9 World Football Sleeper Teams Who Will Carry a Serious Threat Next Season
Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Manchester United, AC Milan and on and on and on. We all know the big teams that will challenge for titles year after year. We talk them to death all year long.
But what about the teams that come out of nowhere and shock us all? Greece at Euro 2004. Juventus in Serie A this year. Blackpool (while it lasted) in last year's Premier League. Swansea.
That's where the fun is.
I want to talk about those teams. Whether they're good teams that have fallen on hard times, teams getting promoted who will survive, or great teams who are set to push things even further next year. Here are 10 sleeper teams who will shake up the world next season.
Marseille's done well in recent years, but took a massive step backward this season. Situated firmly out of the title fight in Ligue 1, Marseille will be nowhere to be seen in next season's Champions League.
That will be a blessing in disguise. Marseille made it to the quarterfinals in this season's UCL, but stumbled badly through the league schedule.
Without the distraction of European football, Didier Deschamps will be able to focus solely on getting his talented squad humming through the domestic campaign.
Prediction: Top 3 Ligue 1 finish, challenging for title all season
In Robin van Persie, Arsenal finally found a player that Arsene Wenger would spend money to keep. By refusing to sign a contract extension, the Dutchman has forced his manager to go out and buy quality players in a bid to keep his prolific striker.
Lukas Podolski is signed, while other targets like Jan Vertonghen, Yann M'Vila, Stephane Sessegnon, Junior Hoilett and Clint Dempsey are being pursued early in a way that is atypical of Wenger.
I know it's odd to talk about a team as high-profile as Arsenal as a sleeper, but if they pull off half the signings they are publicly linked to, the Gunners will make a legitimate run at several trophies next year.
Prediction: Top 2 finish in EPL, Champions League semifinals
Manuel Pellegrini is a genius. He really is. When he takes over a team, they get better. He's well into that trick at Malaga with his team just one win away from finishing in the Champions League places.
But I'm predicting bigger things. Malaga have money to spend, they have a brilliant manager and they have massive ambition.
If they were even respectable away from home, Malaga would have significantly closed the traditional gap between La Liga's top two and the rest of the field. Pellegrini will get them there and that's why they get my most audacious prediction.
I think Malaga are the team to break the lock that Real Madrid and Barcelona have on the top two places in La Liga. I might be a season or two early with this prediction, but I'm putting it out there.
Prediction: Top 2 finish in La Liga
Ajax won't be a surprise in the Eredivisie. They won it this year; they'll probably win it next year. But the team that showed so well against Manchester United in the Europa League this season is my sleeper in the next Champions League.
They'll lose league "Player of the Year" Jan Vertonghen, but the rest of this tremendous Ajax team will stay largely intact. The biggest coup remains the loyalty of Christian Eriksen, who seems content to ignore the advances of most of the footballing world to remain in Amsterdam.
Prediction: UCL quarterfinals
I'm calling my first relegation survivor for next season's Premier League. Southampton will stay up next year. I think that qualifies as a sleeper pick.
The Saints score a ton and don't leak goals at nearly the rate that Blackpool did during their exciting, but ultimately doomed, tour through the top flight.
Richard Lambert has proven his scoring touch can climb the football ladder and I'm backing him to translate it into the Premier League. If he can, expect the Saints to be safe by late March.
Prediction: 12th place in the Premier League
Luis Enrique gave it a go, but it hasn't worked for him at Roma. The team scores, but couldn't keep a clean sheet against a decent youth team.
Roma have the players to compete at the top of the Serie A table, so a change in management this summer could provide just the thing to turn the team around.
Andre Villas-Boas was the victim of impatience and "player power" at Chelsea. He's been rumored to be taking over at Roma this summer. If he comes in with a sufficient mandate for change, he could accomplish in Italy what Roman Abramovich's itchy trigger finger likely kept him from accomplishing in England.
Prediction: A Champions League place
This prediction is predicated on the idea that Bolton just might, by the skin of their teeth, avoid relegation this weekend. They have to beat Stoke and Manchester City has to want the title badly enough to drop QPR, but if they survive, things will get better next season.
Bolton were hit harder by injury this term than any team can reasonably foresee. Stuart Holden and Chung-Yong Lee haven't touched the pitch, Fabrice Muamba collapsed on it and Mark Davies, Darren Pratley, Tyrone Mears and Ricardo Gardner round out the list of horrible luck Owen Coyle has endured this year.
It's amazing Bolton have any chance of survival. But if they make it, I think they'll thrive next season.
Prediction: 8th place in the EPL
It just might be that the only thing a big club needs to turn around a patch of bad luck is to promote their youth team coach into the first team hot seat.
It worked for Barca and it seems to have worked at Inter with the promotion of Andrea Stramaccioni. Floundering through the second half of the season under Claudio Ranieri, Inter have only lost once since the March management change and destroyed AC Milan in their derby match last weekend.
Inter president Massimo Moratti is prepared to extend Stramaccioni's stay at the head of his team. Transfer rumors have Inter linked with Mario Balotelli, Internacional's Leandro Damiao and maybe even Sao Paulo's genius attacking midfielder Lucas Moura.
It could be that none of those three turn out in an Inter shirt next season, but if Moratti gives his new manager a few new tools, I think Inter will challenge right back at the top of Serie A.
Prediction: Top 2 finish in Serie A
Martin O'Neill saved Sunderland this season. The team was headed for the relegation zone when O'Neill was hired to replace Steve Bruce.
Since then, they've climbed safely away from the bottom three and will finish the season in firm mid-table comfort. If that line sounds familiar, it's because it was the least of what O'Neill delivered during his years of spinning straw into gold at Aston Villa.
Villa routinely challenged for a Champions League place with O'Neill at the helm and I expect the same from Sunderland once the manager has a couple more transfer windows to work with.
He won't get there next season, but make no mistake, O'Neill's goal is to manage a team in the UCL. He just might make it eventually.
Prediction: 6th in the EPL