The Cream of The Crop to the slippery slopes – who’s up and down in Europe’s big five?

The big leagues are back and there are storylines aplenty to dig your teeth into; Champions on the slide, newcomers causing chaos and transfers to scratch the head or whet the appetite. 

Each division has genuine competition in it this year, whether that’s for top spot, the Champions League places or the battle to avoid the dreaded drop.

Having seen the early state of play across the continent, I’ve had a go at predicting who I believe will fill each of those placements in England, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy this season, with some honourable mentions and personal accolades, too.

Without further ado…

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The Premier League

Champions – Manchester City

I actually feel as if the Premier League will be quite a close run thing this year, with multiple sides staking their claim to be on top come season’s end. But, assuming City manage to add a world-class striker to their ranks, they should be able to claim their second straight title, and 6th of the Premier League era.

They have already made Jack Grealish the most expensive footballer ever seen in this country after his £100m arrival from Aston Villa, adding bundles of creativity and class to a side that wasn’t exactly lacking it in the first place. The depth they have in five of the top six positions is truly scary – with big hopes that Phil Foden and Ferran Torres can continue their ascendency to superstardom in 21/22.

Whilst City seem to have been unsuccessful in their pursuit of England captain Harry Kane, if they do manager to bring in a different striker of a high standard, then they would walk most of the European leagues. But the strength of those around them means they’ve got a battle on their hands no matter what this time round.

Champions League

Chelsea

The closest of those sides will be Chelsea, with the club from the Kings Road re-signing Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan in a move which will propel them from top four hopefuls, to bona fide title contenders.

In fairness, even without the arrival of a top striker, Chelsea would have been there or thereabouts anyway, as Thomas Tuchel arrived to great effect last season and showed a terrific versatility to get results – losing just five of his opening 32 games in west London.

Their attacking depth rivals that of City and they have even greater numbers down the other end of the pitch to sustain a genuine title challenge. One thing is for sure; it will be far closer to the fine margins that divided Liverpool and City in 2019, than the runaway leaders that Pep Guardiola presided over the year before.

Liverpool

Much like last season, I have Liverpool to take third position in the table. But unlike last year’s exploits, I predict them to be far closer to challenging for the title, than being in a situation where they have to battle just to qualify for Europe.

The main reason for the Reds’ positioning has been their lack of business so far. Ibrahima Konaté has come in from RB Leipzig as the rather belated cover at centre-back, but that’s all the business Jürgen Klopp has been able to do at the time of writing. It’s much needed and the French defender certainly looks the part, but in a side that struggled so badly with injuries last season and seemed desperately in need of a freshen up, it’s strange to only see one arrival.

Of course, Harvey Elliot has returned from loan whilst long-term absentees like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joe Gomez and Virgil Van Dijk will feel like new signings – however cliché that may seem.

At their best, Liverpool will no doubt be the all-action, crushing machine that we’ve become so used to over the previous half a decade, and they should definitely be in the title race again this year. But, last year proved that there are issues below the surface of their first XI, and if injuries catch up with them again then Klopp’s men could fall short.

Manchester United

The road back to title contention has been a long one for Manchester United; they may have finished second in 17/18, but they were 19 points behind the Blue half of Manchester, meaning they haven’t put together a sustained title push since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson eight years ago. Without doubt, however, this is the best squad they’ve had in that time, and they’re one or two additions away from seriously challenging.

They’ve finally brought in Jadon Sancho after over 12 months of tracking the Borussia Dortmund forward, as well as landing Rapaël Varane for a cut-price fee of £41m. Both additions fix problem areas of the field, bring real star quality to Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s XI and feel like typical Manchester United signings. ‘The best in class’ is a phrase Gary Neville has used to define those who should be employed behind the scenes, and the same has gone for those brought in on the pitch.

During Ferguson’s reign, he signed the likes of Robin van Persie, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, Dimitar Berbatov, amongst others, when they were at the peak of their powers – with Varane mimicking those before him. United are still a more dynamic holding midfielder away from being considered as title contenders for me, whilst a top striker would also elevate their chances as the likes of Mason Greenwood take their time to develop. It won’t be this year, but United are certainly upwardly mobile – finally. 

Leicester and possibly West Ham are the only sides who I can see pushing their way towards the European picture, but these four sides are so far ahead of the rest that I doubt they’ll manage it.

Golden Boot Winner – Romelu Lukaku

Player of The Season – Jack Grealish

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Relegated

Southampton

A common theme throughout these predictions is how hard it has been to decide the side who just about go down, or narrowly nick the final European spot. In the Premier League (whilst the top four wasn’t too difficult), the final relegation spot was a shootout between about five teams. But, it’s Southampton who I eventually edged towards.

The Saints have been on a slippery slope for a few years now, and while they may have found relative stability under Ralph Hasenhüttl, the heady heights of European trips to San Siro feel a long way away nowadays. This summer, the club have already lost Danny Ings – Southampton’s top scorer for the past three seasons – as well Ryan Bertrand and Jannick Vestergaard. 

Ings has been replaced by Adam Armstrong who scored goals for fun in the Championship last season, but as Saints fans know with Ché Adams, second tier form doesn’t always – or at least not immediately – transfer to the big league. Valentino Livramento looks an interesting signing from Chelsea at full-back, along with highly rated Albanian striker Armando Broja, but will it be enough? Only time will tell.

Ultimately, this feels more borne out of a gut feeling than anything else. Southampton are a club who have flown too close to the sun for a while now, posting 17th, 16th and 15th place finishes in recent years and have lost three of their best players. We’ll see what this season holds, but this could be the year that they wave goodbye to the top flight. 

Watford

Unfortunately, Watford seem destined to go straight back down from whence they came. Javi Gracia is the only Hornets manager to last beyond a full season since the famous days of Hogg, Deeney and Gianfranco Zola – and I predict Xisco Muñoz will join that graveyard within the season’s infancy. I’ve put my money where my mouth is, too, with a fiver on Xisco to be the first manager to go at 5/1.

Watford had a very good championship squad heading into 2020/21 – all they needed was a competent captain to steer the ship, which Xisco, in fairness, proved to be. But his reluctance to release the shackles on his attacking talents resulted in 15 of his first 27 games in charge ending with a one goal difference either side.

Their transfers feel very typically ‘Watford’, too. Tidy midfielder Imrân Louza has arrived from Nantes for £9m in what could be a shrewd piece of business if he can bulk up a bit, whilst the Londoners have also taken a punt on Brugge forward Emmanuel Dennis. Add to these the free agent arrivals of Ashley Fletcher (scorer of 26 league goals at the age of 25), and Josh King, who has netted just three times since 2019. It’s all very scattergun – and that worries me.

Ultimately, I don’t believe Watford have the squad, or the manager, capable of staying up this year, and if Xisco isn’t the first to win the sack race then I’d be shocked (and a fiver poorer).

Norwich City

Poor Norwich, ay. Since 2010, the Canaries have been relegated three times, promoted five times and spent a period in each of the top three divisions of English football. They’re crying out for some stability now and a real shot at the big time. If the Premier League was a show, they’d be in a restaurant with Tony Hayers – begging for a second series. I don’t think they will get it this time, but they should make a better fist of it than 2019/20.

Overall, I’m enthused by their transfer business. Josh Sargent and Milot Rashica have both arrived from Werder Bremen for a combined £18m fee – adding much needed depth in the forward line that they lacked sorely during their previous stay in the top flight. Billy Gilmour and Pierre Lees-Melou improve the midfield options, with the former being one to keep an eye on throughout the season. 

Whilst they earned praise for their swashbuckling style of football last time out – it resulted in relegation, and an immediate return to the Championship. If Farke can deploy a variation on that (perhaps a style more based on counter-attacking, as their Rashica addition suggests), then City will give themselves a better chance. But, for now, they’re included in my bottom three. It’s also worth mentioning that City have been handed perhaps the hardest start in Premier League history, facing Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester, Arsenal and Everton in their opening six games.

Many will point towards Burnley or Newcastle, but Sean Dyche is the master at getting a lot out of very little, with Steve Bruce not far behind. It won’t be pretty, but if Burnley can hold on to Dyche, and Bruce can keep his attacking players fit, they should both be fine. I admittedly have a soft spot for Brentford, and tip them to come a very respectable 17th this year.

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Ligue Un

Champions – Paris-Saint Germain

The easiest prediction of the lot. They would have been favourites anyway, but with the Parisians signing Lionel Messi, it makes them borderline unstoppable (nevermind last season’s title winners imploding), and I believe an invincible campaign is far more likely than one that ends without PSG at the top.

Aside from Messi, they have also managed to bring in Sergio Ramos, Gini Wijnaldum, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Achraf Hakimi – an absolute embarrassment of riches for Mauricio Pochettino to work with, not even touching on the phalanx of world-class talent already at his disposal.

We look set to witness the greatest front three ever seen in football history in France this season – and it promises to be quite the spectacle.

Champions League

Monaco

Whilst PSG were eating the dust of eventual title winners Lille last term, AS Monaco were plugging along nicely – even finding themselves on the periphery of the title picture in April, ready and waiting for any slip-ups from those above them.

That didn’t end up happening, however, meaning the Monégasques finished third on 78 points – their highest total since 2018, and a big improvement on the 17th and 9th place finishes in the years in between. 

A big part of that has been down to Niko Kovač who is entering his second season in the Pricipalitilty, as well as the recruitment his side have made. Last season, the likes of Kevin Volland and Axel Disasi proved to be successful additions, whilst this summer they have already brought in Myron Boadu from AZ Alkmaar, and tidy midfielder Jean Lucas from Lyon.

This is definitely the best Monaco have looked since their title winning side got picked apart, and they really should be PSG’s nearest competitors this year – despite their rocky start.

Bonus points are also awarded for Kovač’s uncanny resemblance to Robin John Blake from Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.

Nice

Whilst there is plenty of competition for the European places in France this year, it is Nice who I have landed on as being the side to capture third, following their appointment of Christophe Galtier. He is fresh off the back of a legendary title win with Lille, and has already begun to lay the foundations to achieve something special in South-East France. 

AZ winger Calvin Stengs has joined for an eye-catchingly low fee of £13.5m, adding to the £5m signing of Mario Lemina and a loan swoop for Patrick Kluivert – with all three fitting into the profile of signings Galtier has shown he enjoys to make. Stengs, like Jonathan David before him, is young and full of potential, whilst Kluivert and Lemina have lost their way and are in need of guidance, such as Renato Sanches for example.

He took Lille from 17th to 2nd in his first full season in charge, and I can really see Nice battling their way past the likes of Marseille and Lyon to that final European spot.

Golden Boot Winner – Kylian Mbappé

Player of The Season – Lionel Messi

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Relegated

Clermont Foot

Admittedly, this one is taking the easy way out just a little bit. This year, Clermont Foot are embarking on their debut Ligue Un campaign and the odds are stacked against them to survive. Having bounced around Ligue Deux and the Championnat National for the past 20 years, Les Lanciers finally have their shot at the division.

They’re making a good fist of it, too, defeating Bordeaux 2-0 on the opening day and fellow promoted side Troyes by the same scoreline, before a dramatic 3-3 draw with Lyon, but I worry about how sustainable it is. Whilst Clermont have a relatively big squad, it’s made up widely of players from the division below who will struggle to maintain this level throughout – with their matchday squad against Bordeaux boasting just 46 Ligue Un starts between them.

They do, at the time of writing, still have Mohamed Bayo, however, which is a huge plus. The big frontman already has three goals this term, adding to the 22 he got last to fire Pascal Gastien’s men to promotion. If they can keep him, then Clermont will be giving themselves a much better chance of getting a foothold in the division. 

Stade Reims

Picking a side to finish below Clermont proved particularly difficult. I didn’t fancy Strasbourg’s chances going into the season, but I do like Julien Stéphen and predict him to get a tune out of his new side sooner rather than later – even if they have started the season without a win. Angers and Lorient were also sides I had concerns for, but ultimately I have punted on Stade Reims to finish the season holding up the rest.

If there was an award for the strangest summer transfer window, the Red and Whites would certainly be up there. Last season’s top scorer Boulaye Dia has moved to Villarreal for £12m, but their incomings show only 40-year-old goalkeeper Nicolas Penneteau and centre-back Andreaw Gravillon on loan from Inter Milan. New boss Óscar García (known to English readers for his time at Brighton and Watford) has a difficult hand to work with, and I’m not sure he’s the man to make it click.

Dia was responsible for 14 of the 42 goals Reims scored last season, with no other player managing to score or assist more than four throughout the rest of the squad. Teams with little firepower often struggle, and as have those who are managed by García – I don’t rate him, or Reims’ chances of avoiding the drop this year.

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La Liga

Champions – Atlético Madrid

Atlético Madrid haven’t won back-to-back league titles since the 1950s, but now they must make hay while the sun shines, and capitalise on the turmoil of those around them to claim a second straight Primera title.

They’ve made the best and most expensive signing in the division so far, sealing the much sought after Rodrigo de Paul from Udinese for £35m. Last year, no central midfield player in Europe’s top five leagues appeared in the 100th percentile for more metrics than de Paul, capping off another magnificent season by being the cornerstone of Argentina’s Copa America winning side in the summer. Him and El Cholo are a match made in heaven.

The main pillars of last year’s title winning team still remain, João Félix is another year older and those around them are floundering – it’s Los Rojiblancos’ title to lose this term.

Champions League

Real Madrid

On the other side of Madrid, Real will undoubtedly be the closest to Atléti this year, but it will take a Herculean effort for them to surmount their City rivals. 

So far this summer, Los Blancos have reappointed Carlo Ancelotti, lost their long-standing captain Sergio Ramos on a free, and moved on his centre-half partner Raphaël Varane to Manchester United. Given how shaky Madrid have looked in the absence of Ramos in recent years, it seemed odd not to renew his deal – but perhaps Florentino Pérez had a plan all along.

In Carletto, they have a manager who is a master at working with the hand he is dealt with. Whilst Madrid’s squad is far from the drab he was managing most recently at Everton, it’s ageing, and it’s been over 800 days since Madrid last spent money on a player. It feels as if Pérez is happy to let Real remain in title contention under a manager he trusts, but doesn’t want to break the bank like he did in 2019/20, allowing him to balance the books after the effects of Covid, and his failed machiavellian Super League plot.

In the meantime, the likes of Rodrygo, Vinicius, Éder Militão and Fede Valverde will continue to develop, as some of the older heads will drift out the Bernabéu door, allowing a new era to begin in the years to come. But for now, I think Madrid will finish as runners-up.

Sevilla

After back-to-back fourth place finishes in La Liga, I tip Sevilla to go one better this term and break the top three for the first time since 2009. Progress under Julen Lopetegui has been excellent; guaranteeing Champions League football in both his seasons so far, as well as winning the customary Europa League crown which almost comes with the job, lifting his stock to lofty heights following a disastrous 2018.

The nightmare of the Spain and Real Madrid fiascos have long since been put behind the 54-year-old, as he is well on his way to building a strong Sevilla side that could, one day, challenge for the title. They may well lose Jules Koundé this summer, but in Monchi, they have the director best tasked with replacing their prized asset.

Erik Lamela and goalkeeper Marko Dmitrović have arrived so far this term, as well as Gonzalo Montiel and Ludwig Augustinsson to improve their full-back options. They’ve also secured Rafa Mir as the backup to Youssef En-Nesyri – who bagged 24 goals last season – adding invaluable depth to the sharp end of their attack. Even if Koundé goals, Sevilla will undoubtedly be strong again this year.

Villarreal

There are a few teams who will no doubt be battling it out to reach the top four in Spain this year, but it’s Villarreal who I have tipped to dine at the top table of European football. The Yellow Submarine will, of course, play in the UCL this term anyway after last season’s Europa League winning exploits, but I believe this year they will break the top four barrier for the first time since 2016.

Unai Emery will be looking to build upon his side’s 7th place finish in La Liga last term – and the board are definitely backing him to do that. At the time of writing, just six La Liga signings have surpassed the £10m mark; the aforementioned Rodrigo de Paul and Boulaye Dia, then Juan Foyth for £13.5m, and Arnaut Danjuma for £21m – with the final three signed by Villarreal.

Gerard Moreno, last season’s top scorer, has also signed a new six-year deal whilst the main core of last year’s squad has stayed intact during the off-season – including the highly rated Pau Torres at centre-back. Assuming they can keep their prized assets, then Emery’s men should be making a serious assault on the top four this year.

Barcelona are a glaring omission, but the Blaugrana are an absolute mess this season, and it’s going to take something special for them to finish above any of the four sides I have placed ahead of them this season.

They may have only finished outside the top four once since 1988, but they were able to rely on Lionel Messi for over half of that period, and are now reaching levels of turmoil never before seen at the Camp Nou. Away from Messi, the club are marooned in over £1.1bn in debt, are desperately trying to shift their deadwood, amid an inability to originally register their latest signings.

The volcano has bubbled for years, and now it looks set to erupt. For the first time in 17 years, I don’t see Barcelona qualifying for Europe’s primary competition. 

Pichichi Winner – Karim Benzema

Player of The Season – Rodrigo de Paul

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Relegated

Elche

Last time out, Elche relied on back-to-back victories at season’s end to avoid the drop – just one victory less than they had managed since October of 2020 – but I don’t fancy them to get quite so lucky this term.

Whilst last year’s top scorer, Lucas Boyé, has been tied down to a permanent deal following his spell on loan from Torino, he still only managed seven goals, with winger Fidel being the only other player to score more than five – part of the reason why they finished the campaign as the joint-third lowest scorers in the division. 

It would benefit Los Franjiverdes if they can keep manager Fran Escribá, as the chopping and changing of last term was partly to blame for their lowly 17th place finish. There is some optimism at the Estadio Manuel Martinez that they can achieve that feat, or higher, again – but I’m less certain, and have them going down back to the Segunda.

Deportivo Alavés

All things considered; 2020/21 was a rollercoaster for El Glorioso. They appointed three different managers and conceded the second-most goals, but they finished the season strongly and lost just two of their final nine games – avoiding relegation by four points. That run was presided over by the third of their new managers – Javier Calleja – but only time will tell if that was a ‘new managerial bounce’, or genuinely sustainable form.

Calleja has enforced a sizable squad turnover in the summer, with some controversial departures from the Mendizorrotza. Club legend Manu García is one of 13 players to have left the club, whilst rumours of Joselu’s potential departure rumble on following an 11-goal haul last term.

If he does move on, and Calleja can’t pick up from where he left off in 20/21, I predict it will be another difficult season for Alavés.

Rayo Vallecano

After two seasons away, Rayo Vallecano are back in the big time – but nobody expected them to be here. Three straight victories helped propel them to a late play-off push, using that springboard momentum to swat aside Leganes and then Girona to seal a return to the Primera.

The sides who make it up via the play-off lottery are typically unfancied anyway, but especially ones who do so after making a later charge up the table. Many acknowledge the fact that Los Vallecanos are a second division side who have been thrusted into the big league ahead of schedule – making finishing 17th feel like a monumental achievement.

They have secured the permanent arrival of highly-rated left-back Fran García and Randy Nteka, but I don’t think it will be enough for Vallecano this time – especially if tensions between the fans and Club President Raúl Martín Presa continue to bubble under the surface.

These sides will be joined by the likes of Real Mallorca and Getafe in the relegation dogfight, while many see Cádiz as prime relegation fodder.

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Bundesliga

Champions – Bayern Munich

In many ways, it’s going to be a season of change in the Buli this term, as seven of the top eight have changed managers during the off-season – including Bayern Munich. 

But while the faces in the dugout may be different, there won’t be any change at the summit, as FC Hollywood will go on to claim a ludicrous ninth consecutive German title under new man Julian Nagelsmann.

The 34-year-old has joined from RB Leipzig for a record compensation fee of €25m – more than the Bavarians paid for the services of Joshua Kimmich and Alphonso Davies combined – as Bayern continue to hoover up the best talent around them.

Dayot Upamecano has followed his former manager to the Allianz, with Leipzig captain Marcel Sabitzer reportedly close to joining the pair. Add these to the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Müller and Leon Goretzka, amongst others, Bayern should prove too strong again in 21/22 – even if their goalkeeper is older than their gaffer.

Champions League

Borussia Dortmund

I have Dortmund to finish what will surely be a hotly contested season in second place, as Marco Rose gets to grips with the unenviable task of balancing the books at the Westfalenstadion, whilst also trying to keep the Yellows competitive in the process.

The main reason I have them to finish above 16 other teams this season is one man; Erling Braut Haaland. He’s already scored a hat-trick this season, fresh off the back of winning the Bundesliga Player of The Year (more on that another day), and notching 41 goals in all competitions last term. They may have lost Jadon Sancho, but they have the most exciting striker on the planet in their ranks.

Sancho will undoubtedly be a miss, but Rose already has some incredible attacking options to replace him with that suit his preferred 4-2-3-1 system. From Thorgan Hazard, to Julian Brandt and Reinier; the German has a lot to work with – not to mention 16-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko and new recruit Donyell Malen in his attacking ranks.

So long as the German manager can return on the promise he showed previously as Monchengladbach, then Dortmund should be the best of the rest once again.

RB Leipzig

Over the past few seasons, RB Leipzig have progressed along rather nicely. Since finishing 6th in 2017/18, Die Roten Bullen have finished second in the Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal twice, as well as reaching the final four of the Champions League in 2019/20. Most of that progression was made under the aforementioned Julien Nagelsmann, but he has of course moved on – and he isn’t the only one.

As mentioned earlier, he has been joined at the Allianz by Dayot Upamecano, while his centre-back partner Ibrahima Konaté has joined Liverpool. Three big gaps to fill, but that’s what Leipzig specialise in. Highly rated American coach Jesse Marsch has arrived at the helm, whilst Joško Gvardiol and Mohamed Simakan have come in at the heart of the defence – aged just 19 and 21 respectively.

André Silva has also arrived after a stellar campaign for Frankfurt where he outscored all but Robert Lewandowski last term. It will be interesting to see how or if Marsch returns to the 4-4-2 he deployed at Salzburg, or if he switches to a more suitable 4-2-3-1 shape.

Having seen what Marsch managed there with the likes of Haaland, Patson Daka, Hwang Hee-chan and Takumi Minamino, it will be very exciting to watch this new Leipzig side attack. I have them in third, but I don’t think they will be far behind Borussia Dortmund.

Borussia Monchengladbach

It would be an understatement to suggest that deciding this final Champions League spot would be like flipping a coin – it’s more a roll of a dice, as up to six teams could take 4th spot. But as the managerial carousel spun at breakneck speeds in Germany this summer, it is Die Borussen who have come out on top with Adi Hütter (Nagelsmann aside). 

The 51-year-old arrives having finished 7th, 9th and 5th during his time at The Waldstadion, reaching the Europa League and DFB Pokal semi-finals in that time, as well as being named the Bild manager of the year for 2019 and earning plaudits for his high tempo attacking football. 

Whether it was Luka Jović, Sébastien Haller or André Silva at Die Adler; Hütter showed an ability to supercharge his forward players, with the trio netting 91 goals under the Austrian – an exciting proposition for Marcus Thuram, Alassane Pléa and Lars Stindl, amongst others. If he can get the firing, Gladbach will be right up there.

Elsewhere, Frankfurt themselves have made the exciting appointment of Oliver Glasner which should put them in the mix if they can replace the goals of Silva, whilst his replacement at Wolfsburg, Mark van Bommel, will send Die Wolf backwards for my money.

Bayer Leverkusen will be strong again, but need one or two signings to test the top four’s resolve, whilst many are tipping Hoffenheim to have a surprisingly strong campaign. If you can look past the top spot, then it’s everything to play for this season!

Bundesliga Golden Shoe Winner – Robert Lewandowski

Player of The Season – Erling Braut Haaland

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Relegated

Arminia Bielefeld

Many expected Die Blauen to go straight back down last season, but they defied the odds and earned a second season in the top flight with a 15th place finish. This was despite the fact that Arminia managed just 26 goals (the second fewest behind Schalke), put together a run of nine defeats from ten in the season’s infancy and saw their record of 17 defeats eclipsed by just two sides last term – owing their survival to a run of one defeat in eight to close off the campaign.

In what appears to be an attempt to move away from a more attritional style of play, Frank Kramer has called upon ten new recruits already this summer to hopefully spread the goal scoring burden around the side. Last season, Ritsu Doan finished as the club’s top scorer and assister, but still finished with just eight goal involvements before heading back to PSV upon the expiry of his loan – proving how hard to come by goals were at the Bielefelder.

They did manage to sign Masaya Okugawa permanently following his loan from Salzburg, while Florian Krüge and Robin Hack managed 27 goal involvements between them in the Bundesliga 2 last term and arrive for a combined fee of just over £2m.

It seems strange to suggest, but I believe Bielefeld will be better to watch and will score more goals this season, but without Schalke there to prop up the rest and a belief that the second season is always the hardest, I believe they will drop back down to Germany’s second tier.

Greuther Fürth

Embarking on just their second ever Bundesliga campaign following a late run for promotion from the Bundesliga 2, I fear Greuther will suffer the same fate as 2012/13, and return to the division after just a single season.

Part of my reasoning is the late run that I alluded to: the Cloverleaves lost just one of their final ten games and became the most recent side to benefit from a late Hamburg collapse as they claimed second place. Like Vallecano, it’s always a worry when a side is promoted after a late charge – especially one who were aiming for mid-table at the start of the last season.

To make things harder for Stefan Leitl’s men, their promotion winning squad is being torn to pieces. Left-back David Raum – who notched 15 assists last season – has moved on to Hoffenheim, whilst Paul Jackel and Anton Stach have also moved to the Bundesliga with Union Berlin and Mainz respectively, with only the latter commanding a transfer fee. 

On the plus side, Fürth have thus far been able to keep their attack together, with forwards Branimir Hrgota and Havard Nielson responsible for over 40% of their goals last term, and both will be keen to take their chance at this level in Leitl’s 4-3-1-2 system. 

It feels lazy to send the promoted sides right back down, but Greuther Fürth feel ahead of schedule (with their average age of 23.9 reflecting that), and that another term in the Zweite Bundesliga would have stood them in better stead.

Gruether’s promoted rivals Bochum will also struggle, but I have Thomas Reis’ men to avoid the automatic drop at least, whilst I also have reservations about Köln and Hertha are far from invincible too. It should prove to be another dramatic year in Germany’s basement this term.

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Serie A

Champions – Juventus

Since 2010, Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri have shared nine of the subsequent ten Scudettos between them – with Maurizio Sarri the only man to break the streak, lifting the title in 2020 using a squad widely assembled by the latter. Max is back this season, though – meaning so are Juve.

During Allegri’s five years at The J Stadium, Juve not only won nine of the ten domestic trophies available to them, but they did so with the best defensive records in each of those seasons. It’s clear the 54-year-old likes to build success on solid foundations – and they don’t get more sturdy than Giorgino Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

Their victorious European Championships run in the summer proves that age is just a number, with Juve wide man Federico Chiesa also impressing, along with new recruit Manuel Locatelli. They may not have added too many new signings yet, but the thought of Allegri getting to work with the likes of Matthijs de Ligt, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dejan Kulusevski, amongst others, is very intriguing.

As far as I’m concerned, it will be business as usual for Anchovy and his beloved Bianconerri. 

Champions League

It’s anyone’s guess who will finish in the Serie A Champions League places, such is the quality in the upper half of the division. But, I have eventually decided on Inter Milan to be the ones running Juventus closest by the end of the season – despite the issues the Nerazzurri have found themselves in during the off-season. 

Due to crippling financial issues, the club have had to part with Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and manager Antonio Conte – arguably the three most important cogs in their successful title run last season. Despite this, Inter still have the framework of their title winning side, and have replaced Conte with Simone Inzaghi who enjoyed a prosperous five-year spell with Lazio.

For the time being, they still have the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Nico Barella and Stefan de Vrij, while Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Denzel Dumfries and Edin Džeko have arrived to bolster the squad. Assuming they are able to make a few more additions (and keep the remainder of their better players), the drop-off shouldn’t be quite as seismic as what is being suggested.

I certainly don’t see them retaining their Scudetto title, but I do envisage them qualifying for the Champions League.

Atalanta

The unfancied, the underdogs, the perennially misjudged; despite all of the powerhouses in Italian football, Atalanta of Bergamo have finished third for three straight campaigns – and I believe they will do so again in 2021/22.

Not only have they finished on the podium for the previous three seasons, but they’ve also been the top scorers in the division during each campaign – even breaking the Serie A record in 19/20 by netting 98 goals. One would imagine this attacking impetus will continue, with Colombian forwards Luis Muriel and Duván Zapata still at the club after netting 37 league goals between them last season, flanked by the terrific Robin Gosens.

Their backline was, admittedly, somewhat porous last season and the loss of Christian Romero to Tottenham will be a big one, but the Argentine has been replaced by Juventus’ highly-rated Merih Demiral and 21-year-old Matteo Lovato to add some steel to La Dea’s backline.

On an interesting side note – Atalanta currently have 45 players out on loan, making a mockery of the 15 Chelsea currently do. Make use of this information how you please.

AC Milan

Honestly, the final spot in Serie A is impossible to predict. I’ll briefly discuss the other options shortly, but for now, I have a compelling case to make for AC Milan.

The Rossoneri finally put years of criminal mismanagement and financial ruin behind them to return to not only the European Cup, but also a genuine charge at the title. Whilst it petered out around spring, their 79 points is the most seen on the Red side of San Siro since 2012, and shows real signs of progress.

This has all been achieved with a decent squad – but nothing eye-catching. Fikayo Tomori and Sandro Tonali are vital additions, whilst Mike Maignan is more than good enough to fill the large gloves left by Gianluigi Donnarumma’s departure. Milan are now doing what they have failed to do since winning their last Scudetto in 2011; generally signing young, promising players, investing smartly in the squad while bringing the average age down to 25.8 (bearing in mind that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was born before Aston Villa had won the European Cup).

So long as Milan can keep the likes of Theo Hernández and Franck Kessié, and add some more goals into the side, then Stefano Pioli’s men should be playing at Europe’s top table next season.

However, like in Germany, there are plenty of unknown quantities and competition. José Mourinho will naturally grab headlines at Roma, but it’s do or die for the Portuguese – and I think he will do the latter. Similarly, Maurizio Sarri has taken the Lazio hot seat, but does he still have the mojo that saw him take Napoli to 91 points in 2018? Only time will tell, but I don’t see it in 21/22.

Speaking of Napoli (and Roma), Luciano Spalletti is back after two years in the wilderness to manage the Gli Azzurri – with many tipping him to return the Napolitanos to the Champions League. They would be my favourites to break into my own top four, but I don’t believe they are stronger than Milan. 

Capocannoniere Winner – Luis Muriel

Player of The Season – Paulo Dybala

Embed from Getty Images

Relegated

Udinese

This is definitely one of my bolder predictions, given the fact that Udinese have been ever-present in the top-flight this century. But, since the days of Champions League football in the early 2010s, Le Zebrette have been stuck in the bottom half of the league, and I believe this will be the time they finally slip.

Going back to 2020/21 for a moment, Udinese finished the campaign with just two wins from their final 12 games – shipping 24 goals in the process, with only bottom of the table Parma ending the season in worse form. That kind of run always concerns me, and whilst they earned a 2-2 draw against Juventus on the opening day, I believe that was probably the best time to face The Old Lady, and they still have Roma and Napoli to come in the early season.

Rodrigo de Paul’s move to Atlético Madrid poses further problems – he was their everything. Top scorer, top assister, the most minutes played, the most shot creating actions made, the most ball recoveries, the list goes on and on – he was the cornerstone of this Udinese side, and will be very difficult to replace. Goalkeeper Juan Musso has also moved on after posting the third highest save percentage in the division (of ‘keepers with 30+ appearances) last season, as well as the fourth most clean sheets.

If Luca Gotti’s men start poorly, I think it could prove to be a very long season for Udinese.

Spezia

As you will have noticed by now, there are a few hallmarks I look for when it comes to predicting a side for relegation – and Spezia tick just about all of them. Vincenzo Italiano moved on to Fiorentina in the summer and has been replaced by Thiago Motta (who managed just two wins from ten during his time at Genoa in 2019), whilst a transfer ban active from January 2022 will mean the Italian will have to work with the tools he can get his hands on in this window alone. 

The second season is always the hardest – especially for a side who probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Spezia had spent over half a century marooned in the third and fourth tiers of Italian football prior to promotion to Serie B in 2006, where further yo-yoing eventually led to the promised land of Serie A in 2020 – but without Italiano to guide them any further, they have naturally become one of the favourites for relegation.

My biggest fear on the pitch comes from the defence; last year, only the relegated sides conceded more than Spezia’s 72 goals – conceding three or more goals in a game 11 times in the process. Motta is known for wanting to implement attacking and attractive football, but for a side who are already leaky, appointing a manager who has presided over just one clean sheet in his managerial career feels like a big risk.

I enjoy seeing former players move into management, but in a time when there’s surely choppy water ahead for the Aquilotti, I’m not sure they have the man for the task.

Salernitana

The final team to feature on my list are Serie A new boys Salernitana, who have returned to the top flight following a 23-year absence – but it hasn’t been plain sailing for il Granata, even in pre-season.

Despite finishing as runners-up in Serie B, their promotion was put on hold due to ownership issues, centered around the involvement of Claudio Lotitio – who also owns Lazio. This broke Serie A rules and meant that promotion celebrations were put on hold for over two months, until the Italian Football Authorities finally confirmed their promotion in July. It isn’t over just yet, though, as the club must be sold before the end of 2021, or they will be expelled from Serie A. 

To say that is far from an ideal start to what will no doubt prove to be a difficult season for Salernitana is an understatement, with a huge turnover of 17 new players joining the club already which could prove excessive. There are a few standouts amongst those, however, such as Simy, who joins on loan from Crotone having netted 54 goals in the previous three seasons – including 20 in the top flight during 20/21. The Nigerian could well prove the difference between going down and staying up this season if he can recapture that form.

The battle at the bottom will be as intriguing as the one at the top, though, and there will be plenty of movement throughout the campaign. Fellow new boys Venezia and Empoli will no doubt be right amongst it, whilst Cagliari could also struggle to stay afloat.

So, there we have it, my predictions for who’s up and down in Europe’s big five this season – be sure to share your thoughts down below!

The Author

James Pendleton

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