Several dark horses seem to be taking the spotlight in La Liga, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga in 2021/22 instead of the traditional powerhouses. 

The end of year is approaching, which means the 2021/22 season has hit the halfway point. Unlike previous seasons some of the elite teams in those countries top flight, have slipped outside the top four in the standings. The giants who are struggling to improve their positions such as Barcelona, Lyon, Monaco, RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach have been replaced by the unlikely dark horses Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano, Nice, Rennes, Frieburg and Hoffenheim who are now making great strides and fighting for the Champions League slots instead of avoiding relegation or being stranded in mid table.

The Dark Horses Currently In the Top Four this Season 

Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano in La Liga 

This has been a standout season for the Andalusian teams. Sevilla were already a consistent top-four contender, but Real Betis are a relevant newcomer. Since Manuel Pellegrini took over as manager in 2020/21 the team has improved from the relegation zone in 2020 to finishing sixth in 2021 and now sitting third in the race for a Champions League spot. The Chilean manager’s experience leading Villarreal and Manchester City appears to be useful in instilling confidence in Joaquin and co. for better campaign this season.

Key figures:

Juanmi (11 goals, 1 assist)

Nabil Fekir (4 goals, 3 assists)

Alex Moreno (3 goals, 2 assists)

Guido Rodriguez (2 assists)

Notable results:

vs Barcelona (Away) 1-0

vs Real Sociedad (Home) 4-0

Meanwhile, Rayo Vallecano has different story. Based in one of Madrid’s poorest neighbourhoods they have one of the smallest budgets in La Liga this season. However, the club has made an unexpected improvement since former Bilbao player Andoni Iraola was appointed in July 2020. He explained the tactical approach he deploys for his team;

“I prefer us to play at a high pace, even if it means a touch of precipitation, than play at a lower pace and have a bit more control. It suits us.”

This season, thenewly promoted side has relied on the 35-year old Radamel Falcao, Bebe, and the senior Argentine midfielder Oscar Trejo and the results have been impressive. Vallecano are currently sitting in the fourth and competing for a Champions League place. 

Key figures:

Oscar Trejo (3 goals, 8 assists)

Falcao (5 goals)

Alvaro Garcia (5 goals, 2 assists)

Stole Dimitrievski 

Notable results:

vs Bilbao (A)  2-1

vs Barcelona (H) 1-0

vs Valencia (A)  1-1

Nice and Rennes in Ligue 1

Christopher Galtier chose Nice as his next challenge after leading Lille to an unlikely victory in the 2020/21 season. So far he has done a good job by bringing them to second place in the table. Employing the same 4-4-2 formation as his previous side while winning the Ligue 1 title he is confident of helping Nice be a title rival for the star-studded PSG this season and looking to dethrone them again in 2022/23.

Key figures:

Amien Gouiri (8 goals, 4 assists) 

Andy Delort (5 goals, 1 assist) 

Justin Kluivert (2 goals, 2 assists) 

Walter Benitez 

Notable results:

vs Lyon (H) 3-2

vs Marseille (H) 1-1

vs PSG (A) 0-0

Another dark horse ready cause upsets is Rennes. Bruno Genesio’s men have been fairly impressive so far despite having fewer well-known players in the squad than Nice. They are the only team to have beaten PSG this season and are the second highest scoring club in Ligue 1 after Le Parisien. Rennes are currently sitting in fourth only two points adrift of Nice and Marseille.

Key figures:

Gaetan Laborde (6 goals, 4 assists)

Martin Terrier (9 goals)

Flavien Tait (2 goals 3 assists) 

Benjamin Bourigearoud (2 goals, 4 assists)

Notable results:

vs PSG (H) 2-0

vs Lyon (H) 4-1

Frieburg and Hoffenheim in Bundesliga 

The Bundesliga may stay the same with Bayern on top and Dortmund in second but the emergence of two dark horses this season has been quite a surprise. Frieburg’s stunning form before the winter break is one of the most unexpected ones. They have the second lowest budget in the top tier and are still led by Christian Streich who has taken charge of the team since 2011.

There has been rise and fall in Frieburg under his command. They did finish fifth in 2013 but we’re also relegated in 2015 before bouncing back immediately in the following season. Most of the time, Streich’s side are stuck in mid table. However this season could be their best time to finish in the top four and seal a Champions League spot. Christian Gunter and Co are currently sitting in third.

 Key figures:

Nico Schlotterbeck (2 goals) 

Lucas Holer (4 goals, 1 assist)

Vicenzo Grifo (4 goals, 6 assists)

Christian Gunter (4 assists)

Notable results:

vs Dortmund (H) 2-1

vs Gladbach (A) 6-0

vs Leverkusen (H) 2-1

Last but not least, there is Hoffenheim whose attempts to climb to the top four is underway. Their last memorable campaign was in 2018 when Julian Nagelsmann brought them to their first ever Champions League qualifiers after finishing third. Now, under the nephew of Uli Hoeness, Sebastian, they are prepared to compete for another Champions League finish. Hoffenheim sit in fifth collecting the same points as Leverkusen in fourth and only one point below Freiburg.

Key figures:

David Raum (1 goal, 4 assists) 

Andrej Kramaric (2 goals, 7 assists)

Dennis Geiger (2 goals, 2 assists)

Ihlas Bebou (5 goals, 1 assist)

Notable results:

vs RB Leipzig (H) 2-0

vs Frankfurt (H) 3-2

vs Freiburg (A) 2-1

Main Image Credit Embed from Getty Images

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