5) Newcastle United
Only last season Newcastle fans were beginning to think that their club had made a huge mistake by offering Alan Pardew an eight-year contract, with their team only avoiding relegation by five points. It looked like nothing had changed when they were thrashed 4-0 by Manchester City on the opening day of the 2013/14 season, but Pardew has quietly steadied the ship on Tyneside.
The Magpies now sit comfortably in 6th place in arguably the most competitive Premier League season yet, above both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. Vitally, they have a striker who is scoring regularly in Loic Remy, who is third in the goal-scoring charts with ten, while the controversial influences of owner Mike Ashley and director of football Joe Kinnear seem to have faded. Pardew must now focus on keeping highly sought-after players such as Yohan Cabaye and Tim Krul in January in order to maintain their strong start.
4) Lille OSC
After winning the league back in 2010-11, Lille seemed to be on a downward spiral as they finished third and then sixth in the following two seasons, losing star player Eden Hazard along the way. They have remained a selling club this term, offloading French under-21 internationals Florian Thauvin and Lucas Digne to supposedly bigger clubs in Marseille and PSG respectively.
Yet in a season where Monaco and PSG have spent the combined total of £242.5 million in transfer fees, Lille have been the only side in Ligue 1 to keep pace with the two big spenders. They currently stand in third place, only four points off table-topping PSG, with nearest rivals Bordeaux nine points below them. With vast resources behind them, it seems likely that PSG and Monaco will continue to dominate the French top division, but a third place finish and a return to the Champions League would be an excellent result for Lille.
Many would have expected further steady progress this season for Liverpool after a promising second half of Brendan Rodgers' first year with the club, most likely with the aim of challenging for the Champions League places. But the Reds surprised everyone by working their way to the top of the table at Christmas. Although having dropped to fourth after an underserved 2-1 loss away at title favourites Manchester City, Liverpool are still outside championship contenders, with only three points separating the top four.
The Merseysiders' main weakness in comparison to its league rivals remains its squad depth. Rodgers will know that this is an essential ingredient of a title challenge, and with Luis Suarez's future at the club now secured, the young manager can focus on strengthening his squad in January in order to keep up with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City.
2) AS Roma
AS Roma have always been a strong Serie A side, but not many would have expected a title challenge from them this year after spending the previous two seasons outside of the Europa League places. However, Roma stunned Italian football by opening the season with a run of ten straight wins, now finding themselves five points behind reigning champions Juventus in second place.
Despite having sold the talented pair of Erik Lamela and Marquinhos, recognised players such as Daniele De Rossi have been revived by new manager Rudi Garcia, as has Arsenal flop Gervinho who has rejoined the coach he worked under at Lille. With neither AC nor Inter Milan firing this season, AS Roma have a genuine opportunity to contest for their first Serie A title since 2001. Nevertheless, a Champions League spot would remain a superb outcome for a team punching well above its weight.
1) Atlético Madrid
With Barcelona and Real Madrid bringing in new star players this summer in the form of Neymar and Gareth Bale respectively, you would be forgiven for thinking that La Liga would be a two-horse race once again this year. Atlético Madrid had other ideas. Led by Diego Simeone, Atlético have split the two Spanish giants, currently lying second to Barcelona only on goal difference and five points ahead of Real Madrid. Fans would have been worried when they saw their star striker Falcao shipped off to Monaco without a replacement, but after several seasons out on loan at various clubs, 25-year-old Diego Costa has finally come of age, scoring 19 goals in just 17 league appearances so far this term.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (on loan from Chelsea) is clearly destined for stardom, and is part of a back line that has conceded just 11 goals all season, the best record in the league. On current form, this Atlético side have what it takes to challenge both Barca and Real all the way, but must hold onto their two most valuable players in January.
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