European club football wrap: Man City's possible treble, Napoli's feat and Haaland's rise
By beating Manchester United to take home the FA Cup in Wembley, Manchester City’s stunning dominance of European football continues, and it’s on course for a historic treble.
It was captain Ilkay Gundogan’s two-goal heroics that ensured City’s domestic double. Now when City takes on Inter Milan at Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium in the final of the UEFA Champion’s League on June 11, 2023, they would be 90 minutes away from a treble, a fitting culmination of a fairy tale after Pep Guardiola took over as the manager in 2016.
It is their fifth league championship under Pep Guardiola and its ninth overall. The Catalan has now completed the triple crown in three of the top leagues in the world – La Liga, Bundesliga, and the EPL.
For the major chunk of the season, it was Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal that held the top spot in the league standings. However, City’s late surge, with an unbeaten streak of 11 games and the Gunners’ choking towards the final third of the tournament, gave City the title with three games remaining.
Barcelona win La Liga under Xavi’s stewardship
While Pep was reigning on the English grounds, his protégé Xavi Hernandez handed the first La Liga title to Barcelona after a gap of four years. In just 18 months in charge, Xavi proved that despite the early setbacks, he could rebuild the team from scratch by winning La Liga with four games remaining.
Barcelona wrapped up the season with a 4-2 victory over city rival Espanyol on the road, capping a trying stretch for the team both on and off the pitch. Even the most upbeat ‘Cules’ could not have predicted a better result from this brief period of time, even though Real Madrid’s poor form also contributed to it.
Biggest tale of the season – Napoli winning the Serie A title after 33 years
But the biggest and most exhilarating tale of the season is Napoli’s crowning in Serie A after a gap of 33 years. Luciano Spalletti’s boys owned the scudetto with five games to spare, the first time after ‘Santa’ Maradona won it for them in 1989-90. Naples is awash with tributes to Maradona, who is revered as a patron saint by the football-crazed city. Napoli hasn’t achieved the same heights since his departure in 1991.
Even though AC Milan beat them in the UCL quarter-finals, the Neapolitans had the last laugh in the league. Despite being named as the Coach of the Year and the club’s supporters pleading with him to stay, the 64-year-old manager Spalletti, the man who brought an end to the protracted wait, is taking a break after the much-celebrated victory.
Both on and off the ball, Spalletti’s Napoli were ferocious and aggressive, trying to press high and keep their opponents as far from their goal as they could. To keep the pressure on the opposition, they tried to win the ball back as soon as possible after losing it. That means sticking to the basics was his core philosophy. With players such as Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Victor Osimhen, Mario Rui, Zielinski, and Di Lorenzo, this strategy worked more than anything.
Borussia Dortmund chokes again, handing Bundesliga title to Bayern Munich
Borussia Dortmund choking was the tale of the season in Bundesliga this time too. An improbable defeat at home at the hands of a mid-table team that finished ninth, with no victories in the last five matches, cost them the title on goal average, after tying on points with Bayern Munich. Just needing a victory against Mainze, they made a complete mess of it, drawing at home at the worst time possible, after conceding two goals in the first 30 minutes. Bayern struggled for much of the year and changed managers late in the campaign from Julian Nagelsmann to Thomas Tuchel.
PSG win Ligue 1 for 11th time in the least exciting league
Apart from world champion Lionel Messi and runner-up Kylian Mbappe, the two biggest names in football, Ligue 1 continued to be the least exciting of the top five leagues in Europe. Even though PSG won the championship for the eleventh time overall, they were far from playing something that could be called a beautiful game.
Messi had a stellar season to begin with this year, regaining his sublime touch, after a lacklustre debut in France last year. But he lost steam after the World Cup. His performance as a whole was impacted by Neymar’s injury-induced absence and his tense dynamic with the club’s supporters. After the World Cup, Mbappe was also far from being the player he is. In short, the World Cup final duel between two of the team’s best players ended up being very expensive for the club owned by Qatar.
In Paris, it was a Mbappe–Messi show, as expected, despite both the stars performing below par. Mbappe scored 40 goals and gave 5 assists from 42 matches, finishing at the top of the league. Messi, on the other hand, had 20 goals and 16 assists from 39 matches. During this period, the world champion became the all-time top scorer of Europe’s top five leagues with 496 goals, surpassing Cristiano Ronaldo.
Erling Haaland steals the show in the EPL
It was clearly the season of Manchester City’s Erling Haaland in England with the Norwegian scoring 52 goals and 9 assists from 51 games across tournaments (36 goals and 8 assists from 35 league matches). Spurs veteran Harry Kane is second to him in the league as he was in sublime form this season.
Outstanding players this season
City’s Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Marcus Rashford, and Casemiro from Manchester United, Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegard from Arsenal, and Joelinton from Newcastle are a few players who stood out in the EPL.
In La Liga, Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Vinicius Junior, and Joselu (Espanyol) were the best-attacking trio across clubs this season, according to many pundits. Ronald Araujo, Pedri, and Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona), Fran Garcia, Isi Palazon (Rayo Vallecano), and Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad) were named in multiple teams-of-the-season compiled by ex-players and commentators.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Victor Osimhen (Napoli), Nicolo Barella, Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan), Lucas Martinez Quarta (Fiorentina), Carlos Augusto (Monza),and Rafael Leao (AC Milan) dominated the Serie A grounds.
Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry (Bayern Munich), Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig), and Randal Kolo Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt) were the most talked-about players in Bundesliga.
Match of the season – Man City vs Real Madrid
According to football experts and enthusiasts, the match of the season was the second leg of the UCL semi-final between Manchester City and Real Madrid, where Pep’s boys thrashed Ancelotti’s invincible-looking Los Blanco 4-0. Another memorable match of the season was again from the English side, in which Liverpool trounced Manchester United 7-0 with Mo Salah, Darwin Nunez, and Cody Gakpo scoring braces.
Although it was quite a beating to take, the comeback of Manchester United under Erik ten Hag was incredible. After Ronaldo’s exit, bouncing back from the bottom half of the table to top four was an incredible feat to achieve. The team ETH assembled around Rashford, Bruno, and Casemiro was simply outstanding on the field after the first half of the league.
Incredible run of Argentine players
The Argentine players in the top 5 leagues have had an incredible run since the Albiceleste’s World Cup victory. Their renewed confidence was instrumental in helping Aston Villa (Emiliano Martinez) and Brighton (Alexis Mac Allister and Facundo Buonanotte) in the English Premier League, and Sevilla (Nahuel Molina, Papu Gomez, Marcus Acuna, and Gonzalo Montiel) winning the Europa League.
With Inter Milan and Manchester City playing the UCL final, a rare feat of winning the FIFA World cup and the UCL in the same season is awaiting one of the two Argentine World Cup-winning strikers (Julien Alvarez or Lautaro Martinez).
Promising young guns
From Barcelona’s 15-year-old Lamine Yamal to Manchester United’s already-proven 19-year-old Alajandro Garnacho, a number of young players have also announced their entry into the European league this season. Among the young guns of the upcoming seasons are Warren Zare-Emery of PSG, Matias Soule of Juventus, Mathys Tel of Byern, and Nico Paz of Real Madrid.