Dec 1, 2008

The world's top 25 soccer clubs, Dec. 1, 2008

We're back and better than ever, after a two week absence that actually lasted three weeks (you have MLS Cup to thank for that. Covering U.S. soccer is a very consuming effort, but somebody's got to do it). But a lot has happened so let's get to it:

1 (1). FC Barcelona
Since we last met, Barcelona has been next to perfect, winning four games and drawing one. The most impressive victory might have been its most recent one, on Saturday, when they blew out Sevilla 3-0. On the road. Barca lead the Spanish league and their Champions League group alike. They only lost once all season, on opening day. Other than that, it's hard to find fault with anything they've done this season. A worthy No. 1.
Next Up: Host fourth-placed Valencia Saturday in a game that could go a long way toward determining if anybody is going to challenge Barca in Spain this season. After that a meaningless game at Shakhtar Donetsk in the CL group stage finale, followed by (drum roll please) Real Madrid, at Nou Camp.
Against Top 25 (when they were Top 25): Beat Atletico Madrid at home (6-1, Oct. 4), beat Sporting Lisbon at home (3-1, Sept. 16), beat Sporting Lisbon away (5-2, Nov. 26), beat Sevilla away (3-0, Nov. 29).

2 (2). Liverpool
If it weren't for two of "lesser" London Premiership clubs, Liverpool would have had a flawless three week run. Alas, in a Nov. 12 League Cup tie, Tottenham Hotspur repeated their feat of Nov. 1, when they won at Anfield for the first time since the John Major administration (for all we know). Then Fulham went to Anfield and got a scoreless draw on Nov. 22. Still, this is looking like the strongest Liverpool side in many years. With Chelsea looking beatable and Man U. hanging around in third place, this might just be Reds year. But don't count on it.
Next Up: Host West Ham United today.
Against Top 25: Beat Manchester United (2-1, Sept. 13), beat Olympique Marseille on the road (2-1, Sept. 16), tied Atletico Madrid (1-1 at Madrid, Oct. 22 and 1-1 at Anfield, Nov. 6), won at Chelsea (1-0, Oct. 26).

3 (3). Inter Milan
Other than a home loss to Panathinaikos in a game that turned out to be meaningless, Inter has been firing on all cylinders. They beat fourth-placed Serie A side Napoli yesterday and previously put third-placed Juventus to the sword. The nerrazurri now have a five point lead in Serie A. You might say they haven't really been tested outside of Italy though, but that will change with the UCL Round of 16.
Next Up: Visit Lazio Saturday.
Against Top 25: Lost to AC Milan (1-0, Sept. 28), won at Panathinaikos (2-0, Sept. 16), tied at Fiorentina (0-0, Oct. 29), beat Udinese (1-0, Nov. 9), beat Juventus (1-0, Nov. 22) .

4 (6). Juventus
After losing to Inter on Nov. 22, Claudio Ranieri's team played a scoreless draw at Zenit St. Petersburg in a meaningless affair, then beat up on Reggina Calcio by a 4-0 score. They sit third in Serie A, one point behind AC Milan and six behind Inter. They've had a tougher schedule than Milan though (and have performed admirably, which is why they are higher in this list than many other teams, including the aforementioned Milanese. Speaking of, the two sides clash on Dec. 14).
Next Up: Visit Lecce Sunday.
Against Top 25: Beat Zenit St. Petersburg at home (1-0, Sept. 17) and tied on the road (0-0, Nov. 25), tied at Fiorentina (1-1, Aug. 31), tied at BATE Borisov (2-2, Sept. 30), beat Real Madrid (2-1 at home, Oct. 22 and 2-0 at the Bernabeu, Nov. 5), lost at Inter Milan (1-0, Nov. 22).

5 (8). Bayern Munich
Juergen Klinsmann's side has been on a tear lately, with a three game winning streak that culimated with a 2-0 victory at Leverkusen Saturday. After a rough start to the season everything appears to be coming together for the German champs, who have moved up to second place in the Bundesliga. But the next week will be telling.
Next Up: Host Hoffenheim, whom they trail by three points. Then visit Lyon with first place in their champions league group on the line (both sides have qualified for the Round of 16)
Against Top 25: Tied Olympique Lyon (1-1, Sept. 30), won at Steaua Bucharest (1-0, Sept. 17), beat Fiorentina at home (3-0, Oct. 22), tied at Fiorentina (1-1, Nov. 6).

6. (3). Chelsea
Blues had an inconsistent streak this past month, but at the time of this writing still held onto first place in the Premiership. So they must be doing something right, right? Right. Except, there was yesterday's home loss to Arsenal. And things don't look so rosy in the Champions League, either, where they need to beat Romanian side CFR Cluj on Dec. 12 to guarantee their spot in the Round of 16 (they'll still make it if Bordeaux don't win their game at Roma that same date). And of course they're out of the League cup, thanks to a defeat to Burnley on penalties. So despite initial appearances, all is not well in West London. Just look at how they've done against "quality" competition (below). It's not impressive (and the below tally doesn't include the 3-1 home loss to Roma, who weren't even in the Top 25 at the time of that game).
Next Up: At Bolton Saturday.
Against Top 25 clubs: Tied Man U at home (1-1, Sept. 21), lost to Liverpool (1-0, Oct. 25), lost to Arsenal at home (2-1, Nov. 30).

7. (5) AC Milan
The rossoneri have not impressed lately, playing Torino and Pompey to back-to-back 2-2 draws in Serie A and UEFA Cup action, respectively. They're still second in Serie A and are in fine shape in their UEFA Cup group. But is this really a Top 10 club?
Next Up: Host Lazio in a cup tie Wednesday, then Catania Sunday. A visit to Juventus is up Dec. 14.
Against Top 25: Beat Inter Milan (1-0, Sept. 28), beat Lazio (4-1, Sept. 21).

8 (7). Manchester United
Red Devils have this season done little more than the bare minimum to stay in contention both in the Premiership and Champions League. Most disconcerting is their record against top 25 teams (the only victory came over Celtic, who barely deserved to be there). Yes, they won the Manchester derby (it's pronounced darr-bee) yesterday. If they don't beat Aalborg by a significant margin next week they could finish second in their CL group, which could draw them against a team like Barcelona or Inter or Juventus. That's a lot of hypotheticals (they could also win the group, which is more likely, and draw somebody like Panathinaikos) but the facts are Man United has done very little to prove they are a top five team.
Next Up: Host Blackburn Rovers in the League Cup tomorrow, then Sunderland on Saturday.
Against Top 25: Lost to Zenit St. Petersburg (2-1), lost at Liverpool (2-1, Sept. 13), tied Villareal at home (0-0, Sept. 17) and away (0-0, Nov. 25), tied at Chelsea (1-1, Sept. 21), beat Celtic at home (3-0, Oct. 22) and tied at Celtic Park (1-1, Nov. 6), lost at Arsenal (2-1, Nov. 8).

9 (12). Arsenal
Right after appearing to salvage their season in the Nov. 8 defeat of Man United, Gunners beat Wigan in a League Cup match and promptly lost their next two games to Man. City and Aston Villa. They clinched advancement in the CL with a defeat of Dynamo Kiev after that, but things were not looking good at all going into yesterday's London derby. How desperate were Arsenal? They hired a Yank to run their team. Insanity! When they went down 1-0 to Chelsea yesterday, it suddenly looked like l'Arse might implode. But then Robin van Persie notched a second half brace and Arsenal handed Chelsea their second home loss in a row after 86 straight victories.
Despite these inconsistencies, Arse are deserving of a spot in the Top 10 if you look at their results against quality competition.
Next Up: Play at Burnley in the League Cup tomorrow, then host Wigan Saturday.
Against Top 25: Tied Dynamo Kiev away (1-1, Sept. 17) won at home (1-0, Nov. 25), beat Man United at home (2-1, Nov. 8), beat Chelsea away (2-1, Nov. 30).

10 (9). Real Madrid
In the past month Real has seen its coach fired (to have the decision revoked a few days later), been knocked out of the Copa del Rey at the hands of Real Union de Irun and then, Saturday, lost an important game at Getafe. So what are the bright spots? They're still alive in the Spanish league (but they will likely need to beat No. 1 Barcelona at Nou Camp on Dec. 14) and are through to the Round of 16 in the Champions League.
Next Up: Host Sevilla Sunday. Then a meaningless game against Zenit St. Petersburg, then Barca.
Against Top 25: Won at Zenit St. Petersburg (2-1, Sept. 30), beat Atletico Madrid (2-1, Oct. 18), lost to Juventus (2-1 on the road, Oct. 22 and 2-0 at home, Nov. 5).

11 (11). Olympique Lyon
L'OL have lost several games against lesser opponents recently, but prove they belong here by winning when it counts. Case in point: last week's victory at Fiorentina and the previous 2-1 decision over then third-placed Girondins Bordeaux. Yes, they also lost to FC Metz (no relation to the New York Mets baseball club) in a league cup game.
Next Up: At Nantes, Sunday. Then host Bayern Munich with first place in Group F on the line.
Against Top 25: Tied Fiorentina at home (2-2, Sept. 17) and Bayern Munich on the road (1-1, Sept. 30), won at Fiorentina (2-1, Nov. 25).

12 (10). Atletico Madrid
A series of draws have cost Atletico some spots in the Liga, though there was also an impressive 4-1 defeat of Deportivo La Coruna thrown in as well. Things are looking fine in the Champions League, where they (like all the favorites) have advanced to the Round of 16.
Next Up: Host Racing Santander Sunday.
Against Top 25: Lost at Barcelona (6-1, Oct. 4), lost to Real Madrid (2-1, Oct. 18), tied Liverpool (1-1, Oct. 23), tied Villareal (4-4, Oct. 26), tied at Liverpool (1-1, Nov. 5).

13 (13). Villareal.
The Yellow Submarine have continued to be maddeningly inconsistent in Europe and Spain alike. One week they are every bit Man United's equal (they played two scoreless ties in their Champions League group) then they're being thrown out of the Copa del Rey by the likes of Polideportivo Ejido.
Next Up: Host Getafe Saturday, then some target practice at Celtic Park next week. A trip to Sevilla looms the following Sunday.
Against Top 25: Tied Man U twice (0-0 at Old Trafford, Sept. 18 and 0-0 at home Nov. 25), beat Celtic at home (1-0, Sept. 29), tied Atletico Madrid at home (4-4, Oct. 26).

14 (25). AS Roma
After a disastrous start to the season, Roma have won four in a row and quietly taken over first place in their Champions League group. They're in a good position to win the group, "controlling their own destiny" when they host Girondins Bordeaux a week from tomorrow. A nice run that is rewarded by an 11 place jump in the standings. They deserve it too if you look at their record against other Top 25 clubs.
Next Up: Visit Chievo Saturday.
Against Top 25: Lost at home to Inter (4-0, Oct. 19), lost at Chelsea (1-0, Oct. 22), lost at Udinese (3-1, Oct. 26), lost at Juventus (2-0, Nov. 1), beat Chelsea (3-1, Nov. 4), beat Fiorentina (1-0, Nov. 29)

15 (20). Sporting Lisbon.
Sporting have been very inconsistent this season but have managed to win games when it counted. This was most apparent in the Champions League, where they vanquished a tough Shakhtar Donetsk side twice to clinch a place in the Round of 16 (alas the Ukranian club was not in the Top 25 both times they played). Domestically Sporting are well situated for a run, sitting third, four points behind Leixoes and two behind Benfica. They have several blemishes, such as a loss on penalties to Porto in the Portuguese cup and a home loss to the aforementioned Leixoes.
Next Up: A pair of domestic league opponents, neither of which we can ever pretend to have heard of, sandwich FC Basel in the final Champions League group match.
Against Top 25: Lost to Barcelona (3-1 away, Sept. 19 and 5-2 home, Nov. 25).

16 (-) Aston Villa
Villains make the first appearance in club history in Soccer Source's Top 25 and deservedly so. With a perfect record through two UEFA Cup games, Martin O'Neill's side sit atop their group. Their domestic run is even more impressive. Granted the last two weeks did not exactly go as well as hoped, with back-to-back scoreless draws at home (though one was against Man United) but taken as a "body of work" the 2008 campaign has been an unheralded success. Villa sit fourth in the Premiership and may very well break the "big four" hold on those spots. Their record against quality competition is most impressive at all. See below.
Next Up: Host Zilina in UEFA Cup action Thursday. Visit Everton Sunday.
Against Top 25: Tied Liverpool at home (0-0, Aug. 31), lost at Chelsea (2-0, Oct. 5), beat Arsenal away (2-0, Nov. 15) tied Man United at home (0-0, Nov. 22)

17 (14). Valencia
Valencia have suffered a strange loss of form at home, losing or drawing all but one of their last four games (and the one was a Copa del Rey victory over Club Portugalete). On the road, however Unai Emery's men have fared better, beating Getafe 3-0 and playing Sevilla to a scoreless draw on Nov. 22.
Next Up: At Bruges in UEFA Cup action Thursday, then at No. 1 Barcelona Saturday.
Against Top 25: Lost to Real Madrid over two legs in Spanish Supercup, tied at Sevilla (0-0, Nov. 22).

18 (-). FC Sao Paulo
Last year's Brazilian champs are knocking on the door of a repeat title. With one game left they look to be virtually assured of the silverware (Sao Paulo lead second-placed Gremio by three points and have a +29 goal difference to Gremio's +22). Things did not go according to plan in the Copa Sudamericana (they lost to Atletico Paranaense on penalties) but we still think they're the best club in South America right now.

19 (24). Standard Liege
The Belgian champs were eliminated in the Coup de Belgique by some also-rans back on Nov. 12. Other than that they've done well, particularly in Europe (victories over Partizan Belgrade and Sevilla in the past month). This is the same club that narrowly lost to Liverpool in Champions League qualifiers and ousted Everton from UEFA Cup competition. They sit third in the Jupiler league, three points behind leaders Bruges. Don't expect that to last.
Next Up: Host Sampdoria (it's pronounced Samdoria. The "p" is silent) Wednesday in their next UEFA Cup match.
Against Top 25: Lost to Liverpool in Champions League qualifiers (1-0 in aggregate on an overtime goal in the second leg), beat Sevilla at home (2-0, Nov. 6).

20 (-). Panathinaikos
The Greek club make their debut on the Top 25 (this year at least) by virtue of an impressive 1-0 victory at Inter Milan. The game may have turned out to be meaningless (for Inter at least) but at the time it was anything but. And Panathinaikos are in an excellent position to advance out of what has turned into a very very tough group (quite possibly the toughest of the lot, contrary to initial expectations here and elsewhere). With a one point lead over Anorthosis Famagusta, the Greek side can afford a tie when the two teams meet next week.
Next Up: AO Xanthi, Saturday.
Against Top 25: Lost to Inter Milan at home (2-0, Sept. 16), beat Inter Milan (1-0 away on Nov. 25)

21 (-). Internacional
What's this? Inter Milan this far down? But we already had Inter! Oh wait, it's a different Inter? Indeed (note the difference in spelling). These guys are from Brazil, not Italy. While only sixth in their own country's table, the Porto Allegre side have proven their worth in continental competition the last few weeks. Consider that the two teams it ousted from the Copa Sudamericana (in order, Boca Juniors and Chivas de Guadelajara) were at the time in the Top 25. They won the first leg of the Sudamericana final by 1-0 at Estudiantes and are now heavily favored to win the whole thing (the return leg is Thursday).
Next Up: Host Estudiantes in the return leg of the Copa Sudamericana Thursday. Inter has a 1-0 lead but unless we're mistaken there is none of this goofy UEFA away goals nonsense.
Against Top 25: Beat Boca Juniors and Chivas de Guadelajara over two legs in the Copa Sudamericana quarter- and semi-finals respectively.

22 (-). Santos Laguna
Winners of last year's Clausura championship, Santos are gunning for an Apertura title this time around. The competition is now in its penultimate phase, the semifinals where Santos face Toluca after eliminating Club San Luis in the quarterfinals. They enlisted the help of a guy, Cuahtemoc Blanco, whom U.S. soccer fans have even heard of. Blanco has been money, too, converting a penalty kick in the very late stage of the second leg quarterfinal, when the teams were level. Unfortunately Santos did not get to test themselves against other teams in the hemisphere (but they will in the Libertadores, to ensue after the winter break).

23 (23). Zenit St. Petersburg
The UEFA Cup champs won a crucial game at Spartak Mosow Nov. 22 to clinch fifth place on the final match day and ensure there will be at least some European action next season (though they'll have to go through the Intertoto Cup, or whatever it's called now). Perhaps more importantly, Zenit also held Juventus to a scoreless tie in Champions League play, to clinch third place in their group and thus a spot in the UEFA Cup Round of 32.
Next Up: Visit Real in a meaningless encounter Tuesday.
Against Top 25: Lost at Juventus (1-0, Sept. 17) tied at home (0-0, Nov. 25), lost to Real Madrid (2-1, Sept. 30), tied at BATE Borisov (1-1, Oct. 22), beat BATE Borisov at home (2-0, Nov. 5).

24 (-). Hoffenheim
The surprise team of the German (if not entire European) season is back in the Top 25 after a brief absence. The promoted club are in first place in the Bundesliga with a three point lead over defending champions (and No. 5 in this week's poll) Bayern Munich. The two clubs meet Friday in Munich, with the home side expected to be heavily favored. But Ralf Rangnick's side have already held their own (and in a few cases beaten) some of the Bundesliga's very best, most notably Hamburg, whom they dropped 3-0 on Oct. 26.
Next Up: The aforementioned top-of-the-table clash at Bayern Munich, Friday.
Against Top 25: Beat Hamburg SV at home (3-0, Oct. 26)

25. (15) Dynamo Kiev
After reaching all the way into the top 15, the Ukranian side have come back to earth. Gone is the dream of advancing to the Champions League elimination round (it ended in a 1-0 defeat at Emirates last week). Not only that but they've got a fight on their hands in the domestic league, after losing at Shakhtar on Nov. 16. They're still in first place though and have also clinched third place in their Champs League group.
Next Up: Some Ukrainian team Friday, then Fenerbahce Istanbul in a meaningless CL game Tuesday.
Against Top 25: Tied Arsenal at home (1-1, Sept. 17), lost at Emirates (1-0, Nov .25)

Dropping Out:
Celtic (16), Udinese (17), Fiorentina (18), Benfica (21), Chivas (22)

Also receiving consideration:
Porto, Hertha Berlin, Boca Juniors

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