European football in review

Posted by Michael Cox

The European football season has gotten off to an enthralling start. Going forward, I plan to review the highs and lows across the continent at the end of each month. Here's the first installment.

GettyImages / Ian MacNicol/Getty ImagesIt's been a surreal sight watching Rangers compete in the fourth tier.

The big story ... Rangers start life in the fourth tier of Scottish football

Scottish football generally only receives significant attention for the wrong reasons, and Rangers becoming insolvent and entering administration after a tax dispute fits the bill well. The club was restructured but was refused admission to the Scottish Premier League, and therefore was forced to start life in the Scottish Football League Third Division. This is a club that has won more league titles than any other football club in the world, and one that was competing in the UEFA Cup final just four years ago.

Manager Ally McCoist remains in charge of the club, and the attendance of 49,118 for the first home game against East Sterling was the biggest-ever attendance for a fourth-division football match anywhere in the world. The other attendances in the division that weekend were 631, 498, 407 and 512, illustrating the absurdity of the situation. Celtic will win the Scottish Premier League by miles -- without Old Firm derbies for three years, Scottish football will receive less coverage than ever.

Key results
In Spain, Real Madrid managed to drop five points from its first two La Liga fixtures with a draw against Valencia and a defeat at city rivals Getafe, which is something of a shock considering Los Blancos only dropped 14 in the whole of last season. However, Real fought back admirably in the Super Cup victory over Barcelona on away goals. Indeed, its performance at the start of the second leg was remarkable, tearing apart Barcelona at will for 25 minutes.

In Portugal, last season's second- and third-placed sides, Benfica and Braga, respectively, played out a thrilling 2-2 draw that featured seven yellows and a red card, while in Turkey Besiktas drew 3-3 with Galatasaray in a typically fiery Istanbul derby.

Team of the month ... Swansea
Many feared Swansea would struggle this season -- the departure of Brendan Rodgers to Liverpool was a blow, and the further loss of Joe Allen and Scott Sinclair, plus loanees Steven Caulker and Gylfi Sigurdsson, meant significant changes from the last campaign.

Michael Laudrup arrived with a great reputation but a mixed managerial record. The opening-day 5-0 win over Queens Park Rangers was sensational. QPR finished last season strong and spent big over the summer. Swansea carved open Mark Hughes' side with some excellent passing football and scored some fine goals. The next week, it overcame the physical threat of West Ham with a comfortable 3-0 victory. Laudrup's approach is slightly more purposeful than that of Rodgers, and while it's very early in the season to be making definitive judgments on their survival changes, Swansea looks good. The signing of Michu already looks highly astute -- he's scored two goals in three games.

A bad month for ... Paris Saint-Germain
When you've spent more than the rest of Ligue 1 combined, it goes without saying that you start as the side everyone else wants to beat. No one has defeated Paris Saint-Germain so far this season, but three successive draws to start Ligue 1 have resulted in serious questions about Carlo Ancelotti's job -- after all, his predecessor, Antoine Kombouare, was sacked with PSG top of the league.

PSG's collection of outstanding attacking talents means that no opponent wants to take them on in an open, exciting game of football, and PSG will spend much of this campaign trying to break down a packed defense. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will have no problem with that, but for players such as Nene, Javier Pastore, Jeremy Menez and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who enjoy running with the ball and breaking into space, this could be a serious problem.

Team performance of the month ... Getafe vs. Real Madrid
Based just outside Madrid, Getafe rarely has a significant impact upon Spanish football. Real is the biggest team in the capital, Atletico Madrid occasionally has great success and even the dramas at Rayo Vallecano get more attention.

Only around 9,000 fans were there to see it -- bizarre, considering the Bernabeu is sold out most weeks and Getafe can be reached in 30 minutes from the city center -- but Getafe turned in a superb display at home to the champions. It weathered the storm and rode luck, but pounced on the counterattack after Jose Mourinho made a daring move, bringing on winger Jose Callejon for full back Marcelo. Abdel Barrada pounced, and Getafe's 2-1 win might be the shock of the season when we look back in May.

GettyImages / Michael Regan/Getty ImagesNot lacking in confidence, Eden Hazard has provided a burst of creative energy for the Blues.

Player of the month (and attacking midfielder of the month) ... Eden Hazard
While still at Lille, Hazard spent most of May teasing the world about his transfer decision, knowing that almost every big Premier League club was desperate for his signature. The charade became rather tiresome -- Hazard may as well have screened his own version of LeBron James' "The Decision." His first major action in English football was to trip over the ball while attempting a back-heel in the Community Shield.

But in the Premier League, Hazard has started superbly. Chelsea has won all three of its opening Premier League fixtures, scoring eight goals. The Belgian has been directly involved in seven of them, scoring once, assisting four more and being fouled for two successfully converted penalties. Some players take a while to settle into English football, but Hazard survived some rough tackles on his debut at Wigan and looks at home in the Premier League already.

Goalkeeper of the month ... Mickael Landreau
Lille's goalkeeper is a steady and reliable but understated player who never quite achieved widespread acclaim, despite performing well in Ligue 1 for the past 15 years. His performance in Lille's 2-2 draw at Nice was superb. Yes, he conceded two goals, but he produced a string of fine saves, including a brilliant tip around the post after an Eric Bautheac free kick deflected sharply off the wall.

Defender of the month ... Leighton Baines
Baines spent much of the summer being linked with Manchester United, but contributed to its downfall on the first weekend of the season. His constant balls to Marouane Fellaini were the key to the performance, and after two weeks of the Premier League, no player had created more than Baines' 13 chances.

Midfielder of the month ... Benoit Cheyrou
Marseille has started with nine points from three matches, but all three wins have been slightly scrappy. Therefore, it's perhaps no surprise that Cheyrou, an underappreciated defensive midfielder who has never been capped by France, has been one of their most impressive performers. He breaks up play well and distributes the ball calmly but has also claimed a goal and an assist. That's a direct contribution to half Marseille's four goals.

Striker of the month ... Falcao
He just doesn't stop scoring. His performance against Athletic Bilbao was stunning -- a fine hat trick and a constant danger inside the penalty box with nine shots in total, three more than the opposition managed between them. He has confirmed himself as Europe's best poacher.

Villain of the month ... Maicosuel
Few deserve the chance to compete in Champions League football more than Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin. The canny tactician has performed miracles for years, constantly leading unfashionable sides to positions above other clubs with greater resources. How cruel, then, that Udinese was eliminated at the playoff stage for the second year running.

"Evidently, I am not capable of leading a team into the Champions League," he said after the game, his voice trembling as he spoke.

In reality, Braga performed better over the two legs, and Udinese was fortunate to get to a penalty shootout after two 1-1 draws. But it's tough not to place the blame at the door of Maicosuel, the Brazilian midfielder who tried a terrible attempt at an Andrea Pirlo-style "Panenka" down the center of the goal. Braga goalkeeper Beto stood and watched and caught the ball, and it turned out to be the only miss of the shootout. So much work by Guidolin and Udinese's excellent scouting network had been ruined in one moment -- football is all about entertainment, but Maicosuel's attempts to be the hero cost his club millions.

GettyImages / AP PhotoMarouane Fellaini was a dominant force against United.

Best individual performance of the month ... Marouane Fellaini vs. Manchester United
Fellaini won the game with a powerful second-half header, but he already had established himself as the game's key player by halftime. Manchester United had a big problem at the back, with Antonio Valencia fielded at right back and Michael Carrick in the center of defense. Everton coach David Moyes, always happy to adjust his team to exploit the weaknesses of the opposition, pushed Fellaini up the pitch, close to Nikica Jelavic.

From there, he completely unsettled Carrick and Valencia, winning almost everything in the air and using his huge frame to bring the ball down and tee up Steven Pienaar, who drifted in from the left. Everton was the deserved winner, and Fellaini illustrated his potential to be one of the best all-around footballers in the Premier League.

Best goal of the month ... Pablo Daniel Osvaldo vs. Catania
Osvaldo has a history of spectacular overhead kicks, having announced himself to the world with a superb bicycle kick in his Fiorentina days. That wasn't just any old goal, it was the winner in a 1-0 win on the final day of the season, securing Champions League football for Cesare Prandelli's side.

Last season he scored another stunner at home to Lecce, except as he wheeled away in celebration, he was devastated to realize the offside flag was raised. Replays showed it was the wrong decision. Therefore, for the sake of justice, Osvaldo deserves to be in the limelight for yet another brilliant overhead against Catania last weekend.

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

ESPN Conversations