BERLIN: Fans assuming that Bayern Munich would already be cruising towards their ninth consecutive Bundesliga crown or that English champions Liverpool would have started to shake off their rivals early in the season could not be wider of the mark.
The COVID-19 pandemic has mixed up the traditional balance of power across Europe's major soccer leagues, with hevyweights Liverpool, Real Madrid and Juventus trailing behind the likes of Everton, Real Sociedad and Sassuolo.
In the current unusual snapshot across Europe, Premier League leaders Everton along with Aston Villa and Leicester City are on track for a Champions League spot with Liverpool in third place and powerhouse Manchester City languishing in 10th.
In Spain, Villarreal and Getafe are also gunning for a top-four finish with Sociedad in first place ahead of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Teams such as Stade Rennes and Nice are chasing France's surprise Ligue 1 leaders Lille, with Champions League finalists Paris St Germain in second spot.
It is no different in Germany where quintuple winners Bayern have already lost in the league this season after a near invincible 2020, and RB Leipzig are leading the pack.
A disrupted 2019/2020 season due to the global spread of the virus meant any regular pre-season preparation went out of the window, with leagues stretching into June and July to finish.
The Champions League did not end until a month later, forcing teams such as Bayern, PSG and Manchester City to make do without virtually any training before the new campaign.
This in turn means the big teams will have to rely heavily on rotation so finding consistency this season, with no fans to back them in the stadiums, will be more challenging than usual.
"We always have to see how big the strain on players is and how their level of fitness is," Bayern coach Hansi Flick said of this season's challenges. "What is important for me is that we know that there is absolutely no other alternative to this."
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Ken Ferris)