Club football in Europe is nearly at the halfway point of the season, and title fighters are already mostly identified. A few names are no surprise, but some are causing shockwaves in the media. Two clubs are demanding to be taken seriously in their respective title fights.
Girona and Aston Villa are proving to be tough competition in their domestic leagues. What makes their current achievements so shocking is their very recent struggles. None of them were a top 5 team always shy of getting top honours. These are two teams that very recently fought relegation, lost the battle, struggled their way to safety and are now somehow at the top, eyeing silverware.
Top of the table Girona
For anyone wondering why it is so shocking to have Girona be in the position they are currently in, a quick look at their very recent history will have you applauding Girona for what they have managed to accomplish thus far this season.
In the 2016/17 season, Girona finished as the runners up in Spain’s second-tier division, Segunda División. This was the first time in the club’s 87-year history that the club had earned promotion to La Liga.
Girona’s first-ever season in La Liga was impressive for a side that had never competed in the league before. After 14 wins, 9 draws and 15 losses, Girona finished 10th in their maiden La Liga season. They narrowly missed out on qualification for the UEFA Europa Conference League play-off round by only four points.
After an impressive first taste of La Liga, the only way was up for Girona, or so they thought. The 2018/19 season was a dreadful season for the club, especially following a season worth celebrating. With 19 losses and only 9 wins in a 38-game season, Girona was relegated to the Segunda División after only two seasons of playing in La Liga.
Girona completed their 2019/20 season fifth in Segunda División. This was good enough for them to qualify for promotion play-offs. However, a play-off final 1-0 loss to Elche on aggregate sealed their unfortunate fate of remaining in Segunda División for another season.
They finished fifth again in the 2020/21 season, once again qualifying for the promotion play-offs. But yet again, they were unable to gain promotion to La Liga. This painful reality came to be following a 3-2 loss to Rayo Vallecano on aggregate in the finals.
It was 6th place this time around for Girona in the 2021/22 Segunda División season. Yet again, they had qualified for the promotion play-offs. This time though, Girona had everything to smile about. Their second chance in La Liga came after winning their play-off in a final 3–1 win on aggregate against Tenerife.
La Liga welcomed Girona back in the 2022/23 season. They repeated their best-ever finish in La Liga by claiming 10th place. This time around they won 13, drew 10, and lost 15 games. They were again four points away from qualifying for the Europa Conference League.
Not wanting to repeat history, Girona has been marvelous to watch in the current 2023/24 season. Their incredible start to the season has been their best-ever start in top-flight football.
Girona reached the top 4 of La Liga for the first time after their first 2 games. They reached the top of the La Liga table after seven matches with 19 points. Their only loss, at the time of writing, came from a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid. They picked themselves up and dusted themselves off with five wins in a row after their loss.
A draw to fifth place Athletic Club was followed by two wins. One of those wins was an impressive triumph against reigning champions Barcelona in a game that ended 4-2.
So far, Girona’s only loss has come from games against two teams that are currently in the top 6, and their only loss from second placed Real Madrid. Girona probably should have been taken seriously after their very first few games, but a win against Barcelona was Michel’s team making a statement, demanding that they should definitely be taken seriously in the La Liga title fight.
Girona sits at the top of the table with 41 points, with 22 games left in the season. Will they be able to sustain a season-long fight for the title with Real Madrid and win their first-ever La Liga title?
The Premier League’s villains
After a 1-0 win against Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, Aston Villa is now third on the Premier League table, only three points away from first.
Just like Girona, Villa’s recent history makes one marvel over what Unai Emery’s side has managed thus far in the 2023/24 season.
After finishing dead last in the 2015/16 Premier League season, Aston Villa was relegated to the Championship. The 2016/17 season was the first time the former European Cup winners played football outside of the top flight since the beginning of the Premier League era in 1992.
Aston Villa had a tough time when they first got to the Championship. Thirteenth place in the 2016/17 was a harsh welcome to the Championship.
Their second season was a bit better, with a fourth place finish enough to get them to qualify for the Championship play-offs to earn promotion to the Premier League. A 1-0 loss to Fulham in the finals broke the hearts of the Villans.
The 2018/2019 saw Villa end up fifth place, once again qualifying for the Championship play-offs. A 2-1 win against Derby County in the finals secured a Premier League return for the club.
However, Aston Villa’s return to the Premier League was not easy. They spent the entirety of the 2019/20 season battling relegation, but managed to avoid it with a 17th-place finish, staying up on the final day following a 1-1 draw at West Ham United.
Their 2020/21 season was somewhat better, and they concluded the season in 11th place. It was a result to be happy with as there was obvious progress. Despite the great result, then Villa manager Dean Smith was unable to convince star player and captain Jack Grealish to stay at the club. Grealish agreed a £100m deal with Manchester City before the start of the 2021/22 season.
Perhaps losing Grealish was a blow, as their 2021/22 season was not as good as the previous one. The start of the season was particularly poor, with seven losses in the club’s opening 11 games. Dean Smith was sacked, with Steven Gerrard elected as his replacement. Despite managerial changes, Villa’s season was still poor, and they finished the season 14th.
Unai Emery was selected as manager in October 2022, as the 2022/23 season was ongoing. After a poor start when Gerrard was in charge, Emery turned Villa’s season around. He led Villa to seventh place, earning them qualification to the Europa Conference League in just his first season.
Their 2023/24 season has been successful thus far, and they are performing better than a few of the ‘Big 6’ clubs. Despite a 5-1 loss to Newcastle in the first game of the season, Emery’s team currently has 11 wins, 2 draws and 3 losses in the Premier League. Those wins include shocking results over Tottenham, Manchester City, and Arsenal, who have been tough to beat.
They are third in the table, and look strong enough to take this title fight up till the end of the season. In fact, had their very recent draw against Bournemouth ended as a Villa win, Aston Villa would be at the top of the table. Above them right now are Liverpool and Arsenal.
Aston Villa has not won a top-flight English title since 1980/81, but this season, they could lift the Premier League trophy come May.