Once the World Cup qualifiers, Nations League games and international friendlies come to an end this week, fans can finally look forward to the resumption of European club football this weekend. The first three months of every season can feel a little stop-and-start due to the frequent international breaks, but now we can sit back and enjoy a straight run of games all the way to end January.
This is the stretch where prospective league champions seek to go on long winning runs, a crucial part of the season when the true challengers for the league title present themselves. This is also the time when clubs rooted to the bottom of the leagues fight for their survival, stockpiling as many precious points as possible to stave off relegation come May.
When the games resume this weekend, there will be plenty of drama and new developments that you need to keep an eye on. Here are the four main talking points going into this long run of festive season football.
Newcastle’s Saudi buyout: 18 years ago, the football world was shocked and shaken to the core when the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea for £60 billion. That buyout of an English heritage club fallen on dire financial times set a template for the modern era of world football, when more and more clubs are becoming the playthings of international billionaires, hedge funds, and, lately petro states. Joining Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in the latter corner are Newcastle United, the self-professed ‘people’s club’. This past week, Newcastle was bought for £300 billion by a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF). The PIF, which is overseen by the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, now owns 80% of the club.
The highly controversial sale has seen plenty of backlash, primarily because of Saudi Arabia’s dire human rights record and the Crown Prince’s alleged involvement in the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In the Abramovich era, however, money talks, and suddenly Newcastle is the richest club in the world. Expect much drama and emotion when Newcastle welcome Tottenham to their home ground, the storied St. James Park on Sunday, 17 October.
PSG stutter with Messi: Speaking of petro-clubs, the Qatar-owned PSG went on a stupendous summer spending spree to land such stars as Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi and Georginio Wijnaldum. Having won 27 major trophies (including 7 French Ligue 1 titles), since it was acquired by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) in 2011, this latest push has been to win the one trophy that has so far eluded the club: the Champions League. To that end, PSG registered a statement 2-0 win over fellow-contenders Manchester City on 29 September, a performance that included a brilliant Messi goal. But it is on the domestic front, ironically, that PSG have faltered. Manager Mauricio Pochettino seems to be learning the same lesson as his predecessors in the dugout: it’s an uphill task to fashion a team with a clear identity out of a squad of superstars. Messi has started scoring, but the club still feels disjointed and lopsided, as the 2-0 defeat to Rennes on 3 October proved.
Pochettino seems contract-bound to include Messi and Neymar and Kylian Mbappé into the same line-up. Each of them is an individualist, and they’re increasingly playing at cross-purposes to each other. Wijnaldum, who was such an important cog in a Liverpool midfield that won the Champions League and Premier League, is hardly getting a game. The resultant fragility in defence and midfield is increasingly being taken advantage of by high-pressing teams. This is going to be a long and crucial season for PSG and Pochettino.
Italian Serie A’s racism problem: This certainly wasn’t a part of the plan when Italy re-opened stadiums for fans after a year of playing behind closed doors because of covid-19. What was supposed to be a celebration of the human spirit has instead devolved into the ugly spectre of racism. Just before the international break, as Napoli walked out winners against Fiorentina to maintain their perfect start at the top of the league, club captain Kalidou Koulibaly and his teammates Victor Osimhen and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa were subjected to monkey chants from Fiorentina supporters.
Koulibaly, who has written about his experiences with racism in the past, reportedly pointed at one abuser and demanded he come down and say it to his face. Nor is this an isolated incident. AC Milan’s goalkeeper Mike Maignan was racially abused by Juventus fans in September. Clubs and the Italian authorities have promised that there will be strict action taken against abusers, but it has already cast a pall on what has otherwise been an exciting start to the season.
Barcelona’s never-ending misery: During the 2011-12 season, Barcelona could do no wrong. Powered by Pep Guardiola’s coaching and Leo Messi’s 73 goals in all competitions, the club won the La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Supercoppa de Espana, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. It was to be Guardiola’s final season at Camp Nou, the club’s future was bright. Ten years later, Messi is gone, and the club are a shambles. Barcelona have played 7 games, won 3, drawn 3 and lost 1. They are only five points behind league leaders Real Madrid, but that doesn’t begin to describe the wide gulf that’s opened up between Barcelona and the top of the league.
Ronald Koeman’s team appear short of motivation, ideas and skills, as demonstrated by Atlético Madrid’s convincing 2-0 win over the Catalans just before the international break. The scorer of Atlético’s second goal, former Barcelona star Luis Suárez, even went so far as to mock Koeman, referencing the phone call that the latter had made in August last year ago to tell Suárez to leave the club. It is Koeman now who faces the sack. However, any new manager would struggle at Barcelona right now, a club that is in severe financial straits after years of living beyond its means. The club is in meltdown after reporting losses of €481m, and La Liga has imposed stringent spending limits on the club. Despite losing Messi and Antoine Griezmann to balance the books, it’s difficult to see how the club can turn things around. This could end up being one of the most humiliating seasons for the legendary club.