European leagues have only played a half-dozen games but already an on-fire quartet is distancing themselves early and not just on the standings table. In Spain, Real Madrid are already showing a dominance that is unnerving, winning games by sheer will, their opponents as if trembling rabbits awaiting the python’s strike.
Whether it be overcoming a tough tackling and borderline unsportsmanlike Atletico Madrid (RM won 2-1), or, a playing-the-game-of-their-lives Mallorca (RM won 4-1), or breaking down Celtic’s homestand heroics (RM won 3-0), or ultimately unlocking visiting and in form Leipzig’s formidable Champions League strategy with two goals in the last ten minutes (RM won 2-0), Real come across as if they’re biding their time, albeit at times with a nervy performance or two. But the bottom line is they have yet to lose their nerve and when they win you can count on a beautiful goal being part of the final product. On fire Real have won every La Liga game and top the table in Spain.
Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are playing as if they needed to underline their legacies. Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo are teaming up on scores as if they had been doing so for years. Eduardo Camavinga and Aureliene Tchouameni seem bent on ensuring no one misses Paul Pogba come Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. Federico Valverde only seems to know how to make field-long runs and score stunning goals. Thibault Courtois is picking up where he left off last season as the heir to the best keeper in the world crown.
Napoli are playing so much like the Roberto Mancini Italian National Team of 2020 that it is a pleasure to see them play. They are offensive-minded, constantly in motion, high-pressing, always finding the open man, and scoring almost at will. Whether they are unleashing their offensive fury on a game Verona (N won 5-2), or, coming from behind to beat hosts Lazio 2-1, or destroying Rangers (N won 3-0) away and Liverpool (N won 4-1) at home in Champions League play, the surprising Neapolitans are on fire, undefeated in Serie A and atop the table in Italy.
In England, the surprise team of the early part of the 2022-23 Premier League is Arsenal. They began by making some pre-season noise defeating Chelsea 4-0 and Sevilla 6-0 then won five Premiership games in a row—Crystal Palace 2-0, Leicester City 4-2, strong-playing Bournemouth 3-0, Fulham 2-1, and Aston Villa 2-1—before going to Manchester for what was, for hosts United, a do-or-die encounter and finally losing 3-0. But after that loss they got back onto their saddles and won, away, 2-1 over FC Zurich in Europa League play, and then 3-0 over Brentford. The Gunners are on fire, clicking on all cylinders, and coach Mikel Arteta is having the season start of his dreams.
Gabriel Jesus is making a case about a national team roster slot to Tite with his every pretty goal scored. Gabriel Martinelli and Marquinos are in mid-season form. Martin Odegaard (and his compatriot Erling Haaland) are making fans wish Norway had made it to Qatar. Bukayo Saka, Thomas Partey, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Granit Xhaka are making their national team coaches proud to have picked them on their respective squads.
PSG has an easier league to navigate but the manner of their play has been beautiful to behold. That otherworldly offensive trio of Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Kylian Mbappe is “fine-tuning” into a juggernaut. Neymar at eight goals and seven assists tops both the goal scorers and assists tables. Mbappe is second in scoring at seven goals. The three have 19 goals among themselves and have amassed a +22-goal differential in only eight league games. Wins against Clermont (5-0), Nantes (4-0), Montpellier (5-2), Toulouse (3-0), Nantes (3-0), and Lille (7-1), in Ligue 1 and Champions League wins against Juventus (2-1) and Maccabi Haifa (3-1) have been the norm. The team is on fire and have earned 22 of a potential 24 points in league play and have won games by scoring beautifully worked goals.
There is no question that the three offensive stars are each looking to lead their teams to victory in Qatar later this winter, and each is preparing in his own way. What is fun to watch is the camaraderie displayed soon after a great play leads to a goal on the one hand, while at the same time seeing the facial reactions of each when it is the other who has made the greater contribution. Mini daggers still fly from one to the other and only their respective professionalism seems to reign in any display of those barely submerged emotions. This may be Messi’s last cup, but in many ways, it is also Neymar’s last. Mbappe, on the other hand, is on fire on his own and keen to show his two elders that the new sheriff in town is good and ready to put on the mantle Lio has worn and Neymar seeks to borrow.
Photo: Bukayo Saka, Shutterstock ID-2076065863, by Ettore Griffoni