Expectations are funny things; either you are expected to do well or you not. At the start of each football season betting men place their bets based on these expectations. At the start of this season I would have congratulated the man who made a bet on Chelsea to win the Premiership; they seemed that far ahead. I have been proved wrong though and boy am I glad about it.
This season, more than any other in my recent memory, logical expectations have been proved as shrewd as a radiator in an ice cream van. David has toppled Goliath; the underdog has taken it to the big boys. Below are five teams that I feel epitomise the pseudonym "underdog" this season. Five teams that for a variety of reasons and to varying degrees have upset the odds (and the gamblers), over the past four-and-a-half months.
Alright. The French league is not the best league in Europe and, alright, resident heavyweights Lyon and Marseille are not the most totalitarian of rulers but still...Lille? Led by a player who, in my opinion is probably the best young prospect (obviously discounting Lionel Messi) in the world to date (Eden Hazard), Rudi Garcia’s men, currently reside a point above Lyon and PSG and three points above reigning champions Marseille, with a game in hand on all three!
On their way to the league’s best away record, Lille have also claimed the recognition of league's top scorers, seven ahead of perennial bully-boys Lyon. The club’s attacking triumvirate of Moussa Sow, Hazard and Gervinho have compounded the club's fiercely attacking ethos that this season has become their trademark.
The French league gives a lot of credence to the halfway leader or "autumn champion" as it's known over there, however, judging by Garcia’s assertion that the team was only looking at the "bigger picture" or end of the season, this could well be beautiful football’s year.
Cross the French/German boundary and the picture, although slightly warped, is essentially the same: form book used as doormat for team who came from nowhere. Dortmund, take a bow. The main difference between Lille’s fragile tenure at the apex of Ligue 1 as opposed to Dortmund’s vice like strangulation of German football is that the German title is essentially already won. Thirteen points; that’s a big gap.
When one looks at the stats, however, it's easy to see why: 15 wins, one draw and two losses, 42 goals scored and just 11 conceded. Germany never really had a chance.
The combination of the Serbian sensation Neven Subotic and German hard-man Mats Hummels at centre half, Turkish boy-wonder Nuri Sahin in midfield and the revelation that is Lucas Barrios up front has effectively ended the league as a competition. For a team who actually possesses the biggest stadium in German football, bigger even than old Trafford, perhaps the fact that this success is such a surprise could be considered flawed. Eighty thousand people should not have to wait 10 years (Dortmund's last Bundesliga was in 2000) for a team befitting its colossal stature.
Then again though, the utter annihilation Dortmund are doling out this season could be seen as worth the 10 years of hurt. Just to compound Bayern Munich’s misery, they are fifth and Mainz are second. Who? Exactly.
Napoli are in fact currently second in the Serie A table, behind AC Milan, but Milan despite being the "underdogs" to their city rivals, can hardly adopt the "underdog" mantra under normal circumstances. Napoli though are a side still living of the Diego Maradona-inspired glory years of the late 1980s. This season though Napoli have taken their chance. Benefiting from the appointment of the incompetent buffoon in charge of Inter Milan’s dramatic self implosion, Napoli have stepped in to fill the breach.
Napoli in reality have very little that can compare to the "Italian Galacticos" in the San Siro, but what they do have is a tight unit and two players that could walk into almost any team in the world. Marik Hamsik and Edison Cavanni have been the subject of high-profile speculation of moves away from San Paolo (Cavanni to Barcelona, Hamsik to pretty much everywhere), but the midfield playmaker and top scorer have stayed to lead the revolution.
Napoli finished sixth last season, but with a team spirit and never-say-die attitude that has caused them to score the game's only goal in injury time no fewer than three times this season, next season Champions League football could be on the San Paolo agenda.
To me without a doubt the biggest success story of the season. They might not be winning the league, or anywhere near for that matter, but they're not losing. For the modicum of talent at the seaside’s disposal even 19th place would have been seen by many as an unexpected achievement. They are currently 10th...that’s top-half!
The maverick that is Mr. Ian Holloway has found his niche by the sea. His is a team without pressure, without particularly good players and without expectation. They go out, play football and more often than not surprise a few people; the double over Liverpool anyone?
For a town that is famous more for its donkeys than skill with a ball, I have to admit that at the start of the season I feared 11 of the donkeys would be wearing tangerine. I’m happy to say (getting to be a trend, isn’t it?) I was wrong, again. Although with my history of betting in this article I probably shouldn’t. I'd wager that a high percentage of football fans in Spain, Italy, France or Germany or anywhere else for that matter, have never heard of Ian Evatt, Neil Eardley or David Vaughn. Yet to the people of Blackpool they are heroes (not superstars, this would be to misconstrue the term). But in reality this isn’t what it's about. Yaya Toure may be a good player (ish), but £200,000 is another world: Ian Evatt was born in Coventry.
On the surface the words "Manchester United" and "underdog" smack somewhat of a juxtaposition in terms. At the beginning of the current season though that was exactly what they were. The perennial achievers were being doubted, Alan Hansen’s "You’ll win nothing with kids" seemed like déjà vu.
Chelsea—"best squad in the league."
Arsenal—"this could be their year."
Manchester City—"all that money could just pay off."
Well they bought the homeless World Player of the Year and a man who thought he was a pea. In the midst of the clamour one man never wavered; Alex Ferguson maintained his confidence in his players speaking of the strength in youth at the club's disposal. Ferguson was right, we were wrong, United are unbeaten. They may not have been consistently impressive but they consistently haven’t lost and that is the true hallmark of a great team.
Harry Redknapp this week tried to pour water on the United fire claiming that he " couldn't see them going the whole season unbeaten." Harry, after all correctly predicted England would win the World Cup in 2010. I wouldn't hold your breath. May’s an awfully long time away.