The annual strain of competing on two fronts

[EUROPEAN LEAGUES] It was a weekend of surprise results around the lesser-regarded European leagues, with Champions League- and UEFA Cup-participant teams faltering in France, Switzerland and Belgium. Yes, it's early fall, that time of the perpetually congested European season when coaches can already begin to make excuses about their players being too tired.

Olympique Lyon, the French title-holder for the past seven years, was unbeaten in the season's first seven rounds and, going into this past weekend, lead the standings with 19 points. This made the team's 3-0 defeat at unfancied Rennes all the more remarkable, especially as the hero of the hour was 35-year-old striker Mickael Pagis, known as 'Pagistral,' who's been consistently scoring around the French league for eight different clubs over the past 15 years.

The goals were the striker's first of the season, and included what sports daily L'Equipe called two "surgical finishes" on balls in from the flanks, and a "truly pure volley" to round it off. It was also the first hat trick of the season in La Ligue and allowed second-place Toulouse to close the gap at the top to two points.

In Belgium, reigning champion Standard Liege lost just once over the whole of last season and was unbeaten so far in this one after six rounds. But like Lyon, it crashed by a margin of three goals to a mid-table team, in this case Cercle Bruges, after losing defender Dante to a yellow-red card just before half-time with the score at 0-0. The player's second yellow resulted from his rage at being awarded the first. "Liege lacked freshness, lucidity and calm," said the club's website. "They were mentally tired." Liege had played Thursday in the UEFA Cup when they knocked out Everton.

Swiss champion and CL group struggler FC Basel has also let an early domestic league lead slip after strolling away from the pack in the season's early weeks. Basel was overtaken at the weekend on goal difference by FC Zurich (3-0 winner at Luzern), when it was held by Grasshopper Zurich in a 1-1 tie. "After we achieved so much at the start of the season, we're going to have to step things up," warned Basel coach Christian Gross, adding that he would have to explain to the team's new signings something he'd thought was self-evident -- that they'd been brought to the club in order to help it win further titles.

In Russia, last season's champion and UEFA Cup winners Zenit St. Petersburg took out the frustrations of a poor season both at home and so far in the Champions League by beating Vladivostok 8-1, with a hat trick from Fatih Tekke and a brace from Danny. It nonetheless trails leader Rubin Kazan, from the southern Russian Republic of Tatarstan, by 14 points.

Rubin Kazan, incidentally, has an interestingly translated English-language section to its website, where you can learn how the team, formed as a factory side under Communism in the 1930s, has changed its name so often "because it presented an armament establishment needed in some secret regime -- Lenin District Team, Krylia Sovetov, Iskra and, finally, Rubin." It all makes perfect sense.

DUTCH GOAL ORGY: There were 36 goals in nine Dutch Eredivisie games at the weekend, an average of four per game. The early Dutch league leader is unbeaten FC Groningen, 3-0 victors against Den Haag, although title-holder PSV Eindhoven is just a point behind. Ajax lies in mid-table after suffering a 5-2 pounding from Michael Bradley's former side Heerenveen.

CROATIAN GOAL ABSTINENCE: By contrast, a special mention to the Croatian league, whose six games this past weekend produced just five goals. The five 1-0 victories and a goalless draw must have made for one heck of a highlights show on Croatian TV Sunday night. Should you be at all interested in this thrilling league, Dinamo Zagreb is top by five points after 10 rounds.

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