The painstaking rise, and the sudden fall, of Union feels a little like a parable for what has happened across Europe as the continent’s leagues have squeezed in as many games as possible before being placed on unwelcome hiatus for the World Cup.
The compressed, contracted calendar was supposed to add a layer of chaos to proceedings, to make domestic tournaments that have come to resemble a procession just a little more wild, a little more untamed, than they might ordinarily be. If anything, though, the opposite has happened. Bayern will go into the break on top in Germany. Paris St.-Germain will do so in France. In Spain, Barcelona has carved out just a little daylight from its rival, the noted plucky underdog Real Madrid.
Look a little beneath the surface, though, and there are signs of churn and change. It is not just that — with one round of fixtures to play — Arsenal leads the Premier League, Manchester City biting at its heels, or that Napoli, the best team to watch in Europe, has established a healthy lead in Serie A.
It is that, across the continent, all but a handful of giants have spent at least a portion of the last few months stumbling. It is in England where the pattern is most clear, where Chelsea has fired Thomas Tuchel; Tottenham has been enveloped by existential angst; Manchester United has ricocheted from crisis to hope and back again; and Liverpool has, at times, actually forgotten how to play soccer. Newcastle United currently sits third in the Premier League. More instructive is that Brighton is sixth.
The pattern is true elsewhere, too. Juventus, already eliminated from the Champions League, is left in Napoli’s dust domestically, its only solace that Inter Milan is in the same place. Atlético Madrid is out of Europe altogether, and scrabbling to qualify for the Champions League next season; Dortmund and Ajax and Sporting Lisbon, among others, all find themselves in the same boat.