Europe’s football underdogs return to form

Paris: Unheralded Mainz top the table in Germany, Cesena have led Serie A, Saint-Etienne are back at the summit of the French first division and Barcelona were beaten, at home, by minnows Hercules.

Strange things are afoot in European football.

Over the early weeks of the season, in every major league on the continent, the big guns have struggled and the lesser lights have seized their chances.

Mainz beat reigning German champions Bayern Munich 2-1 on Saturday to record their sixth win in six league matches.

Their completely unexpected form has taken them to the top of the Bundesliga for the first time in their history, while Bayern are already 10 points off the pace in ninth.

“We don’t feel bigger than we are,” said Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel, whose charges are just one win short of the league record for consecutive wins at the start of a season.

Last season’s German runners-up Schalke, meanwhile, opened the campaign with four straight defeats and sit second from bottom with a single win to their name.

An almost identical fate has befallen Roma, who are also in the relegation zone despite having finished second in the Italian top flight last term.

Lyon, second in France last season, are currently 18th with just one win from seven league games, while five-time European champions Liverpool are only three points off the bottom of England’s Premier League.

For the teams bucking the trends in the early weeks of the 2010-11 campaign, the common denominators are belief, heart and good old-fashioned hard work.

“There’s no particular secret to our game. We are playing with team spirit,” said Cesena coach Massimo Ficcadenti, whose promoted side briefly topped the Italian standings after three matches.

“We are not looking at the table. We just want to stay up.”

A similar refrain resounds in France, where 10-time champions Saint-Etienne have returned to the Ligue 1 summit for the first time since February 1982, despite having finished in 17th place for the past two seasons.

Les Verts forward Bakary Sako credits coach Christophe Galtier with the turnaround.

“Since his arrival, he’s tried to create a team spirit,” said Sako prior to his team’s 1-0 win at neighbours Lyon on Saturday.

“He told us that, if we wanted to stay up, we’d only achieve it by collective effort.”

The biggest shock of the season’s early weeks was Barcelona’s 2-0 loss at home to Hercules in their second league game.

It was the heaviest home defeat of Pep Guardiola’s tenure and the Barcelona coach was full of praise for the La Liga newcomers, who are sitting snugly in mid-table after beating Sevilla 2-0 at the weekend.

“I congratulate Hercules,” he said. “They came here and played well. They made it difficult for us and they got their reward.”

Making life difficult, in the form of aggressive pressing, is increasingly the buzz tactic for unfancied teams taking on star-studded opposition.

Arsenal fell to a 3-2 defeat at home to promoted West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League on Saturday and victorious coach Roberto di Matteo credited a high-octane defensive effort for his side’s unlikely triumph.

“We pressed them very high, in their half, all over the pitch,” said the Italian. “We managed not to let them play their usual way.”

It is a recurring theme. Mainz striker Adam Szalai said his side’s “mission” against Bayern had been “to put the pressure on,” while Cesena’s 2-0 defeat of AC Milan earlier this month was described in the Italian press as a testament to the organisation and work-rate of Ficcadenti’s team.

Under-achieving heavyweights such as Bayern, Liverpool and Lyon seem to be paying the price for squads full of international players who have taken time to rediscover form and fitness after the rigours of the World Cup.

Teams like Mainz, Cesena, Saint-Etienne and Hercules, on the other hand, have been able to attack the campaign with a full pre-season behind them and a playing staff comprised of hungry, injury-free players.

The World Cup hangover theory can only be stretched so far, however.

Chelsea’s players endured a disastrous tournament, with Nicolas Anelka sent home by France, Didier Drogba breaking his arm with Ivory Coast and Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole failing to impress once again for England.

And yet, prior to Saturday’s defeat at Manchester City, the Premier League leaders had begun the campaign with five straight wins and an average of 4.2 goals scored per game.

Attributing the surprise results to the after-effects of the World Cup would also be doing a disservice to the industry, attitude and ambition of the ‘little’ teams who refuse to follow the script.

Bureau Report