We are not quite halfway through the 2017-18 European soccer season. But there is no better halfway point Christmas. So there are few better halfway points than right now.
Winter breaks are underway in Germany and France, and a few days from beginning in Spain. Italy must wait for January, and England for some time in the future when league organizers come to their senses, but nonetheless, it is a perfect time to take stock of the balance of power in soccer around the world – which, at the top, right now, equates to the balance of power in Europe.
Back in August, there was an undisputed king, and a noble class of around seven others. Over the past four months, that king appears to have been dragged down from its perch, leaving its throne there for the taking.
Whether or not it’s been claimed is up for debate. And we’re going to open this midseason edition of our World Soccer Power Rankings by arguing that it has.
WORLD SOCCER POWER RANKINGS — THURSDAY, DEC. 21
(Number in parentheses represents change since Nov. 23)
1. Manchester City (-) — The question in the Premier League is no longer “if,” but rather “by how much.” Contemporary comparisons have given way to historical comparisons. Our Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote on the Citizens after their 4-1 demolition of Tottenham, and floated some of those comparisons.
In the aftermath, it was surprising to learn that “Manchester City is the best team in the world” is a disputed statement. It shouldn’t be. That doesn’t mean City will undoubtedly finish the season on top of these rankings, with the Champions League trophy in Vincent Kompany’s hands. But right now, nobody is better. The remarkable winning streak has nothing to do with the rest of the Premier League, and everything to do with City’s supremacy.
2. Barcelona (+1) — Perhaps we haven’t been appreciative enough of Barcelona’s success this season. It isn’t the Pep-era or MSN-era juggernaut it once was, but Lionel Messi remains the best player in the world, and Barca remains unbeaten in all competitions. El Clasico – Saturday, 7 a.m. ET, BeIN Sports – will be a great measuring stick, but even if it ends in a first defeat, don’t freak out. Barcelona has answered many post-Neymar questions exceedingly well.
3. PSG (-1) — Still difficult to appraise PSG, given the difficulty, or lack thereof, of Ligue 1.
4. Real Madrid (+1) — The past week-and-a-half alone provide a pretty good encapsulation of Real Madrid’s ranking at No. 4. Los Blancos smashed Sevilla 5-0 two weekends ago. They were everything they had been en route to a La Liga-Champions League double last year.
Seven days after later, they won the Club World Cup, 1-0 over Gremio in the final. But during the week, they had to come from behind to beat Al-Jazira in a semifinal that might as well have been a reflection of their 2017-18 season. They could have been 3-0 or 4-0 up at halftime, but found themselves 1-0 down. They pressed forward without regard for counterattacks, faltered in front of goal, and were hit on the break. They were hit again in the second half, but escaped a 2-0 deficit thanks to VAR. Even after Cristiano Ronaldo’s equalizer, they were far too open, and the game – against a team that had no business competing with the Spanish champions – remained on edge until Gareth Bale’s winner.
Madrid’s main failings this year have come in front of goal. But they’ve been compounded by the resulting exasperation, and a subsequent disregard for shoring up the other end of the pitch. A talented team can overcome that imbalance, and Real did last week. But it hasn’t always been able to do so this season, and that’s why it’s facing a near-must-win Clasico on Saturday.
5. Juventus (+3) — Juve is looking like Juve again. It hasn’t conceded a goal in over a month – in 641 minutes of soccer. It took four points from top-of-the-table clashes with Napoli and Inter, and has Roma at home on Saturday.
6. Bayern Munich (-) — Bayern has the worst record of any big-five league-leader, but the joint-biggest lead because of mediocrity below it. It has won three consecutive Bundesliga games 1-0.
7. Manchester United (-) — For all the post-derby criticism of Jose Mourinho (and melees involving him), United still played City tougher than any other Premier League side has this season. And it’s still the only potential City challenger for the title.
8. Napoli (-4) — Maurizio Sarri’s men are clinging to the top spot in Serie A, but are out of the Champions League, and haven’t been as rampant going forward over the past month as they were previously. They’ve averaged just a goal per game over their last six outings.
9. Chelsea (+1) — When you don’t bully lesser opponents, they’ll bite back every now and then. West Ham was a perfect example. Chelsea is still really good, but its relatively defensive style doesn’t leave it much margin for error. It should keep the Blues in the Premier League top four, but also out of the title race.
10. Atletico Madrid (+1) — Still unbeaten in La Liga! With six draws, sure, but Atleti hasn’t dropped points since the Madrid Derby, and could find itself just a game back of Barcelona heading into the winter break if this weekend’s results break right.
11. Liverpool (+4) — There are times the Reds look like the second-best team in England; there are times they look like a distant sixth-best. There have been more of the former than the latter recently, though. Results don’t necessarily reflect that, but Liverpool was inches away from having won six in a row with 21 scored and only one conceded. Instead, it’s 20 scored, two conceded, and two recent draws in the league, but there are plenty of promising signs.
Oh, and Mohamed Salah is a genius.
12. Tottenham (-3) — It’s just not fair to judge any team on a loss to Man City at the moment. Spurs tried to match the leaders, and couldn’t. There’s no shame in that.
13. Roma (-2) — In fourth, but only four points back of Seria A-leading Napoli, and with a game in hand. Saturday’s trip to Juve is huge.
14. Inter Milan (-) — Home losses to Udinese are not part of the formula for dethroning Juventus. Consider us skeptical that Inter can hang with the reigning champs and Napoli.
15. Arsenal (-2) — Liverpool visits the Emirates on Friday evening (1:45 p.m. ET) for a game that could ultimately have massive top-four implications.
16. Valencia (-) — Regression to the mean has struck with uncomfortable force. Valencia has lost twice since a 1-1 draw with Barcelona, and title dreams have probably been dashed. But, with Sevilla struggling as well, a top-four finish is very much in play.
17. Bayer Leverkusen (NR) — Leverkusen is playing some superb soccer at the moment, and hasn’t lost since Sept. 20. By the time the Bundesliga resumes in mid-January, it will have gone 115 days unbeaten in all competitions.
18. Schalke (+6) — And Schalke will have gone 112 days unbeaten! It’s up to second place in the league.
20. Lyon (+3) — Probably the second-best team in France.
Best of the rest: Porto, Sevilla, Lazio, Monaco
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