthur Theate from Bologna, and prodigal strikers Arnaud Kalimuendo from PSG and Amine Gouiri from Nice, and you have a very capable and balanced team on paper. If they are able to get more consistency in form and health from exciting young wingers Kamaldeen Sulemana and Jérémy Doku, then they have a litany of terrifying attacking options at their disposal.
There are valid concerns of a second season syndrome of sorts for Rennes. It might not be totally realistic to expect that level of goalscoring production from Terrier or that level of phenomenal creativity from Bourigeaud, but this is still an incredibly good team from top to bottom. This is a side that should be finishing in the podium places in France this season, a team that should be expecting to make some noise in Europe and be at least in the Champions League qualifiers for next season. While them pulling a Lille or Monaco and winning the league is asking way too much, this should be a team that shines throughout the season both domestically and in the Europa League and, at a bare minimum, should be incredibly fun to watch.
Benfica (Liga Portugal)
Last season was, to put it bluntly, a terrible, awful, no good, very bad season for Benfica.
While many of us did see their exploits in the Champions League, including their famous 3-0 win over Barcelona in Lisbon and their run to the quarterfinals and their brave but futile exploits against Liverpool, their season domestically was, well, less good. As Águias finished in a dismal third place in the league, 11 points behind second-placed Sporting and SEVENTEEN points behind champions Porto to confirm a third straight season without any sort of silverware. In a league largely dominated by three teams, to finish in third and be that far behind the other two is almost as bad as you can get. To add insult to injury, they had to watch Porto seal, and celebrate, their league triumph with a 1-0 win over Benfica in their own stadium. Porto players and fans celebrating their league title on the lawn and in the stands of the Estádio da Luz is pure salt rubbed into the wounds of all Benfiquistas. It was not a banner year for the Portuguese giants and it did not meet the understandably high expectations of their rightfully demanding fanbase.
The season was bad enough to force major change. Manager Jorge Jesus was sacked shortly after Christmas of 2021, and the lackluster interim tenure of Nélson Veríssimo meant that he was certainly not going to get the job permanently. Instead, in came Roger Schmidt, fresh off of a difficult, inconsistent, but still probably fairly successful stint at PSV Eindhoven and bringing in new ideas for a high-intensity, high-pressing and attacking team.
This has been paired with very strong recruitment in the summer window, adding most notably ex-Ajax winger David Neres, prodigal midfielder Enzo Fernández from River Plate, and workhorse central midfielder Fredrik Aursnes from Feyenoord. Added on to that is the risky but high-potential loan move for creative attacking midfielder Julian Draxler. Despite losing top scorer Darwin Núñez (admittedly for an astronomical fee), Benfica look much better than they did last season. This is a team that should actually contend for the league title in Portugal, and they are certainly a team that could be dangerous in Europe, being drawn into a Champions League group against a very beatable Juventus.
Even beyond the stature of the club, the idea that this team should actually be contending for silverware again, and the individual talent that they have, this team is also fun. Incredibly fun. Schmidt has brought a very intense and fast-paced style, one that you would not normally see espoused by many in Portuguese football. They press aggressively and from the front when they lose the ball, and when they are in possession, they attack quickly and directly. Neres and Rafa Silva bring explosive pace and trickery on the wings providing service for Gonçalo Ramos, who is very quickly becoming Benfica’s next rising star number nine. The midfield always includes some combination of Enzo, Aursnes, Florentino Luis, and João Mário and brings a wonderful combination of technical brilliance and biting grit.
And there are just so many good young player in this team. Enzo Fernández is only 21 and already looks like a potentially world-class talent. Gonçalo Ramos is only 21. Morato, their hulking Brazilian center back, is also only 21. The aforementioned Florentino is 23. Add on their signings of João Victor (24) from Corinthians, Alexander Bah (24) from Slavia Prague, and Petar Musa (24) from Boavista. Even David Neres, despite how long it feels like he has been around, is only 25. And on top of THAT, you have Benfica’s famous academy and well-coached youth teams, with their B team having won the UEFA Youth League last season. From that system we have already seen Henrique Araújo (20) and António Silva (18) make first team appearances and will probably see a few more players before the end of the season.
Benfica are very fun, very dynamic, and very intense. I do not truly know how the rest of the season will go for them, and there is a risk of their hot start to the season leveling off as the fixtures stack up, but this is still a very exciting team on paper and one that could make some serious noise.
Crystal Palace (Premier League)
Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace. Let’s all say it together.
Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace.
Get used to it. You all will have to say it for a while. At least until a bigger club comes and plucks Vieira out of South London, but anyway…
This might be a bit of cheating, as I am writing this on the day of their valiant and hard-fought defeat away to Man City. Håland happens, right? But even in defeat, the match, and Palace’s start to the season in general, is a statement of just how far the Eagles have progressed in just a little over a year of Vieira’s tenure. Yes, one win in their opening four games is not barn-burning by any means, but given that three of those four games were against Arsenal, Liverpool, and Man City, given that one of those three (Liverpool away) was a deserved draw and one (Arsenal home) they could feel fairly unlucky to not have gotten a point from, you can understandably look at this and be very impressed with how Palace are playing and feel that there is serious potential in this team.
And you might not normally think this with Crystal Palace, but you look at this team and you realize that there is quite a bit of talent here. Wilfried Zaha is a given, we all know who he is at this point, but it is no longer just him playing hero ball. There is serious attacking dynamism and untapped potential around Zaha in the form of Ebere Eze and Michael Olise. Despite losing Conor Gallagher, they added steel and technical nous to the midfield in the form of Cheick Doucoure, who signed from Lens and already showing promise. Their defense is almost unexpectedly very solid. Marc Guehi and Joachim Andersen have formed an incredibly strong partnership in central defense, Tyrick Mitchell is one of the most underrated fullbacks in the Premier League, Vicente Guaita is one of the best goalkeepers in the league, and Nathaniel Clyne is, well, he’s at least still a serviceable right back.
And this is all tied together by Vieira, a man who is really coming into his own as a manager. Despite some struggles in France with Nice, he has really grabbed onto this opportunity at Palace and made the most of it. Despite his Arsenal background and connections to Arsène Wenger, Vieira has more Mourinho about him than anything. He is a man with a clearly defined plan, someone who has roles for each of his players and makes sure they understand what exactly he needs from them. He seems very popular among his players and certainly among the fans, and he shares the attention to detail and meticulous coaching style that characterizes Mourinho. He has made a massive impression in his return to England, and I do really think he should have won Premier League Manager of the Season last year. He is building something special at Palace, something that could progress very well the longer he stays.
And that is the thing. This might be the biggest stretch of the teams to watch. I do not think Palace are gatecrashing the top six or anything. Their ceiling is most likely 7th and a cup run, and I do think they need to bring in a right back and/or creative midfielder, ideally this window. They also need more production from their strikers, as French duo Odsonne Edouard and Jean-Philippe Mateta both have not done quite enough to convince that they are the consistent right option. This is more of a “watch over time” sort of thing, and I am very curious to see where Vieira can take the club over the next two to three years.
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Who is finishing in and around those coveted Champions League places… JT: To start with, we all accept who will be finishing in the top two places, right? We all share the collective understanding that City and Liverpool are the two best teams in England, correct? No additional discussion should be needed there. Spurs are…Keep reading