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Can these five sides turn their fortunes around?
By: timbersfan , 12:14 AM GMT on September 07, 2012
Crisis? No. Concern? Most certainly. Five of Europe's top clubs -- the type of sides who would regard Europa League qualification as a minimum requirement, and Champions League qualification as an achievable goal – go into the season's first international break yet to record a victory. Are these five sides set for disappointing campaigns, or are they simply having to weather the storm?
Brendan Rodgers' first transfer window at Anfield turned into a disaster. He admitted that Andy Carroll wouldn't have been allowed to leave if he'd known a replacement wasn't forthcoming, and a look at his bench in the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal told a depressing story. Stewart Downing was the closest thing to an attacker, but Rodgers had previously spoken of his intention to try Downing as a left back, after a miserable debut campaign produced neither a goal nor an assist.
On the pitch, Martin Skrtel's inexplicable error against Manchester City – a woefully under-hit backpass that allowed Carlos Tevez to equalize – has cost Rodgers more than just two points. Psychologically, the importance of getting that first win is huge, and doing it against last season's champions would have made it extra special.
There have been some positives – Liverpool played excellently against City, Joe Allen has settled well in midfield and Raheem Sterling has shown great promise in his first two starts. But there are concerns at the back, where Liverpool doesn't look suited to a high defensive line, and up front, where Luis Suarez continues to frustrate. The midfield was also a problem against Arsenal, with three players doing roughly the same job, and Nuri Sahin seemingly unsure of his positioning.
The majority of these woes will be solved with time on the training ground, but as Liverpool's next two games involve a tricky trip to Sunderland and a home game with Manchester United, there's no guaranteed win on the horizon.
No need for Mauricio Pellegrino to panic – Valencia's winless start is primarily because of its terrible fixture list at the beginning of the campaign. Trips to both the Santiago Bernabeu and the Camp Nou within the first three games means that Valencia's toughest two matches of the season are already out of the way.
Valencia equipped itself well in both matches. At the Bernabeu it rode its luck at the back, but was desperately unlucky when captain Roberto Soldado's goal was wrongly disallowed for offside at 1-1, the eventual result. At the Nou Camp on Sunday evening, Valencia had Barcelona on the back foot for the majority of the second half, although it eventually lost 1-0. The major cause for concern was the 3-3 home draw with Deportivo, where Pellegrino's side was 2-0 and 3-1 up, and ended the game with six bookings and Ricardo Costa sent off.
Overall, Pellegrino has changed relatively little at Valencia. The club has basically played a 4-2-3-1 system since his mentor Rafael Benitez was in charge a decade ago, and the new arrivals – right back Joao Pereira, left winger Andres Guardado and ball-playing midfielder Fernando Gago have fit smoothly into the side. Valencia combines patient passing with energetic wing play, and Soldado remains one of La Liga's most lethal strikers.
With Malaga and Athletic Bilbao losing key players this summer, it would be a huge surprise if Valencia finished outside the top four – but after Unai Emery recorded three consecutive third-place finishes, Pellegrino will be determined to match his predecessor.
Spurs made six major signings in the summer -- Jan Vertonghen, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Hugo Lloris, Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele – yet the talk was of the man they didn't manage to purchase. Porto midfielder Joao Moutinho was set to link up with Andre Villas-Boas for the second time, but the transfer wasn't completed, and Luka Modric hasn't been replaced with a player of the same caliber.
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Not landing Porto midfielder Joao Moutinho will haunt Spurs manager AVB.
At least Dembele can play in the center of midfield (although his game is more direct and aggressive), so Villas-Boas can't complain that he's completely lacking in that zone. The problem, as with last season, is that the first couple of games were played with a ramshackle squad; only now can players build meaningful relationships and fully understand their roles.
Spurs were slightly unfortunate to lose to Newcastle on opening day, but should have defeated both West Brom and Norwich at White Hart Lane, conceding late equalizers in both. Maybe that's a sign of poor fitness levels, although it's also worth noting that Villas-Boas removed a striker for a central midfielder at 1-0 up in both games, inviting pressure the defense was unable to withstand.
The Portuguese coach has reportedly already annoyed Lloris, and man-management skills appear to be his main weakness after his ill-fated spell at Chelsea. Assuming that incident isn't a sign of things to come, Tottenham should be a decent side once Dempsey and Dembele get up to full speed.
It's now a decade since Sporting won the league, and it has spent the past three years in the relative wilderness, unable to mount a serious title challenge. But even if it's forced to endure another season gazing up the table at Porto and Benfica, there's motivation for Ricardo Sa Pinto's side to perform – from last season, the third-placed team in the Portuguese league now goes into a playoff for the Champions League.
Sporting has only played two games so far this season, one fewer than the majority of the division, but a total of one point and zero goals sums up the frustration. The 1-0 home defeat to Rio Ave, which narrowly escaped relegation last season, was Sporting at its worst – all possession, no penetration, and a constant danger it would be exposed on the counterattack.
The club purchased relatively wisely in the transfer window, but mainly functional players such as holding midfielder Gelson Fernandes, defenders Khalid Boulahrouz and Marcos Rojo and utility player Danijel Pranjic. As the only side in the Portuguese league yet to score a goal, the lack of creativity is obvious.
Mati Fernandez, sold to Fiorentina in the summer, was infuriating, inconsistent and frequently injured, but he did provide a spark of excitement. Youngster Adrien Silva has been charged with replacing the Chilean, but he plays a much deeper role, and he's been withdrawn by Sa Pinto at halftime in both league matches so far, indicating that a change of strategy might be required for Sporting to return to the Champions League for the first time since 2008-09.
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Francesco Guidolin, visibly distraught after the Braga match, is too good a coach to allow Udinese to feel sorry for themselves.
We fear for Udinese every season. It was in this position last year – it lost to Arsenal in the Champions League playoff, and had lost three of its best players: Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata. Would this be the season it finally slipped away from the top? No – it still finished third. This season, Udinese has lost Samir Handanovic, Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah, while its Champions League exit against Braga on penalties was even more heartbreaking.
This year could be tougher. Francesco Guidolin was visibly distraught after the Braga match – reports that he was set to quit the club were quickly denied, but it felt like his last chance of Champions League qualification had slipped away.
Frustratingly, that two-legged tie also hampered Udinese's start to Serie A. It rested the majority of the side for the 2-1 defeat at Fiorentina on the opening day, then was mentally and physically exhausted for the 4-1 home loss to Juventus at the weekend, when it had to play for 80 minutes with 10 men. It has only recorded three shots on target in 180 minutes of football.
Guidolin is too good a coach to allow Udinese to feel sorry for themselves for a sustained period, but with rivals strengthening significantly over the summer, another third-place finish will be very difficult to achieve this season.