It's one of the odd things at the top of European football this year: very few clubs (or their fan bases) can look at their current situation, conclude the future is bright and reach for the shades.
League-leading Arsenal and Napoli? Sure, no question about it. Stick them at the top of the list.
Maybe a notch below them, Manchester City: they may not win the league this year (unlike four of the past five seasons) and there's a storm cloud potentially gathering with the Premier League investigation, but they've added a goal-scoring machine in Erling Haaland, Pep Guardiola is happy and sticking around and they're favourites to win both the FA Cup and the Champions League. Throw in Borussia Dortmund as well: the Champions League exit was disappointing, but they're alive in the DFB-Pokal, they're top of the Bundesliga and they're playing well.
I think you can broadly include Manchester United in that group, too: Erik ten Hag has been a hit, they're considerably better than last season, they're likely to qualify for the Champions League, they've won a domestic trophy with the Carabao Cup (and could win another, the FA Cup) and they're favourites to win the Europa League.
The one source of anxiety may be the potential sale of all or part of the club and whether the investment the club needs in Old Trafford and the squad materializes. (One Manchester United-supporting friend, albeit a notorious worry-wart, is concerned that "we'll end up with fewer Glazers and even more debt.")
Beyond that? There's only so much to cheer, and even the likelihood of winning a title doesn't necessarily turn a frown upside down.
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Barcelona are headed for LaLiga glory and may also win the Copa del Rey. And they're likely to escape sanction over the €7 million paid to the former vice president of the refereeing committee, Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira -- they should escape in the sporting sphere because of the statute of limitations while in the criminal sphere, it's because prosecutors haven't found evidence the funds were used to corrupt match officials. But the stain of the case remains -- if only for the previous administration's profligacy -- as does the damage from getting knocked out of the Champions League. More importantly, club president Joan Laporta's "economic levers" leave a major question mark over the club's future.
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Paris Saint-Germain? Sure, they'll likely win the French title again, but they suffered premature exits from the French Cup and the Champions League with the highest wage bill in Europe. Lionel Messi becomes a free agent in July, nobody seems to like manager Christophe Galtier, president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is being investigated for an alleged role in a "kidnapping and torture plot," the Qatari owners have put a chunk of the club (maybe more) up for sale and, despite his contract, nobody knows where Kylian Mbappe will turn up next year.
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Bayern Munich could yet win the treble, great! They've also never been second in the table at this stage of the season over the past decade, and their projected points total of 71 would be their lowest mark in 12 years. They also lost their iconic captain (Manuel Neuer) to a needless season-ending ski injury, and he's probably doubly grumpy because his contract expires at the end of next season, there's no sign of an extension until he gets fit and his goalkeeping coach Toni Tapalovic -- who was also best man at his wedding -- was summarily fired and accused of leaking information to the media.
And by the way, even now that Tapalovic is gone, coach Julian Nagelsmann is complaining about a "mole in the camp" leaking documents to national newspapers. Oh, and with Robert Lewandowski gone, the only legitimate centre-forward on their books is Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who turns 34 this week and is, well, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
What about Real Madrid? They could yet successfully defend their Champions League title, which would be great, but they're 12 points behind Barcelona domestically and frankly haven't played particularly well all season. President Florentino Perez is 76 and if you've heard of a viable successor, that's news to me. The Super League project is hanging by a thread. The club may or may not be looking for another manager next season. Seven of Real's starting XI are the wrong side of 30 and while they have the midfield of the future already in the squad (Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni), there will be a big Karim Benzema-shaped hole to fill up front sooner rather than later.
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Juventus may or may not get their points penalty overturned, which would put them second in Serie A, and they are still alive in the Europa League and Coppa Italia. But they made enormous losses the past few years, they're facing multiple criminal investigations over false accounting and misleading shareholders and they've had to replace their whole board. They also lost five of six games on their way out of the Champions League and despite a turnaround in results since the turn of the new year, few have faith in manager Max Allegri.
Liverpool were runners-up in the Premier League and Champions League a year ago, but might not even qualify for the Champions League this season. Their projected points total is the lowest since Jurgen Klopp's first season, they've lost one of the architects of their recent success (sporting director Michael Edwards) and are losing two more (his successor Julian Ward, plus head of data Ian Graham) this summer. Their owner, Fenway Sports Group, put the club up for sale in November, before pivoting late last month and saying maybe they'd only look for minority investors instead.
It goes on.
The two Milan clubs are in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but both coaches (Simone Inzaghi at Inter, Stefano Pioli at Milan) are under serious fire and both teams look worse than a year ago. Milan appear to be more financially stable than Inter, but neither, for now, is getting what they wanted: a joint state-of-the-art stadium to replace San Siro.
Atletico Madrid somehow finished last in their Champions League group and local institution Diego Simeone hasn't extended his contract beyond next season.
Tottenham are fourth in the Premier League, same as last season, but they just witnessed Antonio Conte, their highly paid coach whose contract expires in June, rant about the selfishness of the Players while reminding everyone that the club comes from two decades of winning nothing of note. They will likely need a new manager next season (again), Harry Kane might want to leave (again) and the club remains unofficially up for sale (again).
And then there's Chelsea. Around this time last year, they had a multibillionaire owner whose tenure had been hugely successful, a top-notch front office and a Champions League winning manager. They're all gone now and despite the new owners spending more than €600 million ($675m) in nine months, they're 10th in the table. If that doesn't improve, it would be their lowest finish since the pre-Bosman era (1995-96).
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What's the point of this exercise? It's not just about how most of Europe's top clubs have had a rocky season, whether because of issues off the pitch or underperformance on it, though it's certainly notable and there could be myriad reasons behind it: an unprecedented midseason World Cup, post-pandemic fallout, small sample size.
Rather, it underscores two things. One is that results, while very important, are not everything. Bayern winning the treble might "rescue" the season, but it won't solve the center-forward issue or make Nagelsmann any less paranoid about moles in the camp. Barcelona winning LaLiga won't suddenly generate buckets of cash so Laporta can put his levers away. And, of course, PSG's probable Ligue 1 crown won't put out the fires at the Parc des Princes.
The other and perhaps more important one is that success for a top club is more about trend and hope than anything else. A bit like the economy, where consumer sentiment (i.e. how folks feel about the economic situation) can often matter more than cold, hard numbers (i.e. what the actual economic situation is), football is about how you feel about your club and the direction in which they're heading, as much as it is about where they actually are.
For most, in 2022-23, that arrow has been pointing down.
Results -- especially at clubs that are used to winning -- only bring so much happiness. And when they dip or when there's uncertainty, fans get nervous, depressed, angry or some combination of the three very quickly.