Haaland, Liverpool, Serie A resurgence: The best storylines

The month of May is a storyline-generation machine for European soccer. There are titles getting decided everywhere, anxious relegation races to follow and tickets to UEFA competitions to punch. There are also, of course, the final rounds of said UEFA competitions. If something memorable is going to happen in a given season, the odds are good that it will happen in May (or, when there are strange circumstances like, for instance, a winter World Cup, early June).

Even taking title races and the Champions League out of the equation, there’s just so much to follow. Here are seven of my favorite stories as we dive into the final matches of 2022-23.

Liverpool attempting another magic act

March 7, 2021: Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool lost 1-0 to relegation-level Fulham to fall to eighth place with what was, per FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings, just a 20% chance of rallying to finish in the top four. Their odds of playing in the 2021-22 Champions League were dim.

They proceeded to pull 26 points from their final 10 matches, winning their last five outright and miraculously finishing third. (They would go on to reach the final of the Champions League that they rallied to qualify for.)

April 1, 2023: Liverpool lost 4-1 to Manchester City to fall to eighth place with what was, again per SPI, just an 11% chance of climbing back into a Champions League spot.

They have proceeded to pull 23 points from their next nine matches, winning seven in a row. They are one point behind both third-place Newcastle United and fourth-place Manchester United with two matches remaining.

It sure feels like history is repeating itself on Merseyside, doesn’t it? In both 2020-21 and 2022-23, Liverpool fell far behind the pack thanks to defensive breakdowns. They currently rank second in the Premier League in shots allowed per possession but are a distant last in expected goals (xG) allowed per shot, just as they did two years ago. The reasons for those breakdowns are a bit different — two years ago, all their center-backs got hurt; this year it seems a stale midfield has faced the brunt of the blame — but the effect has been the same. So has the late-year rally.

It’s not exactly the same this time, though. For one thing, both Newcastle and Man United have a game in hand. Entering their final two matches, SPI still gives Liverpool only a 37% chance of a top-four finish, with both the third- and fourth-place teams at 81%. (Brighton & Hove Albion, eight points back but with four matches still to play, also have a 2% chance.)

Liverpool face a torrid Aston Villa on Saturday but at least get them at home before finishing on the road against an already-relegated Southampton. Newcastle still have to face Brighton and an increasingly desperate Leicester City, and while Manchester United’s remaining foes (AFC Bournemouth, Chelsea and Fulham) have little to play for, the Red Devils have been inconsistent of late. Liverpool could still pull this off. Again.

A moment for Italian soccer

Italy’s historic soccer bona fides are infallible. The country has won the second-most World Cups, and at the club level its teams boast the second-most combined finals appearances in the European Cup/Champions League. Serie A teams won four titles in the 1960s, three in the 1980s and two in the 1990s, and took eight of 11 UEFA Cup titles during a dominant 1990s run. The country has also contributed one of Europe’s most perfect teams — the Grande Torino dynasty of the late 1940s — and one of its most impactful tactical advancements: catenaccio.

Granted, catenaccio felt more like regression than advancement, but there’s still no questioning Italy’s place in the sport’s lore. There’s also no questioning that, as money has drifted toward superpowers in England and elsewhere in the 21st century, Serie A’s stature in the present tense has waned. Only two Italian teams made the Champions League final between 2011 and 2022, and in both of those finals Juventus suffered a multi-goal loss, once to Barcelona and once to Real Madrid.

Juve’s quest to bridge that gap led to both strategically terrible and legally questionable spending, which could still end up keeping them out of next year’s Champions League. Their fade, after nine straight Serie A titles, has opened the door to a number of different title winners — Internazionale in 2021, AC Milan in 2022, Napoli in 2023 — but it also further rendered the league mostly ineffective on the UEFA stage.

That has changed this spring. Serie A placed three teams in the Champions League quarterfinals and two in the semis, and since Inter and Milan were pitted against each other, it assured an Italian finalist as well. Juventus and AS Roma have both reached the Europa League semifinals (heading into Thursday’s action, SPI gave the teams a 28% chance of facing each other in the final), and Fiorentina are in the Europa Conference League semis as well.

Good draws have obviously helped. Inter, for instance, finished a distant second to Bayern Munich in the Champions League group stage but have drawn FC Porto (24th in SPI), Benfica (13th) and Milan (plummeting to 42nd) in their trek to the final. Bayern, meanwhile, drew Paris Saint-Germain (12th) and Manchester City (first). Despite the tournament success, there are only two Italian teams ranked higher than 26th in SPI, so this probably won’t turn out to be a true renaissance moving forward.

Still, Inter and others have taken full advantage of their opportunity, and the joyous scene at the San Siro following the Nerazzurri‘s win over Milan was a reminder that passion levels in Italy are as high as anywhere. That passion is getting rewarded on the European stage for the first time in a while.

Union Berlin in the Champions League?

Everything in the soccer-narrative machine is based on the future. You play this season to determine where you’ll be playing next season, and every time a breakout star emerges (be it a player or coach), we immediately go overboard speculating about which club will employ said star next year. It gets tiring.

Union Berlin, however, force you to live in the present. It’s a beautiful thing.

Historically, we know how stories like Union’s tend to end. A team that had never played in its country’s first division until four years ago might briefly rise up the table, but it doesn’t stay there. A team that plays without the ball and constantly overachieves its xG averages won’t continue to do so. A team that plays in the quaintest of midsize stadiums will not keep its small-club charm as it continues to win.

But here we are all the same. Union Berlin earned Bundesliga promotion for the first time in 2019 after posting some of the least impressive numbers you’ll ever see from a promoted team. They became the only second-division team in 10 years to win Germany’s promotion playoff, outlasting VfB Stuttgart in the ultimate battle of attrition. They headed to the top division with only one goal — staying up — but they finished a comfortable 11th in 2019-20, then rose to seventh the next season, qualifying for the Europa Conference League in the process. Last season they finished fifth and qualified for the Europa League, where they took down Ajax Amsterdam on their way to the round of 16.

This season they have raised the stakes even further. They led the league as late as late February, and with Saturday’s 4-2 win over SC Freiburg, they now have a 93% chance of finishing in the top four and securing their first Champions League bid.

We have no idea how long this story might last because, frankly, there’s no way in hell it should have lasted this long. It might end tomorrow, or it might never end. Union are planning expansion to the amazing Stadion an der Alten Forsterei, and they’re about to begin battling the “E” word: expectations. But as Stephan Uersfeld wrote for Germany’s ntv last week, “The end of innocence is approaching, but until then they will celebrate one last big party.” I wish I was there for it. They definitely throw a hell of a party.

Not all panic moves paid off for struggling sides

The otherworldly money and pressure involved in being a major European club assures that, at times, certain clubs will make panic moves. It’s as inevitable as it is destabilizing. But we can still hope for the lowest possible amount of instability.

It’s almost heartening, then, that almost none of the panic moves we saw this spring in the Premier League were actually rewarded.

Fourteen Premier League managers have either been sacked or departed their clubs by “mutual consent” this season. Such is life in a league with the highest level of money and pressure. But for teams that made such moves late in the season — far too late for such a move to actually help anything — the results have been mostly devastating.

Leeds United sacked Jesse Marsch on Feb. 6 and needed two weeks to find a successor. They brought in Javi Gracia despite his being the stylistic opposite of Marsch, and after a brief run of success, things completely fell apart.

They were averaging 0.90 points per game with Marsch, and their xG figures suggested they were unlucky to do so and would probably begin progressing toward the mean at some point. Their relegation odds, per SPI, were just 20%.

Since Marsch’s firing, they’ve averaged just 0.81 PPG, and their underlying numbers have been dreadful. Things fell apart quickly for Gracia, and he was replaced by Sam Allardyce on May 3 in the ultimate panic move. Current relegation odds: 64%.

Tottenham Hotspur parted ways with Antonio Conte on March 26, initially replacing him with interim Cristian Stellini. Conte’s conduct might have left the club with no choice in making a move — it felt like he was almost begging them to fire him — but the team has fallen apart in his absence. Tottenham were averaging 1.75 points per game with Conte in charge and still held a 25% chance at a fourth-place finish despite wobbles; Stellini averaged 1.0 points per game, and his team’s play was so dire that he was replaced with another interim, Ryan Mason … who’s averaged 1.0 PPG, too. They’re now cruising toward a seventh-place finish.

Leicester City parted ways with Brendan Rodgers on April 2, hiring veteran Dean Smith eight days later. Things had undoubtedly grown stale with Rodgers, but replacing him when they did helped nothing. They were averaging 0.89 points per game with a 30% chance of relegation as of April 2; they’ve averaged 0.63 points per game since, and their relegation odds are up to 86%.

Chelsea also sacked Graham Potter, their second full-time manager of 2022-23, on April 2, somewhat inexplicably replacing him with interim Frank Lampard four days later. As with Rodgers, it was clear that Potter wouldn’t be with the club long term, but after averaging 1.36 points per game before April 2, they’ve averaged 0.71 since.

There have been at least a couple of relative successes in this span. After firing Ralph Hasenhuttl in favor of Nathan Jones in November and completely collapsing, Southampton rebounded a smidge after firing Jones for Ruben Selles. They still clinched relegation last weekend, though, meaning that things have worked out, post-panic, for only one club: Crystal Palace. They fired Patrick Vieira on March 17 after a long winless streak against a brutal schedule. That streak included draws with Manchester United, Newcastle, Brighton, Liverpool and Brentford, plus five narrow losses, and results were all but guaranteed to improve in April and May as the schedule lightened up. They have done just that, although Roy Hodgson has done a particularly impressive job (nine games, 16 points).

Throw in Bayern Munich’s own panic moves — they replaced Julian Nagelsmann (three league losses in all competitions) with Thomas Tuchel in early April and proceeded to win two of his first seven matches, suffering elimination from both the Champions League and the DFB-Pokal — and this season has served as a pointed reminder that while panicking is understandable in this sport, acting on said panic will almost certainly make things worse.

This is further enforced by two teams that didn’t act on panic. West Ham United and Nottingham Forest were the only relegation-threatened teams in the Premier League that didn’t fire anyone. West Ham were likely too good to go down regardless, but they’ve rallied to go six points clear of the relegation zone (while also reaching the Europa Conference League semis) while keeping David Moyes. Forest, meanwhile, aren’t yet safe with Steve Cooper still in charge, but they’ve pulled seven points from their past four matches, and they’re three points above the drop zone at the moment. Their relegation odds have fallen from 81% in mid-April to 24% today.

Haaland has scored 52 goals!

When you write an “early overreactions” piece, you’re really just trying to get one big thing right. I listed six potential overreactions after the first week of the club season, and damned if I didn’t hit on a few. PSG and Bayern admittedly didn’t end up being the best teams in Europe, but Fulham are indeed staying up with ease, Newcastle will indeed finish in the top six (although not at Manchester United’s expense), either Union Berlin or Freiburg will indeed play in next year’s Champions League, and … as it turns out … predicting Erling Haaland to score 50 goals wasn’t enough of an overreaction.

In his first season with Manchester City, Haaland has played 49 matches and scored an incredible 52 goals. He’s got four matches left, too, and a big game or two could place him in the most rarefied air.

Here’s a full list of players not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to score at least 58 club goals in all competitions in a single season:

Gerd Muller, Bayern Munich (1972-73): 66
Ferenc Deak, Szentlorinci (1945-46): 66
Dixie Dean, Everton (1927-28): 63
Ferenc Deak, Ferencvaros (1948-49): 59
Luis Suarez, Barcelona (2015-16): 59

That’s it. One in the past 50 years. Granted, Messi (three times) and Ronaldo (twice) made this seem far more commonplace than it should, and Messi’s 73 total goals in 2011-12 don’t seem any less outlandish now than they did then. But Haaland’s still got an outside shot at a genuinely unique scoring total, and he’s accomplishing all of this (a) at the age of 22 and (b) in his first season in the Premier League.

Goodness. Just think of what he might be able to accomplish once he actually knows the landscape, huh?

Hamburg try to return yet again

May 25, 1983: Against an absurdly talented Juventus team that featured Paolo Rossi and Michel Platini, and in the dawn of an era that would see a lot of the Bundesliga’s bigger stars getting pulled toward the bigger salaries of Serie A, Hamburg took an early lead in the European Cup final thanks to a stunning, long-distance goal from Felix Magath. They managed to make the lead hold up and became only the second German club to win Europe’s biggest prize.

Granted, that win has been a bit overshadowed by the memory of a far more shocking upset — that of Aberdeen (yes, Aberdeen) over Real Madrid (yes, Real Madrid) two weeks earlier in the Cup Winners’ Cup final — but with the travails Hamburg have put themselves through, particularly in the past decade, this 40th anniversary is awfully jarring.

After years as a top-half-of-the-table presence in the Bundesliga, with occasional Champions League appearances to show for it, Hamburg slowly crumbled in the 2010s, narrowly avoiding relegation in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2017 before finally succumbing in 2018. They nearly pulled off a quick rebound, a la Schalke 04, but they faded late in 2018-19 and finished fourth in the 2.Bundesliga. Then they did so again in 2020. And 2021. In 2022, they finished third and took a 1-0 lead over Hertha Berlin in the promotion playoffs but gave up two goals at home and stayed down.

(Hertha’s coach at the time: Magath. Poetic.)

As we near the end of 2022-23, Hamburg are in a familiar spot, zeroing in on another third-place finish and another spot in the promotion playoff, likely against either Schalke, Stuttgart or VfL Bochum. SPI forecasts a 35% chance of a top-two finish — they trail second-place Heidenheim by a point, but with a tougher remaining schedule — and a 64% chance of third place and the playoff. Forty years after landing Europe’s ultimate prize and five years after relegation, can they actually make it back up to the top flight?

Another wild Belgian title race (and a rare champion-to-be)

In 2020-21, Club Brugge led by eight points to start Belgium’s championship playoff but won just one of six matches and lost twice to Genk, winning the league only via a tiebreaker. In 2021-22, top-division newcomer Union Saint-Gilloise led by five points heading into the playoff but lost three of four matches and fell just short of an incredible Cinderella story.

The Jupiler Pro League isn’t one of Europe’s top leagues, but it almost always features wonderful nonsense down the stretch. (This fits with a style of play that could also be described as wonderful nonsense. Picture the Bundesliga’s prolific tendencies, then add extra hostility and quasi-parity. It’s wild.) Things are as tense as ever this spring.

The top four teams reach the championship playoff and see their point totals halved before a round robin begins. (If you finished the regular season with 70 points, you begin the playoff with 35.) Both Genk and Union Saint-Gilloise began the playoff with 38 points, with Royal Antwerp at 36. The latter two teams both beat Genk in recent weeks — Antwerp turned a 2-0 deficit into a wild 3-2 win this past Sunday — and with three matches left, Antwerp now lead Union Saint-Gilloise by a point.

Genk still might be able to rally; SPI still gives them an 8% shot at the title. But we’re likely about to see either Antwerp’s first title since 1957 (67% chance) or Union Saint-Gilloise’s first since 1935 (25%). Either story would be super fun.

Antwerp have had their moments through the years, reaching the Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1993, but they spent 13 years in Belgium’s second division before climbing back up in 2017. They’ve been a top-half-of-the-table presence ever since, and now they’re closer than ever to their first title in 65 years.

USG, meanwhile, are an even more unlikely tale. Owned by Brighton owner Tony Bloom since 2018, they played in their first topflight season in nearly 50 years last season and nearly won the league. Despite losing manager Felice Mazzu (Anderlecht) and stars Casper Nielsen (Club Brugge) and Dante Vanzeir (New York Red Bulls), they pulled goal scorer Victor Boniface from Bodo/Glimt, promoted Karel Geraerts to manager and thrived. They took down Union Berlin on their way to the Europa League quarterfinals, and if they play well in their next three matches (they play at Antwerp on May 28), they could still win a topflight title.