In a COVID-19-ravaged year, the 2019-20 club football season saw a belated conclusion. The major domestic leagues across Europe ended as late as the first week of August, with the Champions League ending three weeks later.
Following a shorter-than-usual turnaround, the new domestic campaign began in September, and the European season commenced only this week.
It's pertinent to note here that none of the clubs that won the top-5 leagues in Europe last season have made a seamless start to the new season. It may be early days in the new season, but none of these clubs are leading their league tables ahead of their respective European openers.
The likes of Bayern Munich, PSG, Liverpool and Real Madrid have already endured league defeats in 2020-21, while Juventus, who have eight points from their first four games, sit four points behind table-toppers AC Milan.
5 European clubs to watch out for this season
The established order in the top-5 leagues has already been challenged by a bevvy of clubs this season. That could be a sign of things to come, even if the supposedly top teams recover from their indifferent starts as the season progresses.
On that note, let us have a look at five clubs to look forward to in the 2020-21 season.
Rennes have been one of the many surprise packages in Europe's top-5 leagues this season.
Despite being held to a 1-1 draw at bottom club Dijon last weekend, the Ligue 1 outfit are one of only two unbeaten teams in the French top-flight and only trail league leaders Lille by two points.
Under the tutelage of Julien Stephan, who is the youngest manager in the history of Ligue 1, Rennes have had a resurgence of sorts since December 2018. Under their new tactician, the club turned around their indifferent start to the season with a 2-0 win at Lyon and haven't looked back since.
During an interaction on The Ligue 1 show, Stephan, who was previously managing the club's reserves, spoke about the bright start to his managerial career.
"It all happened so quickly and, for me, it was totally unexpected. Twenty-four hours earlier I was coaching the reserves in the 6th division, and then suddenly I was in the hot-seat. At times like that you just have to take responsibility, you have to rise to the challenge that the president has given you. I wouldn’t say I’m living a dream, but it's certainly a great story to start out here, at a club that means so much to me."
Although Rennes ended the league in tenth place that season, they reached the Europa League Round of 16, where they lost to Arsenal, and then beat Paris St. Germain in the Coupe de France final to win their first silverware in 48 years.
Last season, the Brittany club achieved their best-ever league finish of third in the Ligue 1. In their debut in the Champions League this year, Stephan's men kick-started their campaign with a 1-1 home draw with Krasnodar as they look to qualify from a group containing European winners Chelsea and Sevilla.
#4 AC Milan
AC Milan, the fallen giants of Italian and European football, seem to have rediscovered their mojo under their new manager Stefano Pioli.
Following a decade of indifferent form when they mostly languished in the mediocrity of mid-table and struggled to make a mark during their sporadic appearances on the European stage, the Rossoneri have been a rejuvenated outfit under Pioli.
With four defeats in their first seven games of the 2019-20 Serie A season, Milan were down in a lowly 13th place in the league when Pioli replaced the sacked Marco Giampaolo.
The transformation was almost immediate, aided in no small part by the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as they recovered to finish their league engagements in sixth place to return to Europe.
Milan have started the new season with four wins out of four to lead the Serie A table, marking the first time the Rossoneri have won their first four games in a league season in 25 years.
During this unbeaten run spanning 20 games in all competitions, Milan have already floored the likes of Juventus last season and their cross-town rivals Inter this campaign.
The 38-year-old Ibrahimovic has already scored 16 times in 23 games since his arrival at the club in December. Hakan Calhanoglu seems to be a player reborn under Pioli, while custodian Gianluigi Donnarumma, who is only 21, already has five years of top-flight experience under his belt.
With such a promising blend of youth and experience, the legendary Italian club would fancy their chances of a strong campaign in the Europa League that could see them return to the Champions League next season.