Glance across the European soccer standings and there is an unfamiliar look.
At least one powerhouse team in each of the five biggest domestic leagues is finding it much tougher to challenge for the title two months into the season.
Associated Press writers across Europe take a look at the struggles of AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Monaco, and Real Madrid.
STATE OF PLAY: Selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus was always going to have a significant impact. Without the fulcrum of the attack, Madrid is enduring its worst scoring drought since 1985. The European champion hasn’t won or scored in its last four games in all competitions. While Madrid is only two points behind leader Sevilla, the gloom around the club makes the gap appear bigger.
FAULT LINES: It’s proving unsettling for Julen Lopetegui, who was forced out of the Spain job before the World Cup, to fill the Real Madrid coaching vacancy. Madrid explored other coaches to replace Zinedine Zidane after he quit following Madrid’s third successive Champions League triumph in May. Lopetegui did win five of his opening six matches in the domestic league and Champions League, with Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema finding the net to compensate for Ronaldo’s absence. But the attack started faltering and the defense began making uncharacteristic mistakes, with veterans Sergio Ramos and Marcelo proving less reliable.
FIXING IT: However much Lopetegui maintains he is not worried about the goal drought, the forwards have to do more than create chances. They have to score. Bale and Benzema had extra time to recover from injuries during the international break. It should also help the record 33-time Spanish champions that their next opponent, Levante, has the league’s third-worst defense with 14 conceded in eight matches.
STATE OF PLAY: The 20-time English champion hasn’t won the Premier League since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. A distant runner-up last season, United under Jose Mourinho has slumped to seventh. As well as losing three of its first eight games, United was eliminated from the League Cup by second-tier side Derby.
FAULT LINES: A Mourinho-coached team can usually be relied upon to be strong defensively, yet only three teams in the Premier League have conceded more goals than United (14). Mourinho has played four different pairings at center back — the position United’s board refused to strengthen in the offseason — and has even played midfielders Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay there. Alexis Sanchez, a marquee signing in January, is proving to be a flop while Romelu Lukaku continues to struggle for goals against the bigger teams. The style of football is often bland and labored while, off the field, Mourinho’s relationship with Paul Pogba is clearly strained.
FIXING IT: The strain on Mourinho might force United into a coaching change. That could restore harmony to the dressing room, at least. Zinedine Zidane is available. If Mourinho hangs on, he needs to find the right central-midfield combination to better protect the defense and maybe allow his attackers to express themselves more — like they did when United came from 2-0 down to beat Newcastle 3-2 before the international break. Progress in the Champions League should ensure he stays at least until the spring.
STATE OF PLAY: The team has gone into decline since thrilling Europe by reaching the Champions League semifinals in 2017, when it won the French league in style ahead of Paris Saint-Germain. Monaco is now 18th after winning only one of its first nine league games, and its attack is no longer potent.
FAULT LINES: Monaco sold the spine of its title-winning side, reneging on a pledge to let only two players go by cashing in on five. Selling rising star Kylian Mbappe to PSG strengthened a title rival. Coach Leonardo Jardim pulled off impressive patch-up jobs in previous years but has struggled this season to get a young team to gel. The burden is still falling on veteran striker Radamel Falcao for goals. Kamil Glik’s center back pairing with Brazilian Jemerson is not working, with 13 goals conceded. It’s no better in the Champions League, either, with two straight losses.
FIXING IT: France great Thierry Henry has been handed his first managerial job in the last week after Jardim was fired. Returning to the club where he started his glittering playing career in the mid-1990s, Henry has the immediate task of getting Monaco back up the table, starting with a trip to Strasbourg on Saturday. Henry, who was on Belgium’s coaching staff at the World Cup, needs to instill a strong sense of discipline and work ethic into the Monaco side while rekindling its trademark attacking flair.
STATE OF PLAY: Bayern’s chase for a record-extending sixth straight Bundesliga title has stalled in Niko Kovac’s first season as coach. The former Bayern midfielder, who established his coaching credentials at Eintracht Frankfurt, has not won the last four games.
FAULT LINES: Rivals have figured out how to capitalize on Bayern’s defensive deficiencies and that’s just leading to more lapses. The buildup play is slower than it was before, passes are going astray and the few chances created are often squandered. Robert Lewandowski, the league top-scorer last season, has only three goals in six games. Eight players have more in Germany. Kovac appears overwhelmed by the demands of leading the country’s biggest team.
FIXING IT: Kovac’s position will be further imperiled if Bayern doesn’t beat Wolfsburg on Saturday. Lewandowski, Arjen Robben, and Thomas Mueller need to rediscover their sharpness in front of goal. After Wolfsburg, Bayern faces another three games away from home with AEK Athens in the Champions League, Mainz in the Bundesliga, and fourth-tier side SV Roedinghausen in the German Cup to come.
STATE OF PLAY: A takeover didn’t stabilize the club. Chinese investor Li Yonghong bought Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April 2017. More than 200 million euros ($230 million) was spent on new players but questions persisted over the financial stability of the consortium. U.S.-based hedge fund Elliott Management took over control of Milan in July after Li missed a deadline to repay part of a loan.
FAULT LINES: The minimum expected given the investment on the squad was a top-four finish and qualification for the Champions League, but Milan finished sixth in May and is already down in 10th in this Serie A with former player Gennaro Gattuso in charge. Elliott was expected to sell on Milan but the fund appears to be planning for the long term with founder Paul Singer pledging to return the club to the top of European football.
FIXING IT: Milan has brought back several stars from its golden years, appointing Leonardo as sports director and Paolo Maldini as strategy and development director. The signing of Gonzalo Higuain from Juventus in the offseason was also crucial as Milan sorely lacked firepower up front last season. After a rocky start, things are starting to settle ahead of the derby against Inter Milan as the team enjoys an eight-match unbeaten run in Serie A and the Europa League. But there’s little hope of catching Juventus. The leader is 12 points in front. But Lazio is only three points ahead in fourth.
AP Sports writers Tales Azzoni, Steve Douglas, Ciaran Fahey, Rob Harris, Daniella Matar, and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.
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