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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Eight most disappointing soccer teams in Europe this season

AC Milan

European soccer tends to have its established giants, but riches and reputation has proven time and time again to be no guarantee of actual success. Sometimes teams don’t gel; sometimes the weight of expectation proves too much; and sometimes injuries and rot can set in, derailing an entire season before the new year even rolls in.

Here are eight teams from across Europe’s big five leagues — England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France — who simply have not lived up to preseason expectations thus far in 2017.

AC Milan

Long an Italian soccer powerhouse, it has now been four years since AC Milan finished in Serie A’s top three. The 18-time champions sank as low as tenth in 2014-15 and haven’t even sniffed the Champions League since manager Massimiliano Allegri departed for Juventus in 2014. For a team with as rich a history as Milan has, that was unacceptable.

Subsequently, Milan invested roughly $230 million into new players over the summer, including stalwart defender Leonardo Bonucci and gifted young forward Andre Silva. The expectation was a run at the top four and the opportunity to re-establish themselves on the European stage. The result has been far from it. Milan sit seventh, nine points off fourth place, having lost five of their 12 games thus far. It’s clear that all the investment isn’t paying off — and that’s not acceptable given the heightened expectations.

Atletico Madrid

Atletico have not lost in La Liga this season, but they haven’t quite won enough, either. They’ve drawn five of their 11 league games, including against the likes of Girona and Leganes, two sides that a team with this much quality should be beating. Those struggles have left them eight points behind league leaders Barcelona — not insurmountable, but given the firepower that Barca has, also not optimal.

Worse still for Atletico is the fact that their Champions League campaign is teetering on the brink of collapse. The culprit there is more draws — twice, both at home and away to lowly Azerbaijani side Qarabag FK. They’ll need to find a way to beat both Roma and Chelsea to advance into the knockout rounds. That is a longshot, and a disappointment of the highest order for a team that thought they had the ability to win the entire competition at the start of the season.

Borussia Dortmund

Dortmund score plenty of goals, but they concede too many — 14 in 11 Bundesliga games to date, making them too porous defensively. Manager Peter Bosz, brought in from Ajax, has failed to make the side significantly better than the one former manager Thomas Tuchel left behind. Dortmund don’t really settle for any less than second in Germany. There’s no shame in losing out to Bayern Munich, but if they fail to finish in the top two this season, it would be the third time in four seasons.

Dortmund’s Champions League campaign hasn’t been much better. Landing in a group with Real Madrid and Tottenham was a stroke of extremely bad luck, and they’ve proven to be a distant third behind those two teams. Have we seen the best of Dortmund? Perhaps we have — they seem to have plateaued.

Chelsea

Nobody really challenged Chelsea in the Premier League in 2016-17, as Antonio Conte’s side were comprehensively better than everyone else in the league. They are not the same team this season. The departure of Diego Costa hasn’t helped, but in general, every player looks like he’s lost a step or two from last season. They’re nine whole points off the top now, having already been comprehensively dominated at home by Manchester City.

While Chelsea’s Champions League has gone better, it still included a 3-0 blowout at the hands of Roma. It’s been a year filled with rumors of discontent and a possible Conte departure. The abrupt departure of technical director Michael Emenalo, who oversaw much of the club’s scouting and youth development, has done little to quiet those rumors. Something is just amiss at Chelsea right now.

Liverpool

After a fourth-place finish a year ago, Jurgen Klopp’s second full season in charge of Liverpool was supposed to include a legitimate title challenge. After three months, it looks like a top four battle is on the cards instead, with the Reds having fallen 12 points behind leaders Manchester City already.

The issue has been a defense that has repeatedly capitulated against big teams and small. 17 goals in 11 games is not going to have anyone in contention for a league title no matter how gifted an attack they have. They’ve gone to Watford and drew 3-3 and were wiped out 4-1 by Tottenham, while they dropped points at home to Burnley. They haven’t really progressed under Klopp this season, and it counts as a huge disappointment. Barring a huge upturn in form, it looks like their title challenge will be over by Christmas.

OGC Nice

Nice were the surprise of the French league in 2016-17, finishing third and heading into the Champions League qualifiers, muscling in among French powerhouses such as Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, and Lyon. The big question was how they’d respond to the new heights they’d reached a year ago.

The answer is not well.

Nice sit 15th in Ligue 1, just three points ahead of the relegation zone. Their Champions League campaign was over before it started, as they fell to Dutch giants Ajax in the qualifiers and didn’t even make it to the group stage. It would have been unfair to expect Nice to replicate their campaign of a year ago, but it’s still a surprise that they’re in a relegation fight.

Real Madrid

Real have now lost at home to Real Betis and away to Girona. It’s easy to say that they don’t really have any business losing to anyone outside of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and maybe a couple other teams, but that’s also true. Perhaps the most alarming evidence of Real’s slight fall, though, was the 3-1 drubbing they took away to Tottenham in the Champions League. The Spanish giants were totally and completely outplayed by an English side that has ran and hid in big moments before.

Madrid are coming off a Spanish league title and have won the Champions League twice in a row. They could still make it three in Europe, but their form has been iffy and they’re already eight points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Nobody would have expected them to be that far behind in the middle of November.

West Ham

After a subpar 2016-17, West Ham were another team that invested heavily with the hopes of breaking into the top eight, at the very least. Joe Hart, England’s no. 1 goalkeeper, was one of the most prominent additions, alongside former Manchester United forward Javier Hernandez, a proven Premier League goalscorer. A rise up the table was expected.

The opposite has happened. The Hammers have nine points from 11 matches, putting them in the relegation zone. Manager Slaven Bilic has already paid for that with his job, and the replacement doesn’t inspire much confidence; David Moyes failed at Manchester United and managed Sunderland to relegation a season ago. There’s too much talent on this team for them to be in 18th, but where does it end? Something significant needs to change quickly.

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