Ranking the Top 20 European Clubs: Real Madrid and Barcelona Flex Muscles
Welcome to this week's edition of the European club rankings.
This weekend the Bundesliga resumed following the winter break, while there were also games—some of them in the league, some of them in the cup—in almost every major European league around Europe bar Portugal.
These rankings are usually handled by the esteemed Sam Tighe or occasionally Karl Matchett, so some changes in the rankings of certain teams may be down to the differing (subjective) views of the writers, rather than based exclusively on the results of the last week.
A 3-0 away victory against Hamburg elevated the German side within two points of third-placed Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga standings, although losing Julian Draxler—even for big money—before the transfer deadline would be something of a blow.
La Viola's 3-3 home draw with Genoa prevented them from closing the gap on Napoli in the race for Champions League qualification in Serie A and perhaps highlights why they are just on the fringes of these rankings.
A 4-0 demolition of Elche moved Sociedad right in behind Villarreal in La Liga, while they look set to progress in the Copa del Rey after beating Racing Santander 3-1 in the first leg last week.
David Moyes' side did not play this weekend as they are already out of the FA Cup, while the signing of Juan Mata fails to prevent them dropping out of the top 20 (they ranked 18th last week) after falling out of the Capital One Cup to Sunderland in somewhat slapstick fashion.
20. Athletic Bilbao
Last Week: N/R
Slowly but surely cementing their status as the fourth-best side in Spain (which does not sound like the praise it perhaps is), Bilbao enter the rankings after a solid week.
A 1-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey was not ideal, but thanks in part to the heroics of goalkeeper Iago Herrerin, the Basque side do at least have the chance to overturn that deficit in the second leg at San Mames this week.
In the league, meanwhile, Ernesto Valverde's side put on one of the more glittering displays of the weekend—hammering Osasuna 5-1 to move five points clear of Villarreal in fourth.
Last Week: n/a
A 1-0 Portuguese League Cup victory over Gil Vicente was just enough for Benfica to progress to the knockout stages of the competition, without them ever truly impressing.
They benefit from Manchester United's demise to re-enter these rankings.
18. Sporting Lisbon
Last Week: n/a
A 3-1 victory over Penafiel was not enough for Sporting to escape the group stages of the Portuguese League Cup, as results later in the evening conspired to send them out.
Club president Bruno de Carvalho immediately cried conspiracy, telling the club's official website:
This isn’t a peculiar situation, it is just the usual stuff. ...
... Coincidences like this keep happening and we are going to pretend that we don’t notice them. When the fourth goal in the FC Porto-Penafiel game was off-side; when Sporting had qualified at the end of the game and you see us then eliminated due to a penalty that only certainly people could see, then you have to ask questions. ...
... The sort of things that happened today are what make people say that football isn’t played on the pitch. When things are already decided before games have even kicked off, there is no point making proposals.
Nevertheless, the chance to concentrate on matters elsewhere may help the club in the long run.
17. Bayer Leverkusen
Last Week: 17
Felix Klaus' last-minute winner condemned Bayer Leverkusen to a 3-2 defeat against Freiburg at the weekend, as the Bundesliga resumed after its fabled winter break.
More alarmingly for Bayer, however, is that defeat was their third successive one in the league—their last win coming against Borussia Dortmund on December 7.
Now just four points ahead of Dortmund and Gladbach in the table (and 10 points adrift of Bayern Munich, who are zooming off into the distance), the club will be especially eager to get a victory at home to Stuttgart at the start of next month.
Last Week: 14
Already out of the FA Cup at the hands of arch-rivals Arsenal, Tottenham had the chance to rest and recuperate this weekend—while Tim Sherwood may even have taken the opportunity to assess a few potential deadline-day transfer targets.
Only outside the Champions League qualification spots in the Premier League on goal difference, Spurs look primed to be a dangerous threat in both leagues (Premier and Europa) over the remainder of the season.
15. Borussia Dortmund
Last Week: 13
Dortmund hardly resumed league action with a bang at the weekend, as Augsburg held them to a 2-2 home draw—with further pain added by the fact that it was Ji Dong-Won, who will play for Dortmund next season, who grabbed the visitors' equaliser with 20 minutes remaining.
Dortmund also suffered a potentially serious injury to Jakub Blaszczykowski, compounding the disappointment on a day where they could have moved within two points of Bayer Leverkusen for second in the table.
Last Week: 12
Only Raul Albiol's 88th-minute equaliser saved Napoli from a somewhat embarrassing home defeat to lowly Chievo Verona, a result that nevertheless stunted their increasingly unlikely hopes of clawing back into the Serie A title race.
Last Week: 16
A 4-0 FA Cup victory over Stevenage probably only registers as a B+ on Roberto Martinez's grades, even considering a rotated line-up and the fact the contest was away from home.
A serious (and gruesome) injury to Bryan Oviedo may prove to have a psychological effect on the squad over the coming weeks, but the news that Leighton Baines has signed a new long-term contract with the club indicates the upward trajectory the Toffees continue to be on under Martinez.
Last Week: 15
No Radamel Falcao, no problem! The loss of the Colombian striker for the rest of the season in the 3-0 cup victory over Monts d'Or Azergues was a big blow to the club's hopes for the remainder of the campaign, but the rest of the squad bounced back at the weekend for an impressive 2-0 league victory over Marseille.
Next up for the club is an away trip to Lorient before they invite fellow title contenders Paris Saint-Germain to the Stade Louis II for a huge encounter. Win that one, and they could find themselves top of Ligue 1.
Last Week: 11
Much like cross-town rivals Everton, a 2-0 FA Cup victory over Bournemouth was little more than par for the course for Liverpool.
On Tuesday, however, there will be a real test for both sides—with Liverpool hosting Everton in the second Merseyside derby of the season.
After a thrilling first meeting at Goodison Park, similar drama is expected. But the result may tell us more about which of the two sides has the better prospects of finishing in the top four come the end of the season.
Last Week: 10
An encouraging, if only belatedly comfortable, 3-1 victory over Hellas Verona moved Roma back within six points of Juventus at the top of Serie A—pumping more life into a title race that was starting to flag ever so slightly.
Roma will be further buoyed by their hard-fought cup victory over Juve in midweek, a 1-0 win that underlined their own credentials and might just have been a timely reminder to Rudi Garcia's men that they have no reason to feel inferior to the current league leaders.
9. Paris Saint-Germain
Last Week: 1
A troubled week for the Paris club, knocked out of the French cup by Montpellier in midweek before being held by Guingamp in a 1-1 away draw at the weekend.
That result means Laurent Blanc's men are only three points clear of Monaco at the top of the table, meaning they need to beat Bordeaux at the weekend to avoid the prospect of being knocked off the top spot (their goal difference is markedly superior) by their nearest rivals, Monaco, when the two sides meet next month.
The arrival of Yohan Cabaye, who is set to undergo a medical Tuesday, per BBC Sport's Ben Smith, is one item of good news, however.
Last Week: 7
Few clubs would willingly give up a talent as sublime as Juan Mata, let alone to a key domestic rival. Yet that is exactly what Chelsea did this week as the Spaniard joined Manchester United.
Immediately replacing Mata with Basel's speedy winger Mohamed Salah (a replacement in terms of options in the attacking third, if not a like-for-like purchase), Jose Mourinho is wheeling and dealing a bit to give his squad the best chance of winning trophies this season and beyond—a worrying prospect for his rivals.
A comfortable weekend cup victory at home to Stoke showed that the football on the pitch has not really been affected by matters off it either.
Last Week: 9
A 4-0 thumping of Coventry City in the FA Cup continued the Gunners' recent good form, with Lukas Podolski's brace a particular highlight.
The biggest concern around the club remains their lack of a back-up striker for Olivier Giroud (and the injured Theo Walcott), but Podolski came into that role on Friday and showed he has the capacity to score goals as required.
A further January addition would enhance Arsenal's silverware prospects, though—it will be interesting to see if a mooted deal for Schalke's Julian Draxler, per German football expert Jan Aage Fjortoft, will materialise before the transfer window closes.
6. Atletico Madrid
Last Week: 3
A 4-2 away victory over fellow Madrid side Rayo Vallecano was perhaps not quite as comfortable as the final scoreline reflected, with Atletico being gifted more than one goal by the league's poorest (and most porous) defence. Thibaut Courtois also saved an early penalty.
Nevertheless, the result keeps them front-running in La Liga—while a 1-0 first-leg victory over Athletic Bilbao gives them a good platform to confirm Copa del Rey progression also.
Last Week: 4
An away draw against Lazio saw Juventus' Serie A lead shaved by two points, following on from a disappointing cup exit against Roma in midweek.
Against that backdrop, a home match vs. Inter at the weekend is perhaps not quite the stern test head coach Antonio Conte would have wanted.
4. Manchester City
Last Week: 5
Europe's most flamboyant attack continued its prolific goalscoring ways at the weekend, although it all looked like it was about to go horribly wrong when they initially fell 2-0 down against Championship side Watford.
But Sergio Aguero continued his rapid return to form and fitness to turn the tie around—an encouraging sign for him and Man City, an ominous one for their forthcoming opponents at home and abroad.
Last Week: 6
Business as usual for the Catalan club, as Cristian Tello's hat-trick effectively secured their progression in the Copa del Rey in midweek (admittedly, there is a second leg against Levante to come) before they brushed Malaga aside in the league at the weekend.
Still top of the league on goal difference, and with Lionel Messi back to form and fitness, Barcelona look an ominous prospect at present.
2. Real Madrid
Last Week: 8
As the Santiago Bernabeu commemorated Cristiano Ronaldo's Ballon d'Or victory on Saturday, the player himself marked the occasion by breaking the deadlock with a fine solo strike as Real Madrid beat Granada 2-0.
The win followed a midweek Copa del Rey success away at Espanyol, although at 1-0 the tie is still a long way from over.
Nevertheless, Real have won their last nine games in a row in all competitions, have the best player in the world and are now just one point off top of the league. It's a potent mix.
1. Bayern Munich
Last Week: 2
Despite Real's recent run, it remains difficult to argue with Bayern Munich's position atop these rankings.
The German side returned to Bundesliga action with predictable ease, avoiding the rustiness that seemed to afflict some of their nearer rivals as they defeated Gladbach 2-0 and moved 10 points clear at the top (with a game in hand).
With that sort of cushion, head coach Pep Guardiola can continue to try to impress upon his squad some of his more complex tactical ideas, while he also perhaps has the flexibility to rotate his squad more extensively to ensure they are best prepared to continue their Champions League defence.
For the rest of Europe, such a situation will raise alarms.