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Taking Stock on the World Cup Break

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The painstaking rise, and the sudden fall, of Union feels slightly like a parable for what has happened across Europe because 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 presupposed to add a layer of chaos to proceedings, to make domestic tournaments which have come to resemble a procession just slightly more wild, slightly more untamed, than they may ordinarily be. If anything, though, the alternative has happened. Bayern will go into the break on top in Germany. Paris St.-Germain will accomplish that in France. In Spain, Barcelona has carved out just slightly daylight from its rival, the noted plucky underdog Real Madrid.

Look slightly beneath the surface, though, and there are signs of churn and alter. It shouldn’t be just that — with one round of fixtures to play — Arsenal leads the Premier League, Manchester City biting at its heels, or that Napoli, the most effective team to look at in Europe, has established a healthy lead in Serie A.

It’s that, across the continent, all but a handful of giants have spent at the least a portion of the previous couple of months stumbling. It’s 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 tips on how to play soccer. Newcastle United currently sits third within 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 identical place. Atlético Madrid is out of Europe altogether, and scrabbling to qualify for the Champions League next season; Dortmund and Ajax and Sporting Lisbon, amongst others, all find themselves in the identical boat.

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