It sounds a bit counterintuitive, but simply being unbeaten is not an absolute measure of success. Just ask New Zealand.
At the 2010 World Cup, New Zealand tied all three matches it played and promptly went out in the group stage. It was the only one of the 32 teams in the competition not to lose at least once. Even eventual champion Spain dropped its first game before rolling off six straight wins. Being unbeaten sounds great in theory, but it isn't everything and it doesn't always tell the whole story. That's as good a way as any to assess the landscape across the nominal top five leagues in Europe.
Heading into the weekend, 16 clubs across the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 have yet to lose, yet not all have marched through the first month-plus of the season with the mark of a champion. For every Bayern Munich, a side that's largely been ruthless, there's been a Barcelona, a side whose play has been underwhelming, disappointing and cause for genuine concern.
But there have been some tremendous early-season stories to emerge for the right reasons. Chief among them is Napoli, one of two sides in the top five leagues to not just be unbeaten but to be perfect so far (PSG is the other). Its romp over Sampdoria Thursday improved its mark to 5-0-0 and a place atop Serie A's table before Sunday's match vs. slumping and winless Cagliari. The Partenopei have outscored opponents 14–2, and with Juventus weakened, and neither Inter nor AC Milan—the league's two other unbeatens—particularly daunting, there's a genuine possibility that Luciano Spalletti's side could challenge for its first scudetto since 1990, when Diego Maradona was still blessing the club with his presence.
While Napoli has taken the perfect route to remain unbeaten, the flip side can be found at Barcelona (2-0-3) and Villarreal (1-0-4) in Spain and Freiburg (2-0-3) in Germany, where draws have been the M.O. en route to keeping the loss column empty for the time being.
The aura around Barcelona certainly is not that of a club that's ready to contend. Ronald Koeman used a prematch press conference this week to read a prepared statement pleading for patience and support. He knows full well that the club's grave financial reality, the same one that cost it the chance to bring back Lionel Messi, means that any drastic move to improve fortunes is not imminent. That and some key injuries have left the club giving a slew of younger players a baptism by fire, and they've also left the club playing an unrecognizable brand while it adjusts to the new normal. Despite Koeman's words, which appeared to walk back and temper any expectations for the seasons, some of the remaining veterans are still feeling optimistic. Or perhaps the thought of being part of a rebuild is just too foreign to process.
“I’m not wearing Barça’s jersey to finish second or third,” Gerard Piqué said after Thursday's 0–0 drab draw vs. Cadiz, from which both Frenkie de Jong and Koeman were ejected. “I’m convinced that despite our bad start we will be contending at the end of the season.”
Added Sergi Roberto: “We are Barça and we still have a very good squad. We have a team that can win this league and we will try to win it.”
That's a bold claim, and based on how other unbeatens Real Madrid (4-0-1), Atletico Madrid (4-0-1) and Sevilla (3-0-2) have started in Spain, it's sheer fantasy. Real Madrid, in particular, has overwhelmed its domestic foes with its attack, with 33-year-old Karim Benzema leading La Liga in goals (eight) and assists (seven) as he continues to perform like one of the world's preeminent center forwards. The continued rise of Vinicius Júnior and immediate emergence of deadline signing Eduardo Camavinga make Real a genuine threat to take back its throne, though its susceptibility in the back after losing center backs Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane remains an Achilles' heel to monitor.
One win Real Madrid failed to secure (so far, anyway) was the signing of Kylian Mbappé, who remains with Ligue 1–leading PSG.
The French power (7-0-0) hasn't been at full strength yet, and you get the sense that it's not in any hurry, not with a long-term goal of winning the Champions League the primary focus. That could be a dangerous game to play when it comes to trying to turn a group of spectacular individuals into one cohesive unit, though, and some of its Ligue 1 matches thus far have been pretty emblematic of that. There's been a lack of fluidity and a focus on individualism, but to its credit, the club has been able to conjure up the big moments when it's been required, winning each of the last two games at the death with goals from Mauro Icardi and Achraf Hakimi. Of the club's many summer moves, the addition of Hakimi may wind up proving to be the most astute and valuable of them all.
Its top challenger in the league is not reigning, struggling champion Lille but instead Marseille, whose unbeaten mark thus far comes with a bit of an asterisk. It was trailing Nice when its match last month was abandoned after Dimitri Payet was hit by a bottle from the stands and all hell broke loose between players and supporters. That match will be replayed at a neutral site, and it's the reason why the two clubs have a game in hand on the rest of the league.
Whereas PSG is used to topping its league with plenty of room to spare, the same can be said for Bayern Munich, though this season it has company at the top—at least through five games. Both Bayern and Wolfsburg have matching 4-0-1 marks, and they've taken wildly different approaches to getting there. Bayern, like PSG and Real Madrid, has blitzed its opponents with an unforgiving attack (as Bochum, a 7–0 loser last weekend, can attest) while Wolfsburg has put its emphasis on keeping its opponents off the scoreboard, conceding a league-low two goals and scoring just seven, total, of its own.
That leaves the three unbeatens in the Premier League, three clubs who figure to be vying for the title all season provided they avoid the injury bug.
Chelsea's blemish-less season will be put to the test early Saturday, when it hosts Manchester City in a Champions League final rematch. There's no denying that Thomas Tuchel's side is improved from a season ago, thanks to the addition of Romelu Lukaku and a furthering of his tactical hold on the team. It's given up just one goal all season, and that was in a draw to Liverpool, whose identical 4-0-1 mark is indicative of a side that's back to enjoying itself after last season's rash of injuries that depleted its defense and forced the club into a fight just to crack the top four. Its two matches against the Manchester clubs before and after the upcoming international break will provide sound litmus tests as to whether this is back to being a true title contender.
Manchester United, despite its ouster from the League Cup and loss to Young Boys in the Champions League group stage, remains unbeaten in the league as well, but time will tell how long that can last. The fixture list has been kind as Varane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho work their way into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's plans, but a stretch of games against Leicester, Liverpool, Tottenham, Man City, Chelsea over a six-match span in the next two months will speak volumes as to whether this start is a bit of a red herring or whether the Red Devils can reign again.
And that, perhaps, is the underlying point. It's early, and there are too many variables in play before these clubs really hit their stride. Simply being unbeaten doesn't mean everything.
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