Europe's 'Big Five' domestic leagues experience rare outbreak of competitiveness

Title races rage across continent as established super clubs find their dominance under threat

Paris Saint-Germain's head coach Luis Enrique, right, has guided his team to the top of Ligue 1 having turned down Napoli in the summer. AFP
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To whom do you entrust the defence of a title? A trio of champions in Europe’s leading leagues were obliged to address that question during the managerial merry-go-round that was 2023.

Two of them, Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli, came up with the same name as possible new coach. Napoli, disappointed when Luciano Spalletti decided that leading the club to a first Serie A crown for 33 years was a good time to depart, immediately contacted the Spaniard Luis Enrique.

He heard them out at length, and turned them down, instead choosing Paris, where the manager’s office has a built-in ejector seat, but where coaches tend to at least win the league on their way to the sack.

From where he perches now, Luis Enrique looks as happily placed as any coach with a major league crown to defend. Across the so-called “Big Five” domestic tables, only one has the title-holder at its top – PSG, who hold a five-point lead going into the new year. Luis Enrique has endured some criticism for his tactical dogmas, but the title, as almost always, is PSG’s to lose.

Might he have made a better fist of the 2023/24 campaign at Napoli than their two different coaches so far? He could hardly have done worse. As the club's president Aurelio De Laurentiis reflected to the Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport ahead of his team’s eighth defeat in 17 games last week: “It’s not easy to take on the legacy of someone who has won the league in the way we did.”

Napoli, scudetto winners by a canter back in May, will not retain the title. They go into Friday’s fixture with Monza at risk of plunging 20 points behind Serie A leaders Inter Milan – and seven behind fourth-placed Bologna – by the turn of the year. They have fired one successor to Spalletti, the Frenchman Rudi Garcia, while acknowledging that the new man in, Walter Mazzarri, faces an arduous task merely to get them into Europe next term.

Garcia’s record? Eight wins and four defeats from 16 games across competitions, which De Laurentiis now wishes had read: No Matches, No Wins, No Losses. “On the day he was presented, I should have, with a flourish, said ‘OK, I’ve just unveiled him, but now he’s going’,” grumbled the Napoli chief.

De Laurentiis had been disturbed during Garcia’s introductions at the new manager saying he had not watched much of Napoli during their glorious 2022/23 season.

Garcia’s intention had been to distance his reign from his predecessor’s, to say there would be no resting on laurels – a necessary posture, to a degree, for any incoming manager keen to establish his authority. But by the time results were wobbling, and there had been a very public touchline clash with centre-forward Victor Osimhen, Garcia was running out of credit.

His replacement, appointed last month, was at least a man who has watched Napoli a great deal. Mazzarri has managed the club previously, albeit more than a decade ago. But his record in his second stint is yet to show improvement on Garcia’s. In eight games, Mazzarri has won three and lost five, including the humiliating 4-0 defeat at home to Frosinone in the Coppa Italia.

On Napoli’s summer shortlist, when Enrique flirted with the job, there was also Julian Nagelsmann, a coach of firm ideas, precocious achievement and many ups and downs during 2023, the year he turned 36, was sacked by Bayern Munich and later appointed as Germany’s manager.

Bayern, fearing an end to their decade-long domination of the Bundesliga title, replaced Nagelsmann in March with Thomas Tuchel, who did guide the serial champions to an 11th successive crown but thanks only to goal difference and a Borussia Dortmund collapse on the season’s last day.

Tuchel's Bayern are still not comfortable title-holders. They trail Bayer Leverkusen by four points going into 2024, albeit with a game in hand. Leverkusen, superbly marshalled by Xabi Alonso in his first senior coaching role, have made Europe’s most monochrome title race intriguing.

In Spain, Alonso’s former Spain teammate, Xavi Hernandez, is meanwhile finding that a promising start in management – he took Barcelona to the La Liga crown last May at the end of his first full campaign in charge of the Catalans – is hard to maintain. Barca sit a perilous fourth, already seven points shy of leaders Real Madrid, and beneath surprise pace-setters Girona.

Even Manchester City, owners of the Club World Cup, their fifth trophy of the calendar year, are looking up from an unfamiliar rung of the Premier League table as they chase a fourth successive English title. City are currently in a jostle for fourth place, and although they have been expert stalkers of top spot in the second halves of seasons before, the number of contenders to be champions looks broader than usual in England, where Aston Villa, like Girona, Bologna and Leverkusen elsewhere, are hinting they might genuinely challenge the traditional hierarchies.

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Updated: December 29, 2023, 5:49 AM