Everything’s crumbling and I can’t stop it. I’ve been in this situation plenty of times before but it never gets any easier to fix. I take a deep breath, pick up my knife and attempt another cut through the croissant. It continues to flake away everywhere, crumbling onto the plate. I’ve bottled it.
Fuck it, I think, pushing the plate to the side and opening my laptop, causing residual crumbs to fall onto the gingham tablecloth. “J’ai fini”, I say to a passing waitress. She smiles as she picks up the plate and the mangled croissant, eyeing it with momentary confusion before strolling away towards the kitchen. I quite like this café. I’ve got myself a flat just round the corner from the Stade de L’Abbe Deschamps and this place is a 30 second walk away. It’s called “Perk de L’Abre Sec” which I don’t really get, but it’s nice and peaceful.
Anyway, I think as I take a sip of coffee, it’s about that time of year that I climb out of my bubble, let my eyes adjust to the bright lights of the real world and take a look around Europe’s top Leagues.
I’ll start like I often do in the Premier League, where Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils have really hit their stride now. They’ve not quite reached the same standards as last year when they romped to the title 19 points clear of their closest rivals, but they’ve at least won it again. Unai Emery’s Chelsea bounced back from last year’s disappointing 7th placed finish by pushing United right to the finish line, ending up just 2 points behind the Champions. Pochettino’s Spurs and ex-Spain Manager Ernesto Valvderde’s Liverpool made up the Champions League places, with the Reds’ former boss Jürgen Klopp having moved to the Camp Nou in the Summer, and the European places were filled out by Carlo Ancelotti’s Gunners and somewhat novelly by the continually impressive Jason Tindall’s Bournemouth and Walter Mazzarri’s Watford. I’m pleased to see that Tindall is rewarded for his team’s phenomenal success with the Manager of the Year award, and I’m flabbergasted to note that Watford beat Stefano Pioli’s Everton to the last Europa league place by a single goal’s difference too, when for years I’ve watched my beloved Toffees circle the drain. I applaud their newfound competence.
Speaking of the drain, 2 of last year’s promoted sides have gone straight back down. Norwich were promoted as Championship runners up under Roberto Di Matteo, but he was sacked in January with the club struggling. I never really understand that as I prefer the strategy of keeping your manager and counting on the fact that he’ll bring you back up. Chris Hughton was drafted in though, which in all fairness is a very sensible appointment, so hopefully he’ll have them straight back up. Ipswich are the other side to go straight back down. Steve McClaren decided to jump ship before his team had even kicked a ball in the Premier League and took the Wales gig vacated by Avram Grant, leaving the Tractor Boys to hire Ben Petty, a man who’d done a distinctly average job with Leeds United, commonly known as “The Auxerre of England”. He didn’t fare well. Sadly Burnley were the final team to drop down. They’ve been yo-yoing for years now and Steve Clarke was the latest Manager to be sacked once relegation was confirmed. Paul Heckingbottom has been brought in though after impressive spells with Middlesbrough and Barnsley twice, so I’ll watch how they do with interest. The other promoted side from last year is Sunderland, who finished 11 points clear of the drop zone in 14th place thanks to the steady guiding hand of manager Rob Page, who I’m becoming an increasingly avid fan of.
Anyone missing from this review so far, by the way? Ah yes, Manchester City. There’s no easy way to say this, lads; Zizou really fucked this one up. Pep Guardiola’s high profile replacement Spent half a season at the Etihad and lost 14 matches, leaving the club in lower-mid table with 28 points from 24 matches. Javi Gracia was drafted in from Villarreal though and he did about as a good a job as you could’ve hoped for: Guiding the Citizens to 9th place, a full 3 points clear of Crystal Palace…
Arsenal paid a measly £12.5M last Summer for Stoke’s Jack Butland, which strangely enough coincided with the Potters’ slide from 6th to 16th. The 28 year old has done a stunning job for the Gunners, beating David De Gea to the Golden Glove and earning himself a spot in the Team of the Year. Also selected are Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne, Chelsea’s Aymeric Laporte, who’s now been in the Team of the Year 4 times in a row since he came to England, Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld and Manchester City’s Lucas Digne. In midfield are Chelsea’s Isco, Tottenham’s Dele Alli, United’s Paul Pogba and the league’s joint highest assister: Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho. Sadly there’s no place for Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook, who won the Players’ Young Player of the Year award. Leading the line for the Team of the Year are United’s Paulo Dybala, who was also joint highest assister and won Footballer of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year, and Chelsea’s Mauro Icardi, who was miles ahead of his nearest competitor for Top Goalscorer with 25.
Coming up to the top division next year are Michael Laudrup’s Hull City, Stevie Crawford’s Derby County and Marco Silva’s Swansea City. There was a weird sort of symmetry at the bottom of the Championship too, with Christian Järdler’s aforementioned “Auxerre of England” Leeds United surviving relegation to League 1 on goal difference, much to the dismay of Joey Barton and his Preston North End side.
The bad news for Atleti fans is that Diego Simeone stepped down last Summer to join Bayern Munich and with Didier Deschamps drafted in, their side collected exactly the same amount of points as last year when they finished second. The good news is that after Luis Enrique buggered off to manage Spain and Jürgen Klopp came in to manage Barcelona, they had a bit of a transitional season, finishing 3rd and allowing Athletico Madrid to clinch the title, 4 points clear of Marcelino’s Real Madrid, who came in 2nd. Didier Deschamps won the Manager of the Year award for his achievement and rightly so. He’s been out of club football for 8 years but you wouldn’t know it. The final Champions League spot has been passed around quite a lot in the last few years but this time it’s Real Sociedad’s turn, finishing as the best of the rest under former Celta Vigo manager Eduardo Berizzo. It’s been a bit of a season to forget for Bilbao and Valencia though, who finished in 10th and 13th place respectively.
The La Liga Team of the Year never fails to astound me for the sheer number of Real Madrid players that make it in each year despite them never winning the bloody thing. Keylor Navas, who has won the Goalkeeper of the Year award to make it 4 years out of the last 5, is in net, with Alessandro Florenzi of Atleti and Real trio Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos and Álex Grimaldo across the back. Real pair Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, the League’s top scorer and joint top assister respectively, are in midfield, along with Athletico Madrid’s joint top assister Saúl and Barcelona’s Player of the Year Neymar. The front 2 is unchanged from last year: Barca’s Leo Messi and the Champions’ Sandro Ramirez, who I feel compelled to mention is really really good.
I’m not going to do the big build up this year because you and I both know that Diego Simeone’s Bayern Munich won their 9th successive Bundesliga title. A small amount of variety can be found just beneath them though as Roger Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen finished as runners up, 4 points off the Champions and 3 points clear of Thomas Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund. Markus Babbel’s Red Bull Leipzig had a greatly improved season, climbing from 9th to 4th to secure European Football, Slaven Bilic’s Schalke have to settle for the Europa League in 5th, but the story of the season is without a doubt Pál Dárdai and his Hertha Berlin side, who won the Relegation Play Off last season to remain in the division and have now managed to grab the last Europa League spot. Pál was 3rd in the Manager of the Year voting behind winner Roger Schmidt and runner up Diego Simeone, which makes no sense to me.
Leipzig’s Ralf Fährmann is selected in net for the Team of the Year after keeping a league high 12 clean sheets, and is joined by Dortmund’s Vyacheslav Karavaev, Leverkusen’s veteran centre back Per Mertesacker and Bayern pair Mats Hummels and David Alaba in defence. In midfield, the league’s top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Dortmund is joined by Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Marco Van Ginkel, Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg and Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz, who is looking increasingly like a future world beater.
Dortmund’s Mario Götze, the league’s top assister, is selected in behind the 2nd best assister and Footballer of the Year: Bayern’s Thomas Müller.
Normal service has been restored in Serie A. As I feared last year, Manager of the Year Antonio Conte’s return to Juventus has brought the Turin side back up to the top of the Division, where I’m assuming they’ll stay until the Sun explodes and wipes all of us out. Sorry, that was morbid, where was I? Oh right, last year’s winners AC Milan, lead by Manager Ramón Díaz, finished as runners up, with Luciano Spalletti’s Roma and Vincenzo Italiano’s Fiorentina just behind them in the Champions League spots. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Napoli and Walter Samuel’s Inter complete the top 6.
The Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year and pick for the team of the year is Roma’s Alisson, who picked up a pretty incredible 18 clean sheets along the way. Juve’s Gerónimo Rulli did too but he conceded 1 more goal than the Roma stopper, so he misses out for the first time in 3 years. Defender of the Year for the 6th straight year and Player of the Year for the 2nd straight year is Leonardo Bonucci and he’s selected too, along with team mate Alex Sandro, Napoli’s Elseid Hysaj and AC Milan’s Phil Jones. Napoli’s Ignacio Camacho is selected at the base of midfield, just behind team mate and Italian Player of the Year Jorginho, who’s next to Midfielder of the Year, Foreign Player of the Year and Fans’ Player of the Year: Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic. His team mate and the league’s top scorer Paco Alcácer makes the cut up top, along with Napoli’s Serie A Striker of the Year Gerard Moreno and Roma’s Mo Salah.
Now then… Who would’ve thought that one of the top 5 European Leagues would actually directly affect us next season? It certainly is exciting being just one tier below the likes of PSG, Monaco, Lyon etc but for now that gap is still a long one to bridge.
The battle for the top spot wasn’t quite as intense as last season but the order of the top 5 has stayed exactly the same. Pep Guardiola’s PSG have finished top of Ligue 1 for the 3rd straight year with Manager of the Year José Barros’ Monaco 2nd, Jocelyn Gourvennec’s Lyon 3rd, Roberto Mancini’s Marseille 4th and Michel Der Zakarian’s Bordeaux 5th, just like last season. Toulouse were this season’s surprise package in the French top tier. Like Hertha in Germany, they finished just outside the relegation places last year and stormed back to win a Europa League spot this year.
The relegated sides that’ll join Auxerre in Ligue 2 are Didier Santini’s Angers Sporting Clube de l’Ouest, ending their 6 year spell in the top flight, Frédéric Antonetti’s Stade de Reims, who’ve had a 4 year spell up there and Christophe Galtier’s Stade Malherbe Caen, who are going straight back down after being promoted last year, having lost their Relegation Play off to SC Bastia. I look forward to meeting them all.
Paris’ Goalkeeper of the Season Gianluigi Donnarumma takes the Team of the Year goalie’s spot, with team mates Marquinhos and Raphaël Guerreiro in defence along with Monaco’s Daniele Rugani and Stade Malherbe Caen’s Loic Nego. Monaco’s winner of the Best Player award Thomas Lemar got a place in midfield, having also set up the most goals in the league, and alongside him is Lyon’s Sergi Darder, who created the 2nd most goals. Lemar’s Monaco team mate Kylian Mbappé is on the left wing, having won the Star of the Season award, Lucas Moura of PSG is on the right, and his colleague and the league’s top scorer Álvaro Morata leads the line.
Bundesliga runners up Leverkusen won the Europa League, beating Sporting Lisbon, Valencia and Roma on the way to the final by a combined scoreline of 11-6. Their opponents in the final were Villarreal, who beat Palermo, Bilbao and Napoli by a combined score of 10-6.
The Spaniards actually started the final well, with Cristian Espinoza getting them off to an early lead, but Johannes Eggestein gave the Germans an equalising goal just before the break to set them up as the more confident side for the second half. With Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo taken off before the hour mark, Eggestein left it late to get the winner, scoring with 10 minutes to go to secure the win at the San Nicola in Bari.
The Champions League saw Manchester United go on something of an elite world tour, beating Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain to get to the final, only to lose to Barcelona, who themselves had beaten FC Porto, Lyon and Spurs all quite comfortably.
It was a clinical performance by Barca that saw them lift the trophy, scoring 3 of their 4 shots on target through Rafinha, Rafinha again and Luis Suárez. Paul Pogba gave the red devils some hope, making it 2-1 at one point, but to no avail. United were perhaps unlucky to lose Filippo Melegoni to injury within the first minute of the game, but then they did have a small window in which to dominate when Samuel Umtiti was sent off for collecting 2 yellow cards with 12 minutes to go. It was too late though. Barca lift the trophy at the Allianz Arena.
I feel like I’m knocking on the door now. We’re 1 brilliant season or bizarre fluke away from breaking into one of the Elite Leagues in World Football, and what better incentive could there be than that to make sure we have the best bloody year so far.