Italy starting to stir in Europe, power rankings

Italy starting to stir in Europe, power rankings

Published Jan. 10, 2012 12:46 p.m. ET

When, at the end of last season, Italy lost its fourth Champions League spot to Germany, it seemed like another symptom of the league being on the wane. Whereas two decades ago the Serie A was considered the world’s best, the last few years saw England and Spain pull away, leaving the third of Europe’s former big three behind. Whether the blame lay with television revenue, the 2006 match-fixing scandal, antiquated stadia or a lack of direction at the league’s highest levels, (or, perhaps the clubs just weren’t that good) the effect was real. Italy had fallen behind. After last season, Italy was more readily grouped with Germany and possibly France.

Perhaps that was the trough because, four months into the season, Italy appears to have rebounded. Their three teams that qualified for the Champions League advanced to the knockout round, with both of the league’s Europa League clubs also going the same way. Milan, last year’s champions, look a more formidable side this season, though with the resurgence of Juventus, their title challenge is not easy. Udinese hasn’t missed a beat since selling two of its best players, Napoli has consolidated as a persistent threat, while both Rome clubs (Lazio, Roma) have shown themselves capable of beating the league’s best. And then there is Inter, which has bounced back from a coach-dismissing start to surge back into contention.

No league in Europe sports as much depth at the top, and having seen how Italy’s best have performed this year in Europe, could the Serie A have this season’s best league? It seems to have a case, even if such contentions are impossible to prove. According to UEFA's coefficient points system, the Serie A has been the fifth-best league in Europe, with France, Germany, Spain and England’s league performing better. There is another, pro-Serie A way to look at European performance: No league has more teams alive in Europe (five, equal to England, Spain), with their three clubs in the Champions League’s knockout stage - the most of any federation.

With only four months of evidence to go on, it may be rash to suggest Italy should be discussed in the same breath as England and Spain. It is, however, a testament to the league's turnaround that the conversation is even possible. While it will take years of this type of strength for us to consider whether Italy has returned, for the 2011-12 season only, no league offers as much quality at its top than Serie A.


That depth is reflected in this week’s Power Rankings, a list that will always be kind to a league that has strength at the top. With four clubs on this list, Italy makes up just short of half of the countdown, with no other league having more than two representatives.

The league that suffers for Italy’s presence? England, with the Premier League losing their representative to an Italian power that’s won five in a row.

Dropped out

Manchester United (last ranking: 7) – This should be no surprise. The Red Devils are coming off a loss to Blackburn, a lopsided result at Newcastle, and a win over a Manchester City team that played with 10 men for 80 minutes and still almost earned a replay. Given what we’ve seen of late from United, it’s difficult to imagine them beating any team on our list.

And speaking of our list:

#10. Inter Milan (last ranking: NR)

Fact File
League: 9-2-6, fifth place, Italy’s Serie A
Cup(s): Hosts Genoa in the Copa Italia on Jan. 19
Europe: 3-1-2, first place, UEFA Champions League’s Group B; will face Marseille in round of 16
Last 30 days: 5-0-0

In the countdown on the strength of their five-match winning streak, Inter’s inclusion tells you a few things about the state of the countdown:


    Upcoming matches: at AC Milan (Sunday, Serie A)

    #9. Benfica (10)

    Fact File
    League: 13-3-0, first place, Portugal’s Primeira Liga
    Cup(s): First place in League Cup’s Group B; eliminated from Portuguese Cup in round of 16.
    Europe: 3-3-0, first place, UEFA Champions League's Group C; will face Zenit St. Petersburg in round of 16.
    Last 30 days: 4-0-0

    Two matches, two wins, and a combined 8-1 margin had Benfica beginning 2012 as they closed 2011. The best news they got last week? Defending Portuguese champion Porto stumbled in the league. The Dragons still have not been toppled in Portugal since the pre-Villas-Boas era, but with one more draw than Benfica, the defending champion trails the Eagles by two points.

    Upcoming matches: Vitoria Setubal (Saturday, Liga)

    #8. Udinese (8)

    Fact File
    League: 10-5-2, third place, Italy's Serie A
    Cup(s): Will face Chievo on Jan. 11 in Coppa Italia round of 16.
    Europe: 2-3-1, second place, UEFA Europa League's Group I; will face PAOK in the round of 32.
    Last 30 days: 2-3-0

    When last we convened I issued Udinese was in danger of losing their spot on the list, with their penchant for draws (both in Italy and Europe) and giving others opportunities to usurp them. Coming out of the break, Udinese has changed its ways, posting a 4-1 win in their first match of 2012. The goal they conceded against Cesena was only the 10th Udinese allowed in 17 Serie A matches.

    Upcoming matches: Chievo (Wednesday, Coppa), at Genoa (Sunday, Serie A)

    #7. Tottenham Hotspur (9)

    Fact File
    League: 13-3-3, third place, Barclays Premier League
    Cup(s): Eliminated in the third round of the Carling Cup; at Watford on Jan. 28 in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
    Europe: 3-1-2, eliminated in third place, UEFA Europa League's Group A
    Last 30 days: 5-2-1

    Which team tops the form table in England? Tottenham Hotspur, a club that’s now within three points of second-placed Manchester United. That gap could disappear on Wednesday when Spurs make up their match-in-hand against visiting Everton. If that happens, Spurs will be eight points clear of fourth-placed Chelsea.

    Upcoming matches: Everton (Wednesday, Premier League), Wolves (Saturday, Premier League)

    #6. Manchester City (4)

    Fact File
    League: 15-3-2, first place, Barclays Premier League
    Cup(s): Will face Liverpool starting Wednesday in the semifinals of the Carling Cup; eliminated by Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup
    Europe: 3-1-2, third place, UEFA Champions League's Group A; will face Porto in UEFA Europe League's round of 32.
    Last 30 days: 4-1-3

    With three losses in the last month, it’s difficult to keep Manchester City in the top half of the list. Sunday’s Manchester United loss wasn’t a big factor, as it’s hard to judge City too severely after they played 80 minutes with 10 men. The loss at Sunderland after drawing with West Brom? Those hurt the ranking more.

    Upcoming matches: Liverpool (Wednesday, Carling Cup), at Wigan (Monday, Premier League)

    #5. Juventus (6)

    Fact File
    League: 10-7-0, second place, Italy's Serie A
    Cup(s): Will face the winner of Roma-Fiorentina on Jan. 24 in the quarterfinals of the Coppa Italia.
    Europe: Did not qualify.
    Last 30 days: 2-2-0

    Still undefeated in what might be the deepest league (at the top) amongst Europe’s big boys, Juventus’s only knock against it is the large number of draws. The Old Lady managed to avoid that fate this weekend with a solid win at Lecce. The addition of Marco Borriello may help avoid as many draws in the second half of the season.

    Upcoming matches: Cagliari (Sunday, Serie A)

    #4. AC Milan (5)

    Fact File
    League: 11-4-2, first place, Italian Serie A
    Cup(s): Will face Novara on Jan. 18 in Coppa Italia round of 16.
    Europe: 2-3-1, second place; UEFA Champions League's Group H; will face Arsenal in round of 16.
    Last 30 days: 3-1-0

    Milan’s 2-0 victory on Sunday at Atalanta was emblematic of their entire season: a goal from the spot from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a goal from one from Kevin-Prince Boateng or Antonio Nocerino (this weekend it was Boateng), go home and help plan Zlatan’s next hunting trip. Unfortunately for Milan, rivals Juventus, Udinese, Inter and Napoli all won, and they’re looking at a Sunday derby that could cost them first place. Even though the Rossoneri are arguably better this year than last, their path to the scudetto is much tougher.

    Upcoming matches: at Inter Milan (Serie A, Sunday)

    #3. Bayern Munich (3)

    Fact File
    League: 12-1-4, first place, Germany's Bundesliga
    Cup(s): Will face Stuttgart on February 8 in the quarterfinals of DFB Pokal
    Europe: 4-1-1, first place, UEFA Champions League's Group A; will face Basel in round of 16.
    Last 30 days: 3-0-0

    Bayern occupied its winter free time with a tour of the Middle East, a trip highlighted by a 13-0 win at Qatari club Al Sailiya. The best thing to come out of the trip may be the training time for Bastian Schweinsteiger and Arjen Robben. Both stars have missed meaningful time with injuries in the first half of the season. Should they stay healthy throughout May, Bayern is the most meaningful threat to the duopoly that’s extended beyond Spain.

    Upcoming matches: Do not play again until January 20 at Borussia Moenchengladbach

    #2. Real Madrid (2)

    Fact File
    League: 14-1-2, first place, Spain's Primera Division
    Cup(s): Lead Malaga 3-2 after first leg of their Copa del Rey round of 32 tie.
    Europe: 6-0-0, first place, UEFA Champions League's Group D; will face CSKA Moscow in round of 16.
    Last 30 days: 5-0-1

    What’s crazier: Real Madrid now having a five point lead in Spain or their goal pace? The Merengues are on pace for 136 goals after their 5-1 weekend victory over Granada. Karim Benzema is on pace for 22 league goals. Higuain, amazingly, is on track for 29, while Cristiano Ronaldo, if he maintains his rate, will finish with 47. How many other times in history would this be the second-best team in the world?

    Upcoming matches: at Malaga (Tuesday, Copa del Rey), at Mallorca (Saturday, La Liga)

    #1. Barcelona (1)

    Fact File
    League: 11-5-1, second place, Spain's Primera Division
    Cup(s): Lead Osasuna 4-0 after first leg of their Copa del Rey round of 32 tie.
    Europe: 5-1-0, first place, UEFA Champions League's Group H; will face Bayer Leverkusen in round of 16.
    Last 30 days: 5-1-0

    Sunday’s draw at Espanyol means Barcelona is no longer in control of its own destiny in Spain. Even if the three-time defending champion wins the rest of its Liga matches, it will need Real Madrid to drop points some place other than at the Nou Camp between now and the end of the season. The likelihood that will happen and will Real Madrid drop more points than Barcelona in that time? Through 17 rounds, the results suggest otherwise.

    Upcoming matches: at Osasuna (Thursday, Copa del Rey), Real Betis (Sunday, La Liga)

    Honorable mentions (unordered): Arsenal (England), Chelsea (England), Napoli (Italy), Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia), CSKA Moscow (Russia), Manchester United (England)
    Look out for: Borussia Dortmund (Germany), PSV (Netherlands), Olympiacos (Greece), Schalke (Germany), Lazio (Italy), Porto (Portugal), Lille (France), Galatasaray (Turkey)
    Don't forget about: Basel (Switzerland), Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine), Liverpool (England), Paris Saint-Germain (France), Anderlecht (Belgium), Lyon (France)

    Now, your thoughts:

    What does it take for non-UEFA sides to break in? It doesn't bother me that there are not any but teams like the Brisbane Roar and Kashiwa Reysol have done well in their respective leagues … - TurkishSpider, your comments.

    When the Club World Cup started, we briefly discussed what it would take for Kashiwa to get more consideration. Had they made the final, their record in Japan combined with their win over Santos could have gotten them very close.

    Even though these teams don’t get to play in European competition, the principles to judge them remain the same. The league results will always be, by far, your biggest sample, but it’s nowhere near enough. You have to use your eyes to give context to the individual game results (for example, how impressive, really, was Manchester United’s win over 10-man City?). You have to use the team and league’s performance beyond the borders to weigh the league’s toughness.

    Applying that to your question, Copa Libertadores is going to be the best chance of a non UEFA-club to make its case. If (to pick a club) Boca Juniors proves as strong in Argentina’s Clausura while impressing in Libertadores, they’ll have to get consideration.

    Wow, Chelsea and Arsenal out just like that (in the last rankings), and Man U and Tottenham in just like these rankings flip flop … - ruen97, your comments

    They’re rankings, not stone tablets. Teams have good showings one week, bad the next. The rankings try to reflect that.

    Farley, do you take into consideration human elements (ie officiating and injuries) or is this more of a bcs style numbers only system? - Steveo17, your comments

    I definitely try to take everything into account. Let’s take the Manchester City loss to United as an example. I don’t try to judge the accuracy of Chris Foy’s red card of Vincent Kompany; rather, I recognize it’s not very useful to judge City harshly based on a scenario that very rarely happens. How many times a year is City going to be playing with 10 for 80 minutes?

    If they did play a man down that often, I would definitely take that into account.

    As for other factors, the principle is the same. The more rare or strange the situation, the less likely I am to consider it an indicator or strength of future performance.

    And finally, the big question for this week:

    I would be curious at what explanation or reasoning can be given to why Udinese are in the rankings when Dortmund, who have a better overall record and more than double the goal differential of Udinese, are not in the rankings … And while I am sure that Mr Farley will throw the old CL group stage performance towel at me, I will add that Udinese did get eliminated from the same competition at a much earlier stage than Dortmund did and have not been impressive in the Europa League either.

    Part of the explanation leads this article. Italy has a really deep league this year, and Udinese has proven a lot by carrying only two losses after 17 games. It’s very difficult to make an argument that Germany is as strong (at least, this year), yet Dortmund has lost three times.

    Dortmund, however, has wins against Bayern and Schalke, though there is little else to recommend them. They finished at the bottom of a very weak Champions League group, seeing Marseille and Olympiacos persist in Europe while they went home. True, Udinese didn’t even make it to the Champions League, but given their play-in opponent was Arsenal (and the games were played over four months ago), it’s completely explicable why they didn’t make it (particularly since those were some of the first meaningful matches Udinese had playing since losing Alexis Sanchez and Gokhan Inler).

    Given Dortmund’s performances against Olympiacos and Marseille, the Champions League is certainly not a point in BVB’s favor.

    Those slips stand out more than the three losses in Germany. We know, based on various priorities and commitments, teams slip domestically. But in the Champions League, there is no ambiguity. Yet when performance really mattered against Marseille and Olympiacos, Dortmund didn’t just lose, they looked bad (3-1 loss in Greece, 3-0 loss in France).

    Those blemishes not only separate Dortmund from Udinese but keep them from serious consideration for the top 10. They make their win at the Allianz look outlying. At a minimum, BVB has something to prove, though I’m sure Marco Reus will help them do so.