Aug 6, 2008

Soccer Source Preseason Top 25

With August upon us, it is time to declare the off-season in top club soccer effectively over. Yes, the main leagues in Europe have not started yet, many of the world's biggest-name clubs are off on barnstorming tours or playing largely meaningless friendlies, Champions League, UEFA Cup and Copa Sudamericana are still in qualification stages and there are undoubtedly several transfers that are close to fulfillment that could still shift the balance of power in world soccer. Nevertheless, now is as good a time as any to put together the 2008-09 season's very first ranking; the Community Shield (the traditional "curtain raiser" on the English season) takes place this weekend and enough transfers have been completed for us to have at least a rough gauge on how things might look. That and we were starting to feel incredibly bored.

Here, then, is the preseason ranking of the world's top soccer clubs. Obviously at this point we are ranking potential more than anything else. We aren't going to put any stock in friendly games played in July, though Champions League and other qualifiers are taken into consideration. And of course this entire thing is meant to foster, rather than decide, debate. With all those disclaimers out of the way, let's proceed to what you came here for. The rankings:

1 (2007/08 End of season ranking: 3). Chelsea
The ranking committee chose Chelsea at this spot for a few very simple reasons: the club had very few weaknesses last year, is returning all of its key starters and got massive upgrades (Deco, Bosingwa) at two positions. This is the team that came within a John Terry penalty miss of winning the Champions League (okay so that would be one weakness right there) and was a few breaks away from capturing the Premiership. Yes they have a brand new coach and egomaniacal Russian owner to deal with. And yes, their front line could be better, with Drogba hurt and Kalou at the Olympics. Still, with Man United caught up in a tug of war for Cristiano Ronaldo (among other drama), it's hard to see the Blues as anything other than the team to beat--right now.
Season opens...with Pompey at the Bridge, on Aug. 17.

2 (2). Real Madrid

Okay so Wesley Snejder is hurt (though he won't miss anywhere near as much time as was originally feared). The Spanish champs made one massive acquisition, in Rafael van den Vaart, while not losing anybody of significance. Its two starters on Spain's Euro champions, Ilker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, will be even more confident and probably even more dependable. Returning from loan are another Euro champ, Ruben de la Red (though he didn't really see any action at the tournament but whatever) and 22-year old Argentine defender Ezequiel Marcelo Garay, who will serve as Fabio Cannavaro's understudy but can probably start now if he needs to (he started last season at Santander, who finished sixth). We may be witnessing another golden age in Real Madrid football.
Season Deportivo La Coruna, Aug. 31.

3 (1). Manchester United
The aforementioned Ronaldo remains the key issue affecting this club's fortunes for 2008/09. If he stays (and plays the way he can/should) they have every chance of repeating both in the Premiership and Champions League. If he leaves (or sulks, refuses to play at full level or at all) Sir Alex suddenly finds himself with a thoroughly weakened team. For now, Ronaldo is still at Man U, so the club are still at or near the very top.
Season opens...with Pompey and the Community Shield at Wembley, Aug. 10

4 (4). Inter Milan
Jose Mourinho's new club got Amantino Mancini from Roma and Sulley Muntari from Pompey, though Stephan Lampard and Ricardo Quaresma are apparently out of the picture for now. Still, the two additions will upgrade a midfield that already included Dejan Stankovic and Esteban Cambiasso. The only question mark right now is the team's defense, which is a bit too dependent on aging (Cordoba, Materazzi) or injured (Chivu) players.
Season Sampdoria, Aug. 31.

5 (13). Juventus
Two years after their season in hell (forced relegation to Serie B due to their part in Italy's match-fixing scandal) the bianconeri appear to have tranformed their squad into a contender for both domestic and international glory. The Scandinavian pair of Olof Mellberg (Sweden) and Christian Poulsen (Denmark) join from Aston Villa and Valencia, respectively, to shore the defense. Italo-Brazilian Amauri was brought on from Palermo to add fire power to a front line that already featured David Trezeguet. Juve were decent last year but were not tested in European competition. That will change this season--and the team looks to be up for the challenge.
Season Fiorentina, Aug. 31.

6 (14). FC Barcelona
Barca's offseason was probably one of the more traumatic in its long and storied history. The Catalan club's transfer balance was larger than some country's GDP: €90 million were spent on new additions with nearly €49 million coming in as a result of the club's fire sale. Gone are Edmilson, Deco and of course Ronaldinho. In are Dani Alves, Martin Cacares, Gerard (don't call him Nelson) Pique and Aleksander Hleb. Will any of it make the team better than it was last year? You bet. Jar Jar didn't even play most of the season and the others spent more time sulking than contributing. Lionel Messi is one year closer to his prime and the club is stacked at virtually every position. You want defense? How about Rafa Marquez, Carlos Puyol and the "Killer A's" Alvez and (Eric) Abidal? Midfielders? How about newly-crowned European champions Xavi and Andres Iniesta? At forward, of course there is Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto'o (unless he quits for like Tajikstan or something) and the aforementioned Messi. Oh yeah they also have that Catalan-Croatian-whatever he is teenager. Bottom line: this team is good. Look for Barca to return to glory this year. Whether they manage to dethrone mighty Real is another question, however.
Season CD Numancia, Aug. 31.

7 (5). AS Roma
Last year's Serie A runners-up largely stood pat this off-season. Amantino Mancini is obviously a major loss, but John Arne Riis and Simone Loria add depth to defense. Questions remain in attack, especially with Francesco Totti injured. A deal for Adrian Mutu fell through at the last minute but Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Julio Baptista or Thiago Neves are still in the picture. Look for Roma to close a deal before their first game, against Naples on Aug. 31.
Season above.

8 (6). Olympique Lyon
The perennial French champs quietly spent close to €60 million on new players this summer. Granted most of these are guys casual fans of the game will not be familiar with: Ederson, Jean Makoun, Frederic Piquionne, Hugo Lloris and John Mensah accounted for all but €7.5 million (which was spent on Bosnian teenager Miralem Pjanic, another player most of us won't be intimately familiar with. Yet). And of course the club had several substantial holes to fill: Patrick Mueller, Gregory Coupet and Hatem Ben Arfa all of whom started last season. Still, it was able to hold on to its prized possession (Karim Benzema) and has some big names left at other key positions (Juninho, Keita). The goalkeeper position is probably the biggest question mark at this point. Lloris, who is 21, will battle with Remy Vercoutre to replace Coupet. If one of these guys turns into a solid starter, if Benzema shows his disappointing Euro performance was an aberration, if Juninho (at 33) still has it and if the young players gel with the new additions into a cohesive unit this team could make a run at the big boys. But that's a lot of ifs. Look for Lyon to repeat as French champs, but anything beyond that is probably asking a bit much at this point.
Season opens...against Toulouse (home) this Sunday.

9 (7). Arsenal
The knock on l'Arse last season was that they were too young and peaked too early. How to best combat that? Get younger and quicker of course! Gunners got one major upgrade, acquiring 21-year old Samir Nasri from Marseille. Gone are Alexander Hleb and Gilberto Silva and Matthieu Flamini (and soon maybe Philip Senderos), none of whom will really be missed. Arsene Wenger's team will once again be exciting to watch and should definitely do some damage, both domestically and in the Champions League. Whether they get over the hump and take home any silverware is an entirely different question of course. We're not betting on it. The team is still too one-dimensional and lacks leadership and the all-important "killer instinct" (whatever that is. It just sounded good here). But at least they got rid of Jens Lehmann.
Season Twente, in the first leg of the Champs League qualifier, Aug. 13.

10 (11). Bayern Munich
Another club that largely stood pat this off-season (at least so far), though the Bavarians do have a brand new coach, with California native former German national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann taking over from Ottmar Hitzfeld. The biggest loss is of course Oliver Kahn and it remains to be seen who can make up for this substantial absence--not only between the sticks but from a leadership perspective as well. For almost a decade (certainly since Lothar Matthaeus' departure in 2000) Kahn was Bayern Munich. On his heroics alone the club was able to win the Champions League several years ago (what was it? 2001? Or perhaps '02. Can't remember). It looks like Michael Rensing will take over from Kahn, though Hans Joerg Butt will be hanging should the 24-year old screw up. Rensing is of course a complete unknown and it remains to be seen if he is up for the job (if not, Butt could be, but certainly not over the long term). Bayern did get Tim Borowski on a free transfer from Werder Bremen, which should help their cause a bit. With Franck Ribery injured they'll need it. Bayern should be the class of the Bundesliga again, and should advance at least a stage or two in the Champions League, but after that things look murky.
Season opens...Aug. 10 at Rot-Weiss Erfurt in a cup tie.

11 (21). Atletico Madrid
Few teams outside North London were as active on the transfer market this summer as Atletico. The rojiblancos qualified for their first Champions League play-in since the UCL actually was a Champions League (1996, for those of you scoring at home). Perhaps desperate to prove they belong, Javier Aguirre's side signed no fewer than four new starters while losing virtually nobody of note. Tomas Ujfalusi, Gregory Coupet, John Heitinga and Florent Sinama-Pongolle certainly improve the club on paper. But can a Czech, a Dutchman and two Frenchmen jive with a team made up of Spaniards, Argentines, Portuguese, Brazilians, a Greek and coached by a Mexican? Sure, just look at Arsenal, also coached by a Mexican. It might take a little while, though. And with the CL qualifier just around the corner (next week against Schalke) there may not be much margin for error.
Season Schalke, Aug. 13.

12 (12). Liverpool
Reds were busy this summer and definitely upgraded a few positions. Whether it is enough to break into the "Big Three" (or for that matter, hold off Tottenham in the Big Four) is another matter entirely. Robbie Keane is probably better than Peter Crouch and Andrea Dossena (despite having a girl's name) is clearly a significant improvement over John Arne Riis. But don't expect Liverpool to be much better than they were last year.
Season Standard Liege in the Champs League qualifier, Aug. 13.

span style="font-weight: bold;">13 (18). Fiorentina
La Viola were another big winner on the summer transfer market. Yes, Ujfalusi will be missed, but in Alberto Gilardino, Felipe Melo and Juan Vargas three top-line starters (costing a combined €38 million) join Fiorentina's ranks. Look out, 'cause they could be dangerous.
Season opens...with No. 5 Juventus, on Aug. 31.

14 (-). Valencia
Valencia is coming off a horrible season that was only partly salvaged by a Copa del Rey victory. Management made a lot of noise about cleaning house but ended up selling only Jaime Gavilan and Sisi. Marco Caneira did leave on a free transfer but that was about it as far as major departures. They called back no fewer than 10 players from loan and signed Pablo Hernandez from Getafe. The returnees should make the biggest difference though: David Navarro, Curro Torres and Asier del Horno add depth to a defense that already featured Euro champs Carlos Marchena and Raul Albiol and Manuel Fernandes returns from Everton to bolster the defensive midfield. Santiago Canizares is gone, but that leaves the job of starting goalkeeper to Timo Hildebrand, who may just be the most talented German goalkeeper at present. The Spanish league is going to be very competitive this year, but expect to see Valencia right there. Not having to worry about the Champions League will help.
Season opens...against Mallorca at home, Aug. 31.

15 (16). Villareal.

The yelllow submarine did lose a few key players from the team that finished second in La Liga last season. Gone are Jon Dahl Tomasson, Cesar Arzo, Rio Mavubo and Martin Cacares. But look who is in: Edmilson, Angel Lopez and of course Jozy Altidore. The young Yank will undoubtedly need some time to get acclimated and the club may decide to loan him out. But there is no mistaking his awesome talent, as Red Bull New York fans can attest. Villareal will have a hard time duplicating last season's feat, but they'll still be dangerous.
Season opens...Aug. 31 at Osasuna.

16 (-). Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs are clearly one of the biggest movers from last season, where they appeared in all of, uh, zero (0) Top 25s. If they have another slow start to the season, this could it for them this year as well. It won't happen though. For one, Juande Ramos has a tighter grip on the team than Martin Jol did. More importantly, look at all those shiny new players! We saw at the Euro how awesome Luka Modric can be. Add in David Bentley and Giovanni Dos Santos and the squad is radically transformed. Defense remains a question mark, however, and Spurs still don't really have a goalkeeper. And yes, Keane will be missed. So will Berbatov, should he choose to depart.
Season opens...Aug. 16 at Middlesbrough

17 (15). AC Milan

The rossoneri took probably the biggest gamble of all major clubs this off-season, dropping €21 million on an out-of-shape, out-of-form Ronaldinho. At 28, Jar Jar can still be one of the world's best players should he decide to, say, focus more on getting (and staying) fit and less on parties and prostitutes. It remains to be seen what his priorities are for this season. Milan also upped the ante by dropping €8.5 million on Gianluca Zabrotta. The gambles could pay off and return Milan to the top of the table. Or, what is more likely, blow up in their face. You can't really blame Milan for rolling the dice though; last season's team was one of the least inspiring in recent memory.
Season opens...with Bologna at the San Siro, Aug. 31.

18 (8). FC Porto
The Portuguese champs lost a few important players to wealthier clubs but also spent €27 million replenishing their ranks. The most interesting acquisition was undoubtedly a 21-year old Brazilian by the name of Hulk, who played last season in Tokyo. Not much is known about the young forward, including how he might have got his name. The Dragons also got 22-year old Uruguayan international Cristian Rodriguez from Paris Saint Germain. The departure of Bosingwa hurts, but there should still be enough for a repeat victory in the Portuguese league. Anything else would be pretty astonishing.
Season opens...Aug. 24 at home to Belenenses Lisbon

19 (-). Ajax Amsterdam
Yes, they're back. Marco van Basten's side dropped €30 million on new players this summer and should dominate the Eredivisie. The biggest signing was obviously Miralem Sulejmani, who joins from Heerenveen and will immediately strengthen the team's attack. Several of Ajax' players will be at the Beijing Olympics but over the medium term this team should be dangerous. How good of a coach is van Basten? We're about to find out.
Season Willem II, Aug. 30

20 (31). Galatasaray
With eight representatives from the Turkish national team that made it all the way to the Euro semifinals, Galatasaray obviously have a solid nucleus of talent. The defending Turkcell Superlig champs just so happened to add Portuguese international Fernando Meira from VfB Stuttgart and Harry Kewell from Liverpool. Last season it was Fenerbahce who pushed all the way into the Top 10 with some surprising Champions League feats. Now Galatasaray look to duplicate this feat.
Season opens...with a Champions League qualifier against Steaua Bucharest on Aug. 13.

21 (-) Shakhtar Donetsk
Go ahead and laugh. Ukraine's "double" winners from last season upgraded their squad at several key positions and are poised to make a run in Europe. The biggest acquisition was undoubtedly Bolivian Marcelo Moreno (anybody know if this guy is related to fellow Bolivian Jaime Moreno of D.C. United?) who joins from Cruzeiro Belo Horizonte for €9 million. In landing the 20-year old, Donetsk outbid Werder Bremen. They also have Brazilian Fernandinho, who in 2004 was voted that country's best young player. Yes, Brazil's.
Season already has, with the club having completed three games in the Ukrainian league (one win, one loss, one tie). They face Dynamo Zagreb in Champs League qualifiers.

22 (17). Fenerbahce
Fener's biggest move was probably for its head coach. Luis Aragones, fresh off of Spain's historic Euro victory, takes over the club from Zico, who for all his charms failed in winning a second straight league title. The club lost one key player, Euro star Mehmet Aurelio, who departed for Real Betis. But its new signings should pick up the slack. Aragones brings with him Spanish Euro champ Daniel Guiza (from Mallorca) and Emre, another member of Turkey's team. It will be a close battle between Fener and Galatasaray for the Turkish crown and chances are we'll see them both in Europe as well.
Season already did, with a 2-0 home victory over MTK Budapest in their CL qualifier.

23 (22). FC Sao Paulo
The defending Brazilian champs, currently fourth in the Campeonato, are the ranking committee's choice for South America representative (rules stipulate at least one team from CONMEBOL, CONCACAF and UEFA must be represented in the Top 25. This is a new rule. So new, in fact, we just made it up. But we like it and plan to keep it. So there). Adriano is back at Inter Milan, having apparently got his bearings, but several of his countrymen have joined Sao Paolo on loan, including Cleber Anderson (from Lyon), Rodrigo (Dynamo Kiev) and Andre Lima (Hertha Berlin).
Season opens already did. A long time ago, in fact, with 17 rounds of games now in the books. But FCSP face Atletico Paranaense in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana. That goes down Aug. 13.

24 (28). Schalke 04

The Gelsenkirchener upgraded last at two major positions: striker, where Jefferson Farfan arrives from PSV Eindhoven on a €10 million transfer and left mid, which will be occupied by Orlando Engelaar, himself a €5.5 million addition from Twente. Perhaps quite satisfied with the Dutch theme, Schalke got Dutchman Fred Rutten as their new coach. Too bad they face Atletico Madrid in the Champs League qualifier.
Season opens...Saturday, in a cup tie at Homburg (not to be confused with Hamburg). The first leg of the Atletico play-in is Aug. 13, at Schalke.

25 (-). CF America
The Aguilas had one of their worst campaigns in recent memory during the Clausura season that wrapped up this spring, finishing dead last and ushering in a period of crisis. Still, they advanced all the way to the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores, where they lost to eventual champions LDU Quito. It wasn't enough to save Leo Beenhakker's job though, and wholesale changes took place on virtually every level of the organization. So far, America is 1-1 on the young Apertura season. They've been able to keep their two biggest stars, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and Paraguayan striker Salvador Cabanas. With Alfredo Moreno coming on from San Luis and Juan Carlos Medina joining from Atlas, America has reloaded and should rejoin the elite in short order.
Season already has. Unfortunately no Copa Sudamericana action for these guys.

As previously noted, this table is intended to foster, rather than conclude debate. So what are your thoughts on the rankings? Who should have been included? Anybody who doesn't belong? Post your thoughts in comment form below. Who knows, you might just teach us something...


  1. I still believe that preseason is about fitness and nothing more. There has been consistantly very little correlation between pre season and season performances.

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