Saturday 1 October 2016

A look at this season's surprise packages in European club football

James Cann

Published 23/12/2015 | 21:32

Jamie Vardy's goals have fuelled Leicester City's stunning rise (Reuters)
Jamie Vardy's goals have fuelled Leicester City's stunning rise (Reuters)

Leicester are the surprise leaders of the Barclays Premier League at Christmas having lost only once since manager Claudio Ranieri was appointed.

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But the Foxes are not alone in upsetting the established order in a major European league this year.

ANGERS (GOOD) MANAGEMENT

Finishing third in Ligue 2 is enough to secure promotion to the French top flight but few sides prosper or even survive by squeezing up the divisions that way.

Indeed, Stephane Moulin's modest north-west outfit Angers are closer to the drop zone than they are to leaders Paris St Germain in terms of points earned. That is, however, a quirk of this one-horse race of a campaign.

Angers are third in the standings, behind only PSG and Monaco, after claiming a succession of scalps from the likes of Marseille, Lille and Lyon. They held the capital club to a goalless draw earlier this month and may well secure a return to European competition after a 40-year absence.

HERTHA BERLIN HURTING NO LONGER

An inaugural member of the Bundesliga who boast one of Germany's best-loved historic stadiums, the Werner March-designed Olympiastadion, Hertha have suffered plenty of ups and downs over recent years.

There have been more lean years than good years in the last decade. BSC have bounced between the divisions since finishing sixth in 2006 and have reached no higher than 11th since they last returned to the top flight in 2013.

Fast forward to the halfway point of the current campaign and Pal Dardai's Hertha side are sitting pretty in third place having racked up 10 league wins. Stuttgart, Hamburg and free-scoring Bayer Leverkusen have all fallen to a dynamic team driven by the former Chelsea winger Salomon Kalou.

HERE VI-GO, HERE VI-GO, HERE VI-GO!

Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid. Yep, it's the usual suspects who make up the top three as the Primera Division heads into its winter break But there is no Valencia, Sevilla or Malaga knocking at the door - instead 1992 Segunda Liga champions Celta Vigo sit two points behind Real.

Iago Aspas (remember him, Liverpool fans?) and late bloomer Nolito have both scored eight goals for a team who care little about keeping clean sheets. The Galicians stunned Barcelona 4-1 in September and edged out Real Sociedad 3-2 on Halloween - Celta then closed out 2015 with back-to-back La Liga wins.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

You might not expect Fiorentina to be a point off the Scudetto pace in Serie A after 17 games but there they sit, alongside Napoli in chasing down Inter Milan. Blackburn flop Nikola Kalinic is their danger man, the Croatian notching 10 league goals this term.

Heracles Almelo were runners-up in the Dutch championship in 1941 and have achieved little of note since. Europa League football is now a real possibility as they occupy fourth place, behind only the established order of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord.

It would be rude not to mention AEK Athens. Reformed after financial meltdown in 2013, they won consecutive promotions to return to the Greek Superleague. Under Gus Poyet's supervision they now lie in second place - unfortunately for the Uruguayan coach, leaders Olympiacos are a healthy 18 points clear.

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