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Unfamilar faces light up Germany and France

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Phil Minshull | 10:03 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The top of the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 have a very unfamiliar look about them after some strange results during the first few weeks of the season. Who would have thought that it would be Mainz and Rennes leading the way? Certainly not me.

Taking Germany first, I am sure some people will recall that I was expecting Bayern Munich to comfortably defend their title. Well, it hasn't worked out that way.

Propelled forward by their charismatic 37-year-old coach Thomas Tuchel, who reminds many people of Jose Mourinho in his days at Porto, Mainz dived into the transfer market to strengthen their squad and a did a good job of picking up a host of young but talented players that did not seem to fit into the plans of other clubs.

A good case in point is the 22-year-old Hungarian international striker Adam Szalai, who was signed in the summer for 1m euros from Real Madrid after spending the second half of last season on loan from the Spanish giants.

Mainz's Andre Schuerrle, Adam Szalai and Lewis Holtby celebrate with the corner flag after beating Werder BremenMainz's Andre Schuerrle (left), Adam Szalai (centre) and Lewis Holtby celebrate beating Werder Bremen

Despite scoring 22 goals in 77 games for the Real Madrid reserve team, Szalai was deemed surplus to requirements by former coach Manuel Pellegrini and the club decided to cash in during the summer.

Since the start of the season, Szalai has scored three times for Mainz, prompting - prior to Real's 6-1 thrashing of Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday at least - the Spanish media to use his departure and subsequent success as one of several sticks with which to beat Mourinho and the Real president Florentino Perez with.

The English media have also had cause to muse on what might have been.

Winger Lewis Holtby, on loan at Mainz from Schalke, has made his first club Borussia Mönchengladbach regret releasing him as a youth player with a series of stunning displays. He got both goals in Mainz's recent 2-0 over Koln and played a big part in their 2-1 win over Bayern just over a week ago.

Apparently, Mönchengladbach thought Holtby was too slow and small to have a serious chance of playing first-team football. Yet Germany coach Joachim Loew said last week that the player could get his first senior cap in November, when Germany play Sweden.

And this is where the English media get interested. Holtby has an English father who hails from Merseyside, prompting some quiet overtures about his availability by the English FA. However, Holtby, a firm Everton fan who played for Germany at last year's Under 20 World Cup, has pledged his allegiance to the nationalmannschaft.

Mainz, who finished a surprising ninth last season, now lie three points clear at the top of the Bundesliga with a 100% record while, by contrast, last season's Champions League finalists Bayern languish are in 12th - and they have already lost three times this season.

"We have got to be worried about things because we cannot allow ourselves to be where we are. We are in deep trouble and we have now got to see to it that we get out," said Bayern chairman and former player Karl-Heinz Rummenigge on Monday.

It is worth remembering that Bayern, Champions League finalists last season, have only twice finished outside the top four in the last 30 years - sixth in 1995 and 10th three seasons before - and have won the Bundesliga eight out of the last 12 seasons.

Turning to France, I would not have picked Rennes to be among the top teams in Ligue 1 - although World Soccer did.

"Rennes have been making steady progress and despite Briand's [striker Jimmy Briand, who left for Lyon] departure, with a number of interesting signings and a tough coach in [Frederic] Antonetti they could be the surprise package of the season," wrote the magazine in its traditional pre-season analysis.

Well, they were right, at least so far.

Rennes, who are unbeaten with 18 points from eight games, went top of the French first division for the first time since 1970, one point in front of equally unheralded St Etienne.

The key to their success appears to me, having predominantly watched highlights of their games and worked my way through the reports in French sports daily L'Equipe, is a much more authoritative defence than last season, when they finished ninth.

Goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez has been playing as well as he has ever done and conceded only four goals, while defender Romain Danze, who can play anywhere across the back four, has been outstanding.

Rennes goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez catches the ball against PSG Rennes goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez catches the ball against PSG

Neither man has been capped internationally and were both overlooked when Laurent Blanc named his squad to face Romania and Luxemburg for the forthcoming Euro 2012 qualifying fixtures. However, with the France team still in flux after the World Cup shenanigans, the pair could soon enter the reckoning if they can maintain their form.

Possibly beating Holtby, Douchez and Danze to his first international appearance could be Spain's Borja Valero.

Readers with good memories may remember that, almost 12 months ago, I waxed lyrical about the then-Mallorca midfielder. Well, there were plenty of sceptical comments at the time about my assertion that "I might have seen the next great European midfielder". Fair enough under the circumstances, I suppose.

However, since then he has earned a prestigious Premio Don Balón, awards given out by the respected Spanish football magazine of the same name, as the best Spanish player in La Liga last season.

Even I would admit that this was a rather strange choice when one considers that Andres Iniesta, David Villa and most of Spain's World Cup-winning squad were eligible and would have been worthy winners but it is also an acknowledgement of his talent and the season that he had helping Mallorca to an completely unexpected fifth place.

Valero is still in Spain, on another season-long loan from West Brom> But this time he is at Villarreal, who are currently second thanks, in no small measure, to his excellent form.

With Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque facing something of an injury crisis ahead of the his next two Euro 2012 qualifiers against Lithuania and Scotland, Valero was called up on Monday and could well win his first cap in the coming week.

Del Bosque quite rightly still retains faith in the men who triumphed in South Africa but I would not be surprised to see Valero become a regular fixture in the Spanish team during the next 18 months ahead of the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine.

Comments on this blog in the space below. Other questions on European football to: europeanfootball@hotmail.co.uk. I don't need your full address but please put the town/city and country where you come from.

Here's a couple of Barcelona-related questions:

Q) Given that Barcelona's first XI is probably the best in the world at the moment, do they have the squad necessary to accomplish their Spanish, as well as European, ambitions? In light of the recent injury to Lionel Messi, are they one quality reserve striker short?
Anurag Bhide, Mumbai, India

A) Firstly, I wouldn't say that Barcelona's first XI is probably the best in the world. The results so far this season don't justify that statement despite them still being a very good side. Who IS the best in the world obviously remains a matter of debate and conjecture. However, despite the injury to Messi, I don't think they are short of strikers. They have Villa, Bojan, Pedro and Jeffren, while Iniesta and Adriano can play up front if resources get a little stretched. In my opinion, it's not a question of a lack of strikers, it's just that a few of the existing ones are having a slight dip in form and confidence.

Q) Do you think young Barcelona midfielder Oriol Romeu will make the first team at Barca or leave for Arsenal?
Zenzo Chombela, Lusaka, Zambia

A) Romeu is a very impressive and talented player and been capped by Spain at Under-17, Under-19 and Under-20 levels. He turned 19 on 24 September and Barca extended his contract until the end of next season the day before.

As he is playing in the second division with the Barcelona reserve team and should also get the occasional outings with the first team in the Spanish Cup and friendly matches, I think he will stay until next summer, when the club will assess how he has developed and either to renew his contract or sell him. At the moment, I'd say both options were 50-50.

To be honest, even though there has been talk about a move to Arsenal, he is being followed by many clubs across Europe. It will be interesting to see what happens.

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