11) Torino (Italy)
They won on Monday night to move from tenth to fourth. The big spoilsports.
10) Dunav 2010 (Bulgaria)
As the name suggests, Dunav 2010 are the youngest club on this list. In February 2011, FC Dunav Ruse went bankrupt and were dissolved. They were reformed a month later as Dunav 2010, and I’ve got as much idea as you as to why it isn’t ‘2011’.
Since then, it’s been pretty much plain sailing. Dunav were promoted from the third tier in 2012/13 and then again in 2014/15 after immediate relegation, this time taking a ridiculous 85 points from a possible 90. Last season they breezed through the B Group losing only two league games, achieving promotion back to the top flight for the first time since 1991. They now sit third in the table, ahead of perennial heavyweights (but fallen giants) CSKA Sofia.
The squad has only three internationals, all of whom play for Tajikstan. Eighteen of the first-team squad are registered to play for Bulgaria, but none have. Midfielder Spas Georgiev has made six league appearances this season, and was previously on loan at Albion Rovers from Livingston in Scottish League One. Their last league attendance was 700. Still, the banter is strong.
9) Eibar (Spain)
Supporters of SD Eibar must be getting sores from pinching themselves. The club with a stadium capacity of 6,300 celebrated its first ever promotion to the top flight in 2013/14, but subsequently finished 18th in La Liga and were relegated. Then, two weeks later, Elche were found guilty of financial mismanagement, relegated and Eibar reinstated.
Last season, Eibar started off brilliantly but fell away pitifully, taking ten points between January 18 and the end of the campaign. The expectation was that the Gunners would continue to find things difficult this season, but not a bit of it. Eibar currently sit eighth in La Liga, beating Valencia, Granada and Real Sociedad and earning a famous draw in the Bernabeu. That’s what happens when you sign Bebe.
Finally, can we marvel at the following line on Eibar’s Wikipedia page: ‘It is the only football club who has the quality certificate UNE-EN-ISO 9001.’ Management systems boasting is the best kind of boasting.
8) Istanbul Buyuksehir BSK (Turkey)
Another click-hungry entrant on this list. Istanbul Buyuksehir BSK really are the team that everyone’s talking about.
Actually, maybe they should be. Thirty-one of the last 32 Turkish league titles have been won by Galatasaray, Fenerbahce or Besiktas, but there’s a new Istanbul kid in town. Buyuksehir are top of the league and unbeaten after seven games. While Fener flounder, they have stepped up.
In fairness, this has been coming for a while. After a period of investment (and new stadium), they were promoted in 2014 and finished fourth in 2015 and 2016. They might be prepared to step up to the next level. Oh and they have Emre.
7) RB Leipzig (Germany)
It’s hardly a fairytale story, but there’s no doubting that Red Bull mean business; literally. RB Leipzig have ambitions to challenge Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga. When you get two of Red Bull’s best players (Naby Keita and Bernardo) in one transfer window, you know you’re the corporate favourites.
That said, nobody quite saw Leipzig’s surge happening this quickly. Having achieved promotion by finishing five points behind Freiburg last season, Leipzig are unbeaten this season and sit only two points and two places behind Bayern.
Although I really want to dislike Leipzig, it would be stupid to ignore the more pleasant side of this corporate monster. Fifty-three of the 77 starts this season have been given to players aged 25 and under, and 39% to those aged 22 and under. They also play bloody lovely football.
6) OGC Nice (France)
If Nice’s achievement of a fourth-placed finish last season was impressive, their start to 2016/17 is ludicrous. Having lost their manager (Claude Puel), best central midfielder (Nampalys Mendy), best full-back (Jeremy Pied) and best attacking player (Hatem Ben Arfa), Nice could have fallen flat on their collective arses. Instead, they’re just sprinting faster still.
While Unai Emery tries to overcome a difficult start to life in Paris, Lucien Favre is busy redeeming his reputation after a catastrophic end to his Borussia Mochengladbach tenure. Nice are top of Ligue Un and unbeaten, having been victorious against Lyon, Monaco and Marseille.
Yet Favre isn’t the biggest redemption story on the Côte d’Azur. In 345 league minutes, Mario Balotelli has more than doubled his goal tally from the last two seasons combined. This makes me smile.
5) Heerenveen (Netherlands)
Here are some things that I knew about Heerenveen before writing this:
1) Their kit has love hearts dotted over it.
2) Former players include Ruud van Nistelrooy, Bas Dost, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Afonso Alves, Georgios Samaras and 90s legend Arnold Bruggink; they love a striker.
3) Their name contains an unacceptable number of ‘e’s.
Here are things I now know:
1) They’re third in the Eredivisie, above current champions PSV Eindhoven.
2) They’ve lost one league game all season.
3) They signed striker Reza Ghoochannejhad from League One Charlton this summer on a free transfer.
4) Their manager Jurgen Streppel looks like a man who openly admits to watching a lot of pornography, but insists that he hasn’t done any. It might look like him, but it definitely wasn’t him.
4) Charleroi (Belgium)
Until now, Charleroi only came on my football radar through the behaviour of English fans during Euro 2000 and for having the stadium with the most terrifyingly steep stands.
In fact, that stadium provides an interesting insight into Charleroi’s recent history. Opened in 2000 with a capacity of 30,000, it was first reduced to 25,000 due to the club’s low attendances, and then to 14,000 in 2012 after it emerged that the city failed to get the suitable building permit. Three of the four upper tiers were torn down.
On the pitch, things are looking surprisingly rosy. Having finished in mid-table in the regular season last year (the Belgian league end-of-season play-offs are frankly mental) and never finishing in the top five since promotion in 2011/12, Charleroi have lost just one of their first ten games and sit two points behind Anderlecht in first place. That’s despite an average attendance lower than Luton, Bristol Rovers and Oxford United.
3) Toulouse (France)
Toulouse supporters would have been forgiven for any pre-season negativity. Having survived relegation on the final day of last season, Pascal Dupraz promptly saw striker Wissam Ben Yedder sold to Sevilla. Ben Yedder scored 38% of Toulouse’s goals last season, and assisted a further 11%.
Yet out of those worries, a beautiful season is being born. Toulouse are fourth in Ligue 1, two points behind Paris St Germain. The lack of Ben Yedder’s goals has been counteracted by a defence that is the second best in the league.
Toulouse won nine league games in the whole of last season; they’ve won five by mid-October.
2) Chaves (Portugal)
I’ll let you see behind the curtain for a moment. When we discussed this top ten, and looked at potential candidates, Sarah Winterburn suggested a club in Portugal that she’d never heard of. To my eternal shame, I couldn’t come up with the name even when told it ‘begins with C’. Our reputation as #EuropeanFootballExperts is no more. We are ignorami.
I now know that GD Chaves were regular participants in the Primeira Liga in the 1980s, but fell as far as the third tier in 2007. They were finally promoted back to the top flight last year, after an absence of 17 years.
Chaves are now acting like they’ve never been away. They’re fifth in the league, have lost once and are four points behind heavyweights Porto and Sporting. The football is hardly expansive (a total of 14 goals have been scored/conceded in seven games), but nor does it need to be. A team with an 8,000-capacity stadium is holding its own against the big boys.
1) FC Koln (Germany)
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? Thomas Muller? Robert Lewandowski? Javier Hernandez? No, no, no and no. Anthony Modeste is your answer. He is the Bundesliga’s top scorer.
Look, let’s be clear: Bayern Munich will win the Bundesliga. Their domestic dominance is so entrenched that we must seek moments of unexpected joy in a landscape of financial power. RB Leipzig’s start to the season might be surprising, but it is Koln’s that is the most heart-warming.
As Archie Rhind-Tutt wrote in his Set Pieces column, Koln have suffered five relegations and had 18 different managers in the last 20 years. They are Germany’s yo-yo club, not a team that should be troubling the Bundesliga’s upper reaches.
Koln won’t win the Bundesliga; they probably won’t even qualify for the Champions League. But, for now, this is a football club living in a dream world. Good on them.