Sir Alex, Pep, Bayern and the top 13 stories from Europe in 2013

Monday December 30th, 2013

Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager of Manchester United after holding the position for over 26 years.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images Sport

Has there been a busier year for news in a non-major tournament season than 2013? The transfer world record was broken, almost every top club changed its coach and the World Cup qualifiers provided drama throughout the year. Here is a look back at some of the most memorable stories from another exciting year in European football:

STRAUS: Top 13 stories from American soccer's unforgettable 2013

1. Fergie leaves United...

The clues were there, if anyone thought to look for them. Arsene Wenger knew it would happen as soon Manchester United agreed to pay £24 million for Robin van Persie in summer 2012, while others saw Sir Alex Ferguson's angry reaction to defeat in the Champions League to Real Madrid in March -- he refused to speak to the press afterwards -- and guessed that was his last chance gone. And then, one week before the end of the season, Ferguson confirmed it: he was retiring and, a day later, the news came that David Moyes was his replacement -- on a six-year contract. Moyes ignored Ferguson's advice by getting rid of his backroom staff and bringing in his own guys, and while he might not thank his fellow Scot for the squad with which he has been left, it shows just how brilliant a coach Ferguson was that this current group of players was able to win the Premier League by 11 points last season. At the moment, Moyes is fighting to get United in the Premier League top four, which is the most open across Europe, with four teams who could feasibly contest for the title.

2. ... And Pep returns.

Ferguson has made no secret of his love of the United States and after retiring his first two public statements came via the U.S.: an interview on the Charlie Rose show, and the publication of a leadership article which he co-wrote in the Harvard Business Review. Meanwhile, for most of last season, Pep Guardiola was on sabbatical in New York, learning German for his job at Bayern Munich. That appointment was confirmed in January 2013, and it looked like he would have a tough ask when predecessor Jupp Heycnkes scooped the treble with the German league, Cup and Champions League all deservedly Bayern's. But in the space of four months, Guardiola has arguably improved an already brilliant side: his ability to get the best from his players has seen full-back Philipp Lahm reinvented as a central midfielder and Mario Goetze working as a false nine (not sure how that will change next season when Robert Lewandowski joins). No team in the 20-year Champions League era has ever successfully defended its crown -- not even Pep's Barcelona in its pomp -- but this Bayern side could be the first.

3. Spending goes crazy.

The summer of 2013 stood out as unique for many reasons. For a start, there had never been a coaching merry-go-round like it: in the Premier League, four of the top six teams changed coaches, while the champions of Spain, France and Germany did likewise. That's part of the reason why there has never been more money spent than there was in summer 2013. The others include a bumper rights package for Premier League clubs worth over £3 billion for the next three years, and an economic crisis among Spanish clubs that saw them sell the likes of Roberto Soldado, Alvaro Negredo and Iago Aspas to Premier League clubs. It was not all one-way traffic: Real Madrid broke the world record for a transfer fee, spending €100 million on Gareth Bale from Tottenham. After a slow start to his Madrid career, the Welshman is looking increasingly as though the bigger stage befits him. With UEFA soon to implement Financial Fair Play, it's true to say that we will never see spending quite like that again.

4. Forget about Spain, let's all copy Germany...

Tiki-taka is so Noughties. That was the shifting trend after an amazing Champions League season in which German clubs not only beat their Spanish counterparts, but also hammered them in the later stages: Borussia Dortmund, the feel-good story of the tournament, beat Real Madrid 4-1 at home in the semifinal (Lewandowski scored all four goals) first leg, while Bayern eased past a Messi-less Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate. Suddenly the rest of Europe -- ok, mainly England -- wanted to copy the German model: the talk was of clubs with 51 percent fan ownership, affordable pricing, an FA that works with and is not at cross purposes to the top-flight clubs and 'gegenpressing', Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp's term for high-tempo pressing of the ball, described by the charismatic coach as "the best playmaker there is". Germany has four clubs in the last 16 of the Champions League but like in Spain, the top two are streets ahead of the rest -- in fact, the top one is also streets ahead of second -- and for all the talk of lessons to take from Germany, competitive balance is not one of them. This season, the Bundesliga is practically already over as a contest.

5. Luis Suárez and player power.

There were four dates worth noting in Luis Suárez's memorable 2013. First, April 21, the day the Liverpool forward bit Branislav Ivanoivc on the arm, and earned a ten-game ban from the FA (but he was not punished on the day, and ended up scoring a late equalizer in the game). Wags joked, and then cynics suggested, that it was a deliberate ruse to force his way out of Liverpool, in a similar way to how he left Ajax (after biting PSV's Otman Bakkal). On August 7, Suárez told two English newspapers that he would submit a written transfer request and take Liverpool to an arbitration panel if he was not allowed to leave: he said the club promised he could leave if it did not qualify for the Champions League (it finished seventh). He mistakenly believed that any bid over £40 million would trigger his release clause, but found out he was wrong when Arsenal bid £40 million + £1. This was owner John W. Henry's finest hour: he refused to bow to the player power and told Suárez he was staying. One week later, he said he would stay "due to the fans' affection". Fast forward to December 5 and Suárez scored four goals against Norwich in a 5-1 win, two of them contenders for best goal of the season. Since returning from his ban, Suárez has scored 19 goals in 12 games -- a better goal-per-game ratio than even Cristiano Ronaldo -- and, almost but not quite single-handedly, propelled Liverpool into top place in the Premier League. Then, on December 20: Suárez signed a new double-your-money contract. One big question remains: what's his buy-out clause if Liverpool finishes in the top four this season?

BERLIN: Luis Suárez continues to thrive for Liverpool

6. Sporting defies expectations in Portugal.

Last season was not one to remember for Sporting Lisbon, whose place alongside Porto and Benfica as the third of Portugal's big three has increasingly looked unsteady. It finished in seventh, its worst league position ever, and in a difficult summer sold its two brightest young prospects, Tiago Ilori (to Liverpool) and Bruma (to Galatasaray). Fast forward a few months and there, at the top of the SuperLiga, sit Sporting, joint-top with the big two on 33 points, its highest total at this stage of the season for 30 years

7. Does Ligue 1 have the world's best No. 9s?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Edinson Cavani. Radamel Falcao. You would not expect them all to be playing outside the traditional top four big leagues, but they are all playing, and scoring, in France these days. Blame it on the big spenders: PSG's Qatari owners spent €64 million on Cavani, while Falcao cost Monaco's Russian owner Dmitry Rybolovlev €60 million. The two new recruits have been scoring (Cavani has 12 league goals, and Falcao has nine) but both have been put in the shade by Ibrahimovic, top scorer for PSG last season with 30 goals in 33 starts, and this season with 14 in 17. Zlatan says he is playing the best football of his career in Paris, and he has certainly won over the locals: French satire show Les Guignols coined the word 'zlataner', which means to dominate, and the Swedish version, 'zlatanera,' is now in the dictionary. He's also had a burger named after him, a stamp to be released in his honour in Sweden -- and a salary raise to €15 million (the tactics behind which he detailed in his brilliant and highly-recommended autobiography, I am Zlatan, in which he says that demanding more money after one good season, when you have all the power, is the only way to do it). Zlatan may be staying in France, but speculation is swirling that Falcao's spell at Monaco will be a shorter one: he could leave next summer, or even in January.

8. The eternal question for club chairmen: to stick or twist?

The role of the football chief executive is far more all-encompassing than appointing the first-team coach, but in terms of profile, publicity and importance to the success on the pitch, no decision is more important than who runs the team. 2013 has seen a coaching merry-go-round like no other, but while the wisdom of brave (or otherwise) appointments at the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, Spurs, Chelsea, Roma, Lille, is still being discussed, the more pertinent question for the executive is: when is the best point to make a change? In the case of Fulham, West Bromwich Albion or Spurs, it was during a ruthless December (Sunderland couldn't even wait until the end of September to dismiss Paolo di Canio); Galatasaray released Fatih Terim after one bad result in the Champions League; Schalke decided to keep Jens Keller in charge after months of uncertainty over his position; FC Basel, despite its success, look set to bid farewell to Murat Yakin. What about those at clubs with bigger expectations, like David Moyes (United) or Claudio Ranieri (Monaco)? Will finishing outside the titles cost them dear? Perhaps all should look at the example of Arsenal, whose coach Arsene Wenger has admittedly had 17 years to build some grace period: after a difficult 2012, Arsenal has won more Premier League points than any other team in 2013, and looks healthy on and off the pitch. For other chairmen, their trigger fingers just remain too twitchy.

9. There's a new contender in Spain -- at last!

Just when you thought that Barcelona and Real Madrid would forever contest the top two spots in Spain -- and don't forget that the last time they were split at the top was in 2008, when Villarreal knocked Barcelona to second -- another team comes along and threatens the duopoly. It has been coming in the last few seasons: Atletico Madrid won the Europa League in 2012 and the Copa del Rey last season, beating Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the final -- and it repeated that feat in La Liga this season. Currently Atletico has an identical record to Barcelona, with 15 wins from 17 and only goal difference (Barceloan's +37, Atletico's +35) separating them. Coach Diego Simeone talks of one game at a time, but the longer this run continues, the more you wonder if Atletico could push the reigning champion all the way.

10. Italy welcomes foreign owners.

In 2011, Roma became the first Serie A club to be foreign-owned after the Sensi family sold up to an American consortium, whose two leaders, first Thomas Di Benedetto and then James Pallotta, both of whose families had Italian roots. Massimo Moratti's sale last October of a 70 percent stake in Inter Milan to Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir for a reported €250 million has no such Italian links. This is pure business and, if successful, could lead to more foreign investment in Serie A. Thohir has already cleared Inter's debts, and has promised new revenue streams focusing in Asia, but if he can solve Inter's biggest problem, getting the club a new stadium, and invest the team to improve its fortunes as well -- not to mention the success that Roma is enjoying this season -- then maybe more foreign owners will follow.

11. Tough year for Messi as Neymar takes the strain...

Lionel Messi has made 50 or more appearances for Barcelona from 2008 through 2013 -- which is why the thigh muscle strain that ruled him out of the Champions League quarterfinal first leg against PSG, and the subsequent semi loss to Bayern -- sharpened Barcelona's resolve to bring in Neymar to counter what was termed Messi-dependencia around Camp Nou. The goals have still come in 2013 -- 45 in 46 games, not bad even if it not quite as good as Ronaldo's 68 in 59 -- but so have the problems: three more muscle injuries, blamed on changes in Barcelona's medical department, where recovery expert Juanjo Brau was promoted and can no longer devote his full attention to Messi, and a summer of friendlies and commercial appearances in which he travelled 'three times around the world' in 64 days visiting, among others, Senegal, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Norway, Germany, Poland, Barcelona, Milan, Israel, Palestine, Thailand and Malaysia. Meanwhile, Neymar arrived from Santos and his first six months under Tata Martino have to be seen as a success: first he adapted to a new role wide on the left playing for Messi, then when the Argentine was injured, he moved central; six goals in his last three games suggests he is getting the hang of it, though more significantly, his attitude and personality has impressed everyone at the club.

12. World Cup drama: Belgium expects, Switzerland dreams, Bosnia parties, France breathes...

For all the background chatter about the fairness of the confederation split at the World Cup (should CONCACAF have 2.5 teams, is five too few for Africa?), the European qualifying campaign brought all manner of drama, with Holland the only team to have a serene qualification. Few matches were as exhilarating as Portugal's 3-2 win in the qualifying playoff second leg over Sweden, as Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic scored their team's goals in brutal displays of individualism. Elsewhere, France came from a 2-0 first-leg loss to squeeze past Ukraine 3-2. Belgium's golden generation has a chance to shine (although winning it may be too much -- perhaps more realistic at Euro 2016). Switzerland benefited from FIFA's ranking system to be seeded ahead of Italy and Holland, and as a result, got a far simpler World Cup group. Bosnia & Herzegovina qualified for its first World Cup and could be a dark horse to get out of its group given its offensive qualities under smart coach Safet Susic.

13. Nationalization debate continues.

Picture the scene: Spain is playing Brazil in the World Cup final and the game goes to penalties. Brazil misses one and the man kicking fifth for Spain is Diego Costa, a striker who spent his first 18 years in Brazil and as recently as March 2013, played in two friendlies for Brazil. Costa's switch to Spanish nationality, confirmed in September, will no doubt strengthen the reigning champion's team, and also provide a stirring subtext to any game between two of the favorites. In England a similar debate took place over Manchester United Adnan Januzaj, born in Belgium to Albanian parents, while The Times revealed that Rafael da Silva considered switching to England to earn a spot at the World Cup (he changed his mind when he saw the fuss over Januzaj). This is not a new debate: in the USMNT, Omar Gonzalez (Mexico), Aron Johannsson (Iceland) and Alejandro Bedoya (Colombia) all have dual nationalities. Costa's high-profile switch should bring the globalized nature of today's international football into the spotlight.

Ben Lyttleton is a European-based regular contributor and is the author of the soon-to-be-published book Twelve Yards, which studies the art and psychology of the perfect penalty.

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