Sports from the Basement

European Football Gets Their Intro To Parity

Parity: a concept that American sports have tried to accomplish for years.  The concept that all teams are created equal and that each has a chance to be champions.  The NFL has made billions off the mantra that on any given Sunday any team could win.  Salary caps have attempted to do the same in both the NBA and NHL.  Even the team with the most European of salary structures, Major League Baseball, has found itself rife with parity over the past few decades.  Parity has majoritively been an American sporting term, but for the first time it is trickling over into European football.  The distance between the haves and have-nots in Europe’s most popular leagues has shrunk precipitously this season.  Welcome to the parity party chaps!

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ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE

Teams Within 5 Points Of First Place: 6

Teams Within 10 Points Of First Place: 12

Since the creation of the Premier League in England in February of 1992, the league has only been won by five teams.  Throw away that outlier year for the legendary Alan Shearer and Blackburn Rovers and we’re down to four.  Four victorious teams in 23+ years of a competition is the antithesis of parity.  Manchester United and Arsenal have always been there during the Premier League era, but as time wore on big money came into Chelsea and Manchester City making them perennial contenders as well.  This season has a different feel to it though.  It doesn’t feel like a season where the big boys are going to run away from their puny, little neighbors and make the title race all about four teams.  West Ham United under new coach Slaven Bilic have claimed victories over Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea early on.  Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City are easily the funnest team to watch in the Premier League (I heard this Vardy guy is pretty good) and sit just one point behind the co-leaders entering the international break.

Now a big team like one of the Manchester clubs or Arsenal may still take home the crown, but what differentiates this year from past ones is that nobody really “knows” yet.  At the start of each year, pundits and fans alike have a pretty good idea of what two or three teams can win the title and what two or three past that can break into the Top 4.  This year the sheer number of teams jammed up towards the upper half of the table is staggering.  Six teams are within a two game striking distance (5 points) of taking the title.  Double that are within 10.  Take into account too that the defending champions Chelsea sit 16th on 11 points.  They’ll surely turn it around adding more fuel to the competition’s fire.

Since 2001, the average number of points separating the first place and second place team is 6.  That is two wins.  Not a terrible gap to usually have.  When you spread that out to fourth place that is when it gets nutty.  The average gap in that same time period between 1st and the coveted final Champions League place in 4th is a shade over 18 points.  That gap was 17 points last year and has been has high as 34 points.  Now I am not naive enough to say that the way the league sits right now is the way it is going to stay.  It has never been that way and more than likely never will be.  What is being said though is that the second tier teams, or teams just outside the top four if you’d like, have caught up.  It is also being said that the teams behind that second tier are starting to catch up to them as well.

While many cynical former players and television personalities have talked about the play in the Premier League diminishing, the entertainment value has certainly taken another tick up with the parity.  No longer are fanbases complacent with a mid-table finish.  European football is within their grasp and that will only make otherwise “meaningless” games mean so much more, which means more money coming in television deals.  That in turn infuses more money into the system, allowing the lesser clubs to get better players and breaking into the old “Top 4 Club”.

 

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ITALIAN SERIE A

Teams Within 5 Points Of First Place: 5

Teams Within 10 Points Of First Place: 9

Like England, Italy’s champion (and Champions League runner-up) Juventus have had a rough go of it this year.  With the lovely parity that Serie A is experiencing this year though, the Old Lady is still just eight points off the top of the table.  That is a statement that would have been met with rolled eyes and obscene laughter as early as last year.

Since 2011, Juve have ruled Serie A with an iron fist.  They have won the league by an identical 17 point margin over second place AS Roma the past two seasons before that.  They two years prior they bested Napoli by 9 and AC Milan by 4 as they went into cruise control during the season’s final month.  Now that Juventus have come back down to Earth with departures of Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez, and Andrea Pirlo, one would expect the usual suspects of Italy’s footballing hierarchy to take the reins.  While the two Milan teams have started to cure their ills and Roma and Napoli still lurk, Serie A has had their share of interlopers.

Currently sitting at the top of the division is Fiorentina.  The Viola aren’t a bad team by any means, but title contenders they have not been.  They haven’t won the Serie A since 1968-69 and haven’t finished second since 1981-82.  However, they have become one of the premier attractions in Serie A under new manager Paulo Sousa.  When they win, they are winning convincingly.  When they lose, they aren’t getting blown out.  That should be the norm for a team at the top of the table, bud that has not been the case in Serie A over the years.

After Inter, Roma, and Napoli take the next three spots (by a margin of just two behind Fiorentina), a new challenger has arrived and like Leicester and West Ham in England have shown no fear in going up against the league’s big guns.  In 2006 Sassuolo was in Serie C1, the third division of Italian football.  Fast forward a decade, and the Neroverdi have bested Napoli, Juventus, and Lazio and drawn with Roma in this young season to sit just five points off the lead.  Sassuolo are a team so small that they have to use their rival’s stadium (Serie B Modena’s Stadio Alberto Braglia), but find themselves in the thick of the European hunt.

2000-01 was the last season that a team from Milan or Juventus didn’t win the Scudetto (Serie A title).  This year provides the best chance in quite some time for that streak to come to an end.  Though Italy isn’t getting the crazy money that England has for TV rights, what they are doing better than any other nation is building better teams.  By that I mean that they are building better organizations, getting better owners, and developing more cohesive squads so that the so-called minnows aren’t just cannon fodder for the blast fishermen at the top of the table anymore.  I hate to bring up the MLS Serie A fans, but a great number of your clubs have an MLS club feel to them.  Parity has made it easier for the less wealthy clubs to climb up the league ladder by producing home grown talent and using that continuity to have an eventual first team roster that knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  When combating a team featuring players on multi-million dollar deals, knowing exactly when your teammate is going to make that run or knowing your center back’s tendencies and sliding over in support can bridge the talent gap significantly.  England may be the most entertaining league to the casual fan, but there is no more competitive league this season in all of Europe than Serie A.

 

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SPANISH LA LIGA

Teams Within 5 Points Of First Place: 3

Teams Within 10 Points Of First Place: 8

Now I know what you are saying, how is Spain showing parity?  Like France and Germany (where PSG and Bayern Munich are running away with their respective leagues), the same teams sit at the top of the La Liga mountain: Barcelona, Real Madrid, & Atletico Madrid.  Yes, that is true, but if you don’t think the competition is slowly nipping at the heels of these three titans of Spanish football than you clearly haven’t been watching La Liga close enough this season.

Barcelona may be without their talisman Lionel Messi, but they still have two of the greatest strikers in world football in Neymar and Luis Suarez.  The same argument can be made for Real Madrid and their injury woes (Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, etc.) because in the end that man Cristiano Ronaldo still dons the royal white.  These two teams used to run roughshod over the Spanish football landscape scooping up every trophy there was to win.  While they may still run the roost like the Patriots do in the NFL, it doesn’t mean that they are a shoo-in to be walkaway champions every year anymore.

Atletico Madrid fired the first salvo into the bow of the Real/Barca armada when they won the league in 2013-14, the first non El Clasico team to do so since Valencia in 2003-04.  Valencia won that year under current Real manager Rafa Benitez.  Atletico have been now slotted in as the third amigo in the Spanish hierarchy as they have been able to sell off top stars only to replenish the cupboard just as quickly under Diego Simeone.  This year they are bringing some company in the fight against their other two amigos.

Celta Vigo sits fourth in the table right now, six points behind Barcelona and three behind Real Madrid.  Fourth would match Celta’s best finish ever in the league, but the team desperately wants more than that.  They beat Sevilla and Barcelona and also Villarreal (who we’ll get to next) when they were top of the league.  Iago Aspas and Nolito give the Celestes a strike force comparable with all but maybe five teams in world football (although those five teams are surely calling Celta about both men).

The teams currently in the European places have risen from the ashes in their own ways recently.  Villarreal was a Champions League/UEFA Cup staple from La Liga in the 2000’s before their shock relegation in 2012.  Since then they’ve been on the fringe of the European scene, but they were no threat to the big boys.  That seems to have changed this year as the Yellow Submarine led the league outright for the first time in their history.  They have bested Atletico and Sevilla this year and have both the defensive acumen and goal scoring pedigree of Roberto Soldado to keep pace.  And then there’s Eibar.  Eibar was relegated last year although being ahead of both Granada and Deportivo La Coruna, the teams tied with them on 35 points, on goal differential.  They were given second life when Elche’s financial misgivings saw little Eibar re-promoted to the Spanish first division.  Eibar is already halfway past their point total from last year through just 11 games.

There are teams outside the European places with just as much of a chance to crash the party as well.  Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, and Sevilla are all dangerous clubs who, and tell me if you’ve heard this before, on any given day can beat La Liga’s finest.

Parity is alive in Europe and for fans for lesser sides it is hopefully here to stay.  There will always be the drama of title chases and relegation battles across the continent.  While that is all well and fun, wouldn’t it be that much more glorious if the same teams weren’t involved on each side of the table each year?  We’ll get a first hand look as the 2015-16 season moves along as to whether that question has a positive answer.

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