The 5 Most Surprisingly Successful Clubs in Europe so Far This Season
Critics of top-flight European football typically cite one major objection to the current status of the game: it's too predictable. There is a status quo.
Each league has its powerhouse clubs, that dominate year after year while the little guys sit at the bottom of the table and wonder how they're ever supposed to compete. La Liga will always be dominated by Barcelona and Madrid, England has its big four, Italy is practically owned by the City of Milan and so on.
It's easy to see how some of the smaller clubs in Europe might see things as hopeless. It's understandable when they take a gloomy view of their futures, and resign themselves to the nearly inevitable fate of sitting forever in the shadows of the giants.
Other clubs, however, demand to be taken seriously, and refuse to go down without a fight. They say "screw the status quo." They crave their moment in the spotlight.
This season, each of Europe's top leagues seem to have at least one club that's standing up for the little guys. One club that came out of the offseason craving victory, and determined to prove that they can compete with the best.
These are five clubs that are doing just that, and surprising the hell out of everyone in Europe (so far).
EPL: Newcastle United
Who would've thought that Newcastle United would perform this well, in perhaps the league's most competitive season in recent memory, even without Andy Carroll?
Last year's 12th place finishers in EPL, Newcastle have started 2011-12 off right by going undefeated in their first eight matches, hammering out well-earned draws against the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham to hold a place on the table that is reserved specifically for England's elite.
This weekend was widely expected to be the fixture that would see Newcastle fall out of the top four, or at least be joined in fourth place position by Tottenham (to be fair to Newcastle, they probably would have technically been on top thanks to their impressive goal-difference statistics).
But that didn't happen, even as the club faced a deficit in their match against Spurs on two separate occasions, coming from behind to equalize and prevent the favorites from gaining ground.
Their early season success has already sparked numerous discussions around the world: could Newcastle United be a legitimate contender for a Champions League berth in 2012-13?
With a little help from new acquisition Demba Ba, who is currently fourth in the league in the goals scored category, they just might give Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham a run for their money. Three horse race for the fourth place spot? Try four.
Serie A: Cagliari
Italy's Serie A is the league that, early on in the season, has been shaken up the most so far.
With both AC Milan and Internazionale desperately trying to claw their way out of the bottom half of the table (and Inter having accumulated only four points thus far), there's quite a void to be filled at the top.
Granted, Serie A is only six matches into their season, but some of the Italian giants have really dug themselves quite a hole in very little time.
Stepping up to fill the void is last year's 14th place Serie A finishers, Cagliari. Remarkably, Cagliari is only one point behind the league leaders, Juventus, sitting in the third place slot on the table. That's a Champions League Qualifying Round berth, if they can keep the pace.
Of course, there's plenty of time for the table to rearrange itself before the season ends in the spring, and not many observers are honestly expecting Cagliari to remain where they're at. But fans of the club are surely enjoying the early-season success, and an end of the season spot in the top half of the table is certainly not out of the question.
From there, another drastic improvement in 2012-13 could see Cagliari becoming a legitimate force in Europe. That is, of course, if they don't bunker down and manage to carry on with the success they're enjoying right now.
Ligue 1: Montpellier
10 matches into the French Ligue 1 season, there's not a whole lot to be surprised about. As predicted, PSG is at the top of the table thanks to a bit of newfound financial security. Two other top-four regulars join them near the top, as Lyon and Lille hold on to the third and fourth place spots respectively.
The biggest head-turner is the position of last season's second-place finishers, Olympique de Marseille, who have struggled to find a foothold and have fallen to 15th. The next biggest surprise is who is taking their place in the top four: last year's 14th place finishers, Montpellier HSC.
Montpellier has had a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the French top-tier since their promotion in 2009, finishing a respectable fifth place the following season before falling into the cellar last time around. But they've shown that they can be an upper-table club, even if last year wasn't everything they hoped it would be.
That fifth-place finish in 2009-10 left them one spot short of European football, an achievement that could have done wonders to buy some consistency in the next season if they had managed to break into the top four.
But with just a three-point gap between them and PSG, as well as a goal differential that rivals France's best, this could certainly be the season that they make it happen.
Not to mention the fact that their star forward, Olivier Giroud, currently leads the league in goals scored, playing a pivotal role in Montpellier's early-season success.
Just a few months ago, Borussia Mönchengladbach was fighting to avoid relegation after finishing 16th in Bundesliga with an embarrassing 36 points for the season.
Having avoided automatic relegation, the club faced a playoff round with the second-tier's third place finisher for their ticket to top-flight football in 2011-12.
They won that playoff and earned their opportunity to try and improve the next time around. But "improve" can hardly describe what Mönchengladbach has achieved in the first nine matches of the Bundesliga season.
With 17 points already to their name, the club has almost reached half of last year's total, with 75 percent of the season left to play. They've gone undefeated so far at home, and sit in the second-place spot on the league table, behind only the extremely in-form Bayern Munich.
Can Mönchengladbach keep the pace? Don't count them out quite yet. Germany has a habit of being a bit less predictable than much of the rest of Europe, and this little club clearly has something to prove.
Second-place might not be entirely sustainable for the rest of the year, but if they manage to hold on to a spot in Germany's top four, then we're all going to have to learn how to pronounce that name before next season's Champions League.
La Liga: Levante
The top two spots of the La Liga table are typically the easiest to predict at the start of a new campaign. It's Barcelona and Real Madrid, by miles. There's no room for debate.
So seven matches into 2011-12, it should be no surprise that the league is currently led by Barcelona and...Levante?
Last season, in Levante's first run in the top tier following promotion in 2010, the club finished 14th overall—just two points out of the relegation zone. Both Barca and Madrid finished with more points on top of them than Levante managed to accumulate all season.
This season, both of the Spanish giants suffered as close to an early-season "slump" as you can realistically expect from sides that finished last year with 90-plus points and goal differences hovering around 70. Four weeks in, Barcelona was in a surprising fourth place, while Madrid sat in seventh.
Predictably, the table has already begun to rearrange itself into something a bit more reminiscent of years past, with lower-table clubs finally slipping up to allow Barcelona and Madrid to resume their annual race for the title all by themselves. All the lower clubs except for Levante, that is.
And if you're thinking that they had an easy early-season schedule to help them reach their current position of being tied with Barcelona for No. 1, you are mistaken. Levante even had to defeat Madrid to get to where they are right now.
Surely it can't last forever, and I'm certainly not predicting that it will. But the little guys are hanging in there more securely, week in and week out, than any reasonable analyst could have realistically predicted. A 2012-13 Champions League campaign is hardly out of the question for Levante, assuming they can keep the impressive pace.
Eventually, La Liga will become the two-horse race that it's destined to be. Until then, you surely have to respect how much they've shaken things up in Spain in the early weeks of the season.