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Thursday, March 22, 2012
Football's top 5 underachievers

By Michael Cox
Special to ESPN.com

It's increasingly rare to see one of Europe's true big boys struggling in their domestic league -- Champions League status means a constant stream of money, which helps maintain the advantage over other sides in domestic competition.

But while second place would be a "poor season" for Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Manchester United, some sides accustomed to a position near the top of the league have found themselves battling relegation this season. Here's a story of woe from each of Europe's five major leagues.

Aston Villa

It's rare that a managerial appointment is greeted with pure dissent from fans, but there were three reasons Aston Villa fans were so unhappy with the appointment of Alex McLeish: a record of playing boring football, two relegations in the past three seasons and previously being in charge of Villa's great rival, Birmingham City.

Stilyan Petrov
There has been plenty of finger-pointing at Aston Villa this season.

Some believed the reaction was harsh, but McLeish has hardly proven the Holte End doubters wrong. Aston Villa won't be relegated this season, simply because there are five extremely poor sides in the division, but it is hardly doing much to inspire the fans. The fourth least possession, the third fewest shots on target and the most drawn games in the league have contributed to the lackluster feeling at Villa Park this season -- a stadium which traditionally boasts a great atmosphere.

Villa hasn't fallen as sharply as some of the others on this list, but having finished sixth in 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10, fans are understandably finding it difficult to accept the current lack of excitement and success. The situation feels like a mini-version of Roy Hodgson's brief period at Liverpool -- McLeish is used to lower midtable being an acceptable target, which is entirely at odds with the hopes of the supporters.

Fiorentina

Fiorentina doesn't really do boring seasons -- in the past decade it has experienced bankruptcy, relegation, two promotions and the Champions League knockout stage. Confirming the tendency to reach for extremes, last weekend the season turned from mediocre to a disaster with a 5-0 home defeat to its great rival, Juventus, a game that had been regarded as the last chance to salvage something from a miserable campaign.

Some form of big change was inevitable. Fiorentina had already replaced Sinisa Mihajlovic with Delio Rossi, so it had to look upstairs for the scapegoat. As a result, Pantaleo Corvino, the sporting director, announced he was leaving. Corvino had been highlighted as Fiorentina's trump card for years. He had a reputation for uncovering fine, young talent in his previous job at Lecce, and to a certain extent repeated the trick at Fiorentina, bringing in the likes of Stevan Jovetic and Juan Vargas.

But the quality in Fiorentina's playing squad has declined significantly the past two years, and for that Corvino must share the blame. When it lost to Bayern in unfortunate circumstances two years ago, left back Manuel Pasqual was probably its weakest player. This past weekend, he was the team's captain. That sums up the decline of a side that has sold Alberto Gilardino and Sebastien Frey in the past 12 months without proper replacements and will lose Riccardo Montolivo this summer on a free transfer. Six points clear of the relegation zone with 10 games to play, at least Fiorentina can't be sure the Juve game was the biggest of its season -- it might yet need crucial wins to stay up.

Villarreal

Just over a year ago, we were celebrating Villarreal's ability to combine style with success, or at least relative success, which is the best you can hope for outside Spain's top two. The style has largely remained, but Villarreal has fallen from fourth in 2010-11 to fourth-from-bottom in 2011-12. What has happened in that time?

Nilmar
When Giuseppe Rossi went down with injury, Villarreal's scoring onus fell on the menacing Nilmar. However, the tricky Brazilian has stuttered, scoring just four goals in 15 La Liga appearances.

For starters, Santi Cazorla and Joan Capdevila left. Then Giuseppe Rossi, who the club decided to keep at the expense of Cazorla, got a serious knee ligament injury and has been out for the majority of the season. Nilmar, who Rossi linked with so wonderfully, has been alarmingly inconsistent, while at the back Cristian Zapata has been a disappointment after joining from Udinese.

Villarreal has the third-best pass completion rate in the league, but the beautiful cohesion in the final third is sorely lacking. That's typified the problem upfront, where Marco Ruben is a brute of a striker and completely unsuited to a side looking to pass the ball short through the middle, which is what Rossi and Nilmar were perfect for.

The instability has hardly been helped by two coaching changes. Juan Carlos Garrido and Jose Molina have both left the club this season, which is particularly sad, because Villarreal was always committed to an intelligent, gradual change of manager, bringing through coaches from the B team (where Garrido and Molina were previously), as it does so well with its players.

Now Villarreal has called upon Miguel Angel Lotina, a man who was famed for his negative football at Deportivo, which he led to relegation last season. He doesn't fit in with the Villarreal style, but maybe that's what the team, and Ruben in particular, need. This week's 1-1 draw with Real Madrid demonstrates an ability to compete with much better teams, but Villarreal will need to win relegation head-to-head battles to stay afloat.

Hamburg

Two seasons ago, Hamburg was close to its dream scenario -- competing in the Europa League final on home turf. It went ahead in the away leg of the semifinal tie against Fulham but managed to lose 2-1. The dream never became reality.

Michael Mancienne
Ex-Chelsea defender Michael Mancienne isn't immune to the pressure at Hamburg: The Bundesliga club is winless in its last five league games and has managed just eight points from 27 in 2012.

Even then, Hamburg was in trouble. Manager Bruno Labbadia was dismissed between the two legs of the Fulham tie, and in less than two years the club has also sacked Armin Veh and Michael Oenning, while Rodolfo Cardoso, Ricardo Moniz and Frank Arnesen have all had spells as caretaker manager.

There has been a complete change in personnel since that Fulham tie. Daniel Boateng, Joris Mathijsen, Ze Roberto, Jonathan Pitroipa, Elijero Elia, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Frank Rost and Pitor Trochowski are among the most obvious losses, and when added to the managerial instability Hamburg now has no obvious game plan. Former German international Thorsten Fink is now its coach, and after an initial period of stability, Hamburg is without a win in five matches.

Hamburg must now do without its joint top scorer, as Paolo Guerrero was recently suspended for eight matches after a terrible foul on Stuttgart goalkeeper Sven Ulreich. It points to indiscipline and unprofessionalism at the club, and it's difficult to see how things will get better soon. Hamburg should be safe, but the current run is a real cause for concern.

Auxerre

The small club from central France was enjoying life in the Champions League last season. Granted, it was slightly fortunate to get past Zenit St Petersburg in the qualification stage but was then desperately unlucky to come up against Milan and Real Madrid in the group stage.

Still, Auxerre could use the money to strengthen the side and maintain its position in the long term, right? Unfortunately not -- it lost powerful striker Ireneusz Jelen and diminutive midfielder Benoit Pedretti to champions Lille, plus playmaker Valter Birsa to Genoa.

More crucial was the loss of coach Jean Fernandez, who, in hindsight, had turned a group of relatively average players into a brilliantly resilient side -- two banks of four behind the ball, scoring from set-pieces, all the old-fashioned things that overachieving underdogs do.

Now it sits bottom of Ligue 1 with no wins in 11 games. It has only just gotten around to sacking Fernandez's replacement, Laurent Fournier, who on Sunday after his final game in charge complained that the players "did nothing that had been discussed before the match," indicating his lack of authority in the dressing room.

It's amazing it took so long for him to be replaced, which is why the fans stopped complaining about the coach and instead started protesting against the board, with a large number marching from the town's cathedral to the Stade de l'Abbe-Deschamps in protest last Saturday. The players had to leave the stadium under an armed guard.

Jean-Guy Wallemme is the new man in charge, although bizarrely he remains the coach of Congo, too. His international side doesn't play again until June -- when Auxerre will probably be a Ligue 2 side.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.