Strength of La Liga proven by European results

Euro 2016

One of the most keenly debated topics concerning football in Europe centres upon which is the continent’s best or strongest league.

It is continentally accepted that European football’s five major leagues are the Bundesliga, the English Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A.

Nevertheless the quality or strength of those leagues relative to one another is difficult to establish, although one potentially useful measure is the performance of clubs in European football’s two major club competitions.

La Liga clubs excel in Europe

In the group stages of the Champions and Europa Leagues so far this season, La Liga clubs have played a combined total of 14 matches and lost just one, which provides an excellent indication of the current strength of Spanish football’s top flight.

Of Spain’s current representatives in European competition, only Atletico Bilbao have suffered a defeat, as Ernesto Valverde’s side lost their first Europa League group stage game 3-0 to Sassuolo.

With the exception of that game, the overall record of La Liga clubs in the group stages of European competition this season is, played 13, won eight and drawn five.

Quartet in fine Champions League form

Furthermore both Atletico Madrid and Barcelona have maintained 100% records in the Champions League.

After consigning Celtic to their heaviest ever European defeat by opening their Champions League campaign with a 7-0 win over the Scottish Champions at the Nou Camp, Barca recovered from a goal down to beat Borrusia Monchengladbach 2-1, as Arda Turan and Gerard Pique scored against the Bundesliga side.

Whilst the Catalan giants sit atop of group C, Atletico also occupy such a lofty position in Group D, as similar to Barcelona, Diego’s Simeone side have been successful against German opposition.  Specifically courtesy of a Yannick Carrasco goal Los Rojiblancos beat Bayern Munich 1-0 whilst they also overcame PSV Eindhoven by that same score line, with Atletico producing two typically determined and resolute displays, to enhance their excellent Champions League record over recent years.

Specifically in two of the last three editions of the competition, Atletico have reached the final, only to be beaten on both occasions by their city rivals Real, who are currently second in Group F having won one and drawn the other of their opening two games, which is a record shared by Spain’s other representative in the Champions League, Sevilla.

Jorge Sampaoli’s side frustrated Juventus to earn a 0-0 draw against the Serie A league leaders, before beating Olympique Lyonnais 1-0 at the Sanchez Pizjuan, as Wissam Ben Yedder scored the decisive goal for Sevilla, who are competing in the Champions League after having won the Europa League for three successive years.

The triumphs of Sevilla in the Europa League combined with Real Madrid winning two of the last three editions of the Champions League – 2014 & 2016 – and Barcelona the other – 2015 – means that La Liga clubs hold a three year monopolisation of winning European football’s two major club competitions.

La Liga’s clubs Europa League exploits

Ultimately a continuation of that dominance is altogether possible, given the extremely positive manner in which La Liga clubs are currently performing in Europe, as they paint a fine portrayal of the strength of their league, within which Celta Vigo are currently 13th.

Although struggling domestically however, Eduardo Berizzo’s side have started their first European campaign in over 12 years extremely well, by collecting four points from two Europa League group stages games.  Amidst the intensely competitive group comprised of Ajax, Panathinaikos, and Standard Liege, Celta Vigo is flourishing.  Two points adrift of Ajax in second place, they assumed that position after confidently beating Panathinaikos 2-0 at home courtesy of goals from John Guidetti and Daniel Wass, who along with fellow Dane Pione Sisto is a key player for Celta Vigo.

Given their lowly position in La Liga, that they have commenced their current European campaign so encouragingly, further testifies the strength of Spanish football’s top division, whilst so too does Villareal’s unbeaten start in the Europa League.  El Submarino Amarillo has responded brilliantly to the disappointment of their Champions League play-off round defeat to AS Monaco by beating FC Zurich and earning an excellent 1-1 away draw against Steaua Bucharest, despite an error from goalkeeper Andres Fernandez.

Whilst both Celta Vigo and Villareal are in good positions to progress to the knock-out phases of the Europa League, Atletico Bilbao enhanced their prospects of achieving that by beating Genk 1-0, after being dismantled by Sassuolo for whom the Spanish full back Pol Lirola starred.  Although their defeat to Sassuolo was humbling, Bilbao graciously accepted and learned from that potentially demoralising European experience to produce a vastly improved performance against Genk for which they were rewarded, as Benat Etxeberria scored the decisive goal.

Strong evidence of the competitiveness and quality of La Liga

Therefore both the performances and results of each of Spain’s seven representatives in European competition this season have proven the current immense strength of La Liga, which is as rich in competitiveness and quality this season, as it has been during any other.

The table below is constructed so as provide a comparison between the performance of La Liga clubs in Europe this season and those of the other four top European leagues, which statistically confirms the relative strength of La Liga.

European League Number of Representatives in European Competition Accumulative number of games played in European Competition  Wins Draws Loses
Bundesliga 7 14 6 5 3
English Premier League 6 12 7 4 2
La Liga 7 14 8 5 1
Ligue 1 5 10 3 5 2
Serie A 6 12 6 3 3

Therefore at present, La Liga clubs are reigning supreme in European competition.

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Benfica ready to launch another impressive Champions League campaign

Euro 2016

As Portugal’s most highly decorated club, Benfica are well accustomed to honorably representing their country in European competition.

Benfica’s strong European pedigree

The 1961 & 1962 European champions, who have won the Portuguese Primeira Liga for three successive years, will aspire to do just that once again in this season’s Champions League, after performing impressively to reach the quarter finals of last year’s competition.

Under the managerial guidance of Rui Vitoria, who succeeded Jorge Jesus following the 62-year-old’s departure to join Sporting Lisbon in June 2015, Benfica qualified for the knock-out stages by finishing second in their group, which was won by eventual runners-up Atletico Madrid and also contained Galastasary along with Astana.

Thereafter in the round of 16, Benfica beat Zenit St. Petersburg home and away to record a 3-1 aggregate victory, before narrowly losing their two legged quarter final tie against Bayern Munich 3-2.

That was the first time since the 2011-2012 season that Àguias had made the last eight of the Champions League, whilst Vitoria’s team are preparing to launch a similarly impressive campaign this year.

Change in playing personnel

Despite selling Nicolas Gaitan and Renato Sanches to Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively, whilst also allowing the Brazilian midfielder Talisca to join Besiktas on loan, Benfica’s squad remains strong both in terms of depth and quality, since during the past summer their management team and network of scouts identified and attracted new talented players to the club.

Influx of quality new players to Benfica’s squad

Specifically as well as signing Portugal’s Euro 2016 winner Rafa Silva for €16.4m from Braga, Benfica also recruited several other excellent young midfielders including the highly rated duo of Andre Horta and Andrija Zivkovic, along with Oscar Benitez and Franco Cervi of Argentina and the Brazilian Guillermo Celis.

Furthermore Benfica’s chief decision makers completed another piece of astute business in this summer’s transfer market by signing the Greek internationalist striker Konstantinos Mitroglu on a permanent contract for €7m from Fulham, after the 28-year-old scored 25 goals in 45 appearances during a successful loan spell with the Portuguese champions last season.

Whilst Mitroglu performed consistently well throughout that, so too did his strike partner Jonas, as the former Valencia forward scored 36 goals in 48 appearances and was named the Primeira Player of the Season for a second successive year.

In addition to Jonas and Mitroglu, another excellent striking option available to manager Vitoria is the Mexican Raul Jimenez.  The 25-year-old former Atletico Madrid player is currently in fine form, scoring in both his Primeira Liga appearances to help Benfica enjoy an unbeaten start to the domestic season, whereby of their four league game to date, they have won three and drawn one.

Benfica’s fine start to the season

Whilst winning a trio of away fixtures against Tondela (2-0), Nacional (3-1) and Arouca (2-1), Benfica’s drew their solitary home match so far this season at the Estadio da Luz – which is the largest football ground in Portugal with a capacity of 65,600 people - 1-1 against Vitória de Setúbal.  It was from Setúbal that Benfica signed Andre Horta for an undisclosed fee.  Subsequently the diminutive and technically gifted 19-year-old has seamlessly settled into the centre of Benfica’s midfield alongside the combative Serbian Ljubomir Fejsa.

They are rapidly developing a superb partnership after playing together for the first time in a competitive match to help Benfica beat Braga 3-0 in the Supertaca Candido de Oliveira – Portuguese Super Cup.

Another player who produced a wonderfully impressive display during that game was Horta’s fellow debutant Franco Cervi.  As well as scoring the 22-year-old Argentinian was named man-of-the-match, whilst also influential in Benfica’s triumph was Pizzi, who scored and provided an assist for Benfica’s other goal, a composed finish by Jonas.

Vitoria constructing a talented team

As such whilst many of Benfica’s players have started this season extremely positively, they are performing well as a collective unit, which has a particularly strong spine.

The base of that is constructed by the Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar and the central defensive duo of Jardel and Victor Lindelof, whilst ahead of them is the Fejsa – Horta partnership behind a front pair of Jonas and Mitroglu, although Jimenez possesses the potential to compete intensely with them for a starting place in Vitoria’s side.

Upon that the youthful full-back duo of Alex Grimaldo and Nelsinho have made a very positive impact so far this season, whilst in the wide midfield roles so to have Pizzi and Eduardo Salvio, who Vitoria currently prefers to play on the right wing ahead of Cervi.

Therefore the 46-year-old Vitoria is making great progress towards developing an extremely talented and well-balanced Benfica side, which is well-equipped to launch another impressive Champions League campaign, following their run to the quarter – finals of the competition last season.

Àguias to embrace Champions League challenge

The prospect of trying to emulate and eclipse that performance constitutes a difficult challenge to Benfica.

That begins with their first group stage game which is a home fixture against Besiktas, whilst Benfica will also face Dynamo Kiev and Napoli, with each of those teams representing difficult opponents.

Nevertheless Àguias undoubtedly possess the potential to overcome each of those and once again qualify for the knock-out stages.

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Dybala hints at being the “new Messi”

Paulo Dybala

Making comparisons is always dangerous. Definitely in sports and football, as historical era’s tend to differ due to new training methods, changing ways of thinking about the game, revolutionary tactics, standard of the opposition, and pure random factors among others.

Therefore, stating Juventus’ Paulo Dybala has hinted at being the “new Lionel Messi”, is always going to be controversial. It’s even somewhat subjective because these kind of comparisons are never easy to measure. Especially if players don’t play in the same team, being deployed in different kind of line-ups.

Still, Dybala has been pointed out as a potential new superstar. In a position, form, and approach displayed by his fellow countryman at Barcelona. The 22-year-old registered two difficult performances to start the 2016-2017 Serie A season, against Fiorentina and Lazio. But in the encounter with Sassuolo, the first after the international break in which Dybala was send off during his full Argentina debut, he played phenomenal.

Free role

Bianconeri coach Max Allegri was finally able to field Miralem Pjanic, using him as a box-to-box player and not as a deep playmaker, with the latter being the overall expectation. On paper, Dybala was Juve’s second striker next to Gonzalo Higuain. However, on the pitch the Argentine dominated from the first to the last whistle in a free role.

Dybala dropped deep to demand the ball, like he did against Fiorentina and Lazio. However, with Pjanic’ timely runs and creativity, Juve didn’t lose any offensive fire power this time. Dybala created chaos with his positional switches, speedy dribbles, and combinations with his teammates, all while controlling the tempo of the game. Like Messi at Barcelona? Yes.

What also stood out in Dybala’s strong performance was his unselfishness. The Argentine hasn’t scored this season, but he’s provided two assists, while also being involved in almost every dangerous attack by the Old Lady. Always looking for a teammate first, and only later thinking about his own glory. Like Messi? Yes.

Complete forward

The 22-year-old has already provided 23 goals and 11 assists in just 49 appearances for Juventus, revealing himself as one of Europe’s most complete forwards. Using his small body, football IQ, and speed to his advantage. Like Messi? You already know the answer.

Will Dybala ever become the legend Messi is? Probably not. The Barcelona star has set the bar extremely high for players in his position. Almost unreachable. But considering his talent, skills, mentality, and mindset, Dybala could follow in Messi’s footsteps. Albeit doing it in his own spectacular way. The hints have been too obvious to ignore.

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Napoli seek to build upon enthralling victory over Milan

Euro 2016One team has reigned supreme in Serie A over the course of the last five seasons.

Juve’s domination of Serie A

Specifically Juventus have won five successive Scudetto’s, whilst they have made a positive start to winning a sixth.

After opening their 2016-2017 Serie A campaign with a 2-1 home victory over Fiorentina, La Vecchia SignoraThe Old Lady – then beat Lazio 1-0 at the Stadio Olimpico.

Old Lady make strong start to title defense 

The determination and resoluteness which Massimiliano Allegri’s side displayed to earn both of those wins, despite not producing their best form, provided a clear indication that they will be formidable opponents for any other Serie A side and as such, ready to launch a sustainably strong defence of their league title.

With that already being well underway and having the potential to gather momentum when Juventus host Sassuolo in their next league game, teams with any aspirations of breaking the Turin giants Serie A dominance must also begin the season strongly so as to create a solid base upon which to build a sustained title challenge.

Early season evidence of Napoli’s attacking prowess

One team with the potential to do that are last season’s runners-up Napoli, particularly given the wealth of technically gifted attacking players within Partenopei’s squad.

Despite selling Gonzalo Higuain to Juve for €90m in the summer, Napoli remain a potent attacking force, as can be proven by reflecting upon the two Serie A games they have played this season.  In the first of those, Dries Mertens scored a second-half double to help Napoli recover from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Pescara, whilst Maurizio Sarri’s side then enthrallingly defeated AC Milan 4-2 at the Stadio San Paolo.

After Arkadiusz Milik’s brace, the 22-year-old Polish international striker’s first two Serie A goals, gave Napoli a 2-0 half time lead, I Rossoneri drew level shortly after the interval courtesy of goals from M’Baye Niang and Suso.  However Napoli responded positively to surrendering their lead, with Jose Callejon scoring twice to secure his team’s maiden Serie A win of the season.

Whilst the quality of Napoli’s attacking play and creative inventiveness – chief architects of which are the club’s inspirational captain Marik Hamsik along with Callejon and Mertens – is indisputable, at the moment they are far less assured defensively.

Partenopei defensively fragile 

However that is partly attributable to their commitment, which is authorised by manager Sarri and demanded by their vociferously loyal supporters, to endeavour to play an attractive and expansive brand of attacking football that occasionally leaves them vulnerable defensively.

That is particularly the case since the team’s two first choice full-backs Elseid Hysaj and Faouzi Ghoulam are given licence to maraud forward.

Ultimately Napoli’s defensive frailties were evident during their enthralling victory over Milan.

Sarri tasked with engineering a sustained Napoli title challenge 


Nevertheless they will now seek to build upon that by winning their next league game at home to Palermo, as Sarri’s side aspire to establish themselves as genuine title contenders and stay in touch with the ominously strong Juventus at the top of Serie A.

The two teams meet for the first time this season on 29 October at the Juventus Stadium.

Between now and then, Sarri’s aim must be to allow Napoli to continue playing with a similar level of attacking verve and purposefulness as they did against Milan, whilst solidifying them defensively, so that they are suitably equipped to embark upon a fine run of results.

That is vitally important in order to enhance Napoli’s prospects of winning a first Serie A title since 1990 and ending Juventus’ five season dominance of the division.

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Verratti must become a key Azzurri figure


It was a substitution the home fans were pleased to see. While Italy were losing in Giampiero Ventura’s first match in charge against France, and would go on to lose 3-1, the arrival of Marco Verratti just past the hour mark was a welcome return.

The midfielder had been forced to miss much of the 2015-16 campaign and subsequently Euro 2016 through injury. It was a blow for the Italians, who nonetheless performed well in the tournament.

His entrance on Thursday was positive for Ventura and the new Azzurri era. And well-timed. As Verratti returned, Daniele De Rossi sustained an injury which rules him out of tonight’s opening World Cup qualifier against Israel. Verratti, so long threatening to break into the Nazionale limelight, now has a fantastic opportunity.

Since his swashbuckling displays for Pescara which led to a risky, but rewarding move to Paris Saint-Germain in 2012, Verratti has been seen as the brightest young talents in Italy. He played twice at World Cup 2014, but Andrea Pirlo’s international u-turn under new boss Antonio Conte meant Verratti had to bide his time. He made five Euro 2016 qualifying appearances and with Pirlo out of favour, only injury kept Verratti from a starting spot.

With both De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio absent, this is Verratti’s time to shine. In Ventura, Italy have a boss not afraid to give younger players a chance, something some past tacticians have been guilty of. As Ventura said on Sunday, while Conte took over on the back of three Scudetto triumphs at Juventus he had ‘victories’ of his own at Torino: seeing budding talents progress to Europe’s biggest clubs and to the national team.

The stars are aligning. And Verratti, who has won championships in France and made it to the latter stages of the Champions League, is ready for Italy’s upcoming test. It’s a difficult group which also includes Spain and fellow Euro 2016 qualifiers Albania. The opening match away to Israel is tricky, but also a must-win with La Furia Roja visiting Turin next month.

The 23-year-old has taken on responsibility in France and is ready to do so for the Azzurri. “The role I play in is not important. What matters is doing what the coach asks of me so I can do what’s best for the team. I do like Ventura’s way of understanding football.”

Always appearing at consummate ease in possession, Verratti has the quality to add to what many would suggest is a low tally of just 16 Azzurri caps. He can become their central lynchpin.

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