The group stage of the Europa League and Champions League is now complete, allowing for busier domestic schedules until the competitions resume in 2021. Real Madrid and RB Leipzig impressed in their final European matches of the calendar year while Inter Milan and Manchester United were left wondering what might have been.
Here is this week’s European soccer top 25.
Other teams in consideration: Ajax (NED), Roma (ITA), Sassuolo (ITA), Southampton (ENG), Villarreal (ESP)
Dropped from rankings: Ajax (23)
25) Lille (FRA)
Last week: Not ranked (W 2-1 vs. Monaco, L 3-2 vs. Celtic)
Lille are back in the top 25 by virtue of their win over a quality Monaco team that kept them two points behind PSG and level with the next team in these rankings. They had locked up a spot in the Europa League round of 32 before traveling to take on a Celtic team desperate for wins of any kind, so that defeat must be understood in the correct context. They won the important game and continue to apply pressure on last season’s runners-up in the Champions League.
24) Lyon (FRA)
Last week: 25 (W 3-1 vs. Metz)
Anthony Lopes saved a penalty kick in the seventh minute to prevent Lyon from going behind early. Karl Tolo Ekambi took over from there, assisting on Memphis Depay’s opener and scoring the last two goals himself. No one has put more than two goals past them in their 13 games this season; only Strasbourg and Montpellier have scored twice. Marseille’s elimination from European competition means Lyon will no longer have the advantage of focusing solely on Ligue 1 while all their direct competitors are still alive in Europe.
23) Sevilla (ESP)
Last week: 21 (L 1-0 vs. Real Madrid, W 3-1 vs. Stade Rennes)
Sevilla generated 1.3 expected goals to their opponents’ 4.0 yet came away with a win and more goals scored. A Bono own goal was the lone tally in the clash with Real Madrid, leaving Julen Lopetegui’s team sixth in the La Liga table and fifth in points per game. Youssef En-Nesyri scored twice in an ultimately meaningless Champions League victory as Sevilla had already been guaranteed to finish second in their group. They are through to the knockout stage for the first time since 2017-18.
22) Atalanta (ITA)
Last week: 24 (W 1-0 vs. Ajax)
Atalanta’s league game with Udinese was postponed due to flooding, so they had to wait until their Champions League fixture to take the field. Needing just a draw to reach the knockout round for a second season in a row, they did not show their typical attacking ambition. Luis Muriel entered just as Ajex’s Ryan Gravenberch was sent off in the 79th minute and scored six minutes later to ease tensions. It was their second victory in their last seven games, both of which came in the Champions League.
21) Manchester United (ENG)
Last week: 19 (W 3-1 vs. West Ham, L 3-2 vs. RB Leipzig)
For the second consecutive week, the Red Devils gave up the opening goal in both games they played, recovered to win in the Premier League and came up short in the Champions League. Paul Pogba got the first against West Ham and the second against Leipzig despite his agent Mino Raiola declaring his career at United is “over” in between games. They nearly overturned a three-goal deficit in 10 minutes to save their Champions League campaign but couldn’t find an equalizer and were relegated to the Europa League as a result of the loss. A Manchester derby awaits them on Dec. 12.
20) Real Sociedad (ESP)
Last week: 18 (D 0-0 vs. Alavés, D 1-1 vs. Napoli)
A second draw in as many league contests saw Sociedad concede first place in La Liga following an extended run at the top of the table. They held Alavés to the lowest expected goals total (0.3) of any opponent this season yet only generated 1.3 expected goals from 13 shots. Willian José’s equalizer came too late for them to complete the comeback and overtake Napoli for the top spot in their Europa League group but was enough to advance as the second-place team. They have drawn each of their last five games.
19) Lazio (ITA)
Last week: 20 (W 2-1 vs. Spezia Calcio, D 2-2 vs. Club Brugge)
Ciro Immobile is quietly forcing himself into any conversation about the best strikers in Europe. The reigning Golden Boot winner has found the back of the net in each of his last nine appearances. Fittingly, it was his penalty kick that ultimately secured Lazio’s first trip to the knockout stage of the Champions League since the turn of the century. Conceding in the 76th minute while up a man just made it more stressful than it needed to be.
18) Bayer Leverkusen (GER)
Last week: 22 (W 3-0 vs. Schalke, W 4-0 vs. Sparta Prague)
It was Leverkusen’s turn to beat up on hapless Schalke, which they did to the tune of 25 shots and eight corner kicks. That win combined with the Bayern/Leipzig result moved them within a point of the league leaders. Leon Bailey stole the show in the Europa League, scoring twice before being substituted at halftime. The emphatic victory allowed them to jump the Czech side and win the group.
17) Leicester City (ENG)
Last week: 17 (W 2-1 vs. Sheffield United, W 2-0 vs. AEK Athens)
Jamie Vardy’s 90th-minute winner in his hometown snapped a four-game winless streak and kept Leicester in a Champions League place. The Blades’ lone shot on target found the back of the net two minutes after Ayoze Pérez had put the Foxes ahead, which necessitated Vardy’s late heroics. Harvey Barnes and Cengiz Ünder scored within two minutes of each other as they finished atop their Europa League group to round out a successful week that was badly needed.
16) Borussia Mönchengladbach (GER)
Last week: 15 (D 2-2 vs. Freiburg, L 2-0 vs. Real Madrid)
Take out Gladbach’s two wins over Shakhtar Donetsk and they have one victory (over the worst team in the Bundesliga) since the beginning of November. Right before that, they nearly beat Real Madrid and defeated Leipzig in the last week of October. While not an entirely fair representation of their performances over that stretch, framing their recent results that way points to their inconsistency. They gave up control of their Champions League destiny with the loss in Madrid but are going through anyway thanks to winning the tiebreaker with those wins over Shakhtar.
15) Barcelona (ESP)
Last week: 12 (L 2-1 vs. Cádiz, L 3-0 vs. Juventus)
It has reached the point where a 21-7 advantage in shots, an 8-3 edge in shots on target and having 82% of the possession in a loss is not surprising or a reason to believe Barcelona is on the verge of turning their season around. Instead, the defeat to Cádiz reinforced just how broken they are. They put themselves in a position to win their Champions League group and probably get a more favorable draw in the round of 16 only to throw it away in the rematch with Juventus and finish second. It’s also worth remembering that starting next month, Lionel Messi can negotiate a pre-contract agreement with any non-Spanish team that would see him leave at the end of this season.
14) Borussia Dortmund (GER)
Last week: 11 (D 1-1 vs. Eintracht Frankfurt, W 2-1 vs. Zenit St. Petersburg)
Dortmund’s attempt to withstand Erling Håland’s injury and remain a factor in the Bundesliga title race until he returns is already on the verge of failure. Gio Reyna drew them level with a superb goal in the 56th minute but Frankfurt’s defense didn’t falter a second time. Zenit also struck first, forcing Dortmund to come from behind again. They did so through Łukasz Piszczek and Axel Witsel to finish atop their Champions League group.
13) Real Madrid (ESP)
Last week: 16 (W 1-0 vs. Sevilla, W 2-0 vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach)
If there is one defining characteristic of Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid teams, it is their ability to deliver under pressure. They get the win over Sevilla and are five points out of second with a game in hand. Then Sergio Ramos returns and Karim Benzema produces a first half brace to take Los Blancos to the top of their Champions League group after starting the final matchday in third. The complexion of the La Liga title race changes quickly if they can beat crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid on Dec. 12.
12) Juventus (ITA)
Last week: 14 (W 2-1 vs. Torino, W 3-0 vs. Barcelona)
Andrea Pirlo’s team saved it until late against their local rivals but rescued themselves from yet another embarrassing draw. Weston McKennie leveled the score six minutes after coming onto the field, setting the stage for Leonardo Bonucci’s 89th-minute winner. McKennie struck again in the Champions League to secure first place in Group G with the help of two Cristiano Ronaldo penalty kicks. That’s now five wins and a draw in their last six games, albeit against generally weak opposition.
11) Inter Milan (ITA)
Last week: 9 (W 3-1 vs. Bologna, D 0-0 vs. Shakhtar Donetsk)
Two goals by Achraf Hakimi led Inter to a third straight win, keeping them in second place in Serie A. They knew from the opening kickoff against Shakhtar their only hope of reaching the round of 16 in the Champions League was to win and get help, which Real Madrid provided. Except they couldn’t find a goal, bringing their time in Europe to an immensely disappointing conclusion. Now there is even more pressure to catch AC Milan with all the money they’ve spent.
10) RB Leipzig (GER)
Last week: 13 (D 3-3 vs. Bayern Munich, W 3-2 vs. Manchester United)
Leipzig did just about everything possible to impress in the Bayern game except for actually taking all three points. Be aggressive from the opening whistle and make Bayern uncomfortable early. Check. Play the game primarily on their terms. Check. Demonstrate resilience by taking the lead again after falling behind. Check. United made things interesting at the end but Leipzig absolutely deserved the victory. This was a banner week for a team proving they don’t need Timo Werner to get back to the Champions League semifinals.
9) Tottenham (ENG)
Last week: 10 (W 2-0 vs. Arsenal, W 2-0 vs. Royal Antwerp)
There is not a better attacking duo in the world right now than Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane. Son’s brilliant opener in the North London derby set up by Kane was a perfect encapsulation of how José Mourinho wants his team to play. Kane then netted one himself and found Giovani Lo Celso for Spurs’ second goal in their Europa League contest. They won their group and are winning the Premier League on goal difference. That could change when they face second-place Liverpool on Dec. 16.
8) Napoli (ITA)
Last week: 8 (W 4-0 vs. Crotone, D 1-1 vs. Real Sociedad)
Three second half goals against a Cortone team that played with 10 men for the final 40 minutes resulted in a stress-free victory on the back of their 4-0 win over Roma. Napoli also secured the top spot in their Europa League group with the draw against Sociedad and will be one of the favorites to win the tournament. They host Sampdoria on Dec. 13 before traveling to Inter Milan and Lazio in back-to-back games.
7) AC Milan (ITA)
Last week: 7 (W 2-1 vs. Sampdoria, W 1-0 vs. Sparta Prague)
Franck Kessié converted from the penalty spot for a second successive Serie A game and Samu Castellajo found the back of the net for a third game in a row to keep AC Milan unbeaten through 10 league contests. Jens Petter Hauge’s strike proved decisive in the Europa League to ensure they won their group. They still have a five-point cushion over Inter Milan and are showing no signs of slowing down.
6) Manchester City (ENG)
Last week: 6 (W 2-0 vs. Fulham, W 3-0 vs. Marseille)
It might finally be coming together for City, who have outscored opponents 11-0 in their last five games. Raheem Sterling got on the scoresheet for the first time since Oct. 27 in the win over Fulham. Sergio Agüero returned and scored against Marseille. Their 1.8 points per game in the Premier League are not all that far off the 2.18 of Tottenham and Liverpool at the top of the table. The Manchester United game will be useful in determining if their early season difficulties are really behind them.
5) Atlético Madrid (ESP)
Last week: 5 (W 2-0 vs. Valladolid, W 2-0 vs. Red Bull Salzburg)
Atléti’s seventh consecutive La Liga victory was enough to officially move them into first place with two games in hand on second-place Sociedad. The performance in the Champions League was much less inspiring than the scoreline indicates as Salzburg — needing a win to advance at Atléti’s expense — had multiple opportunities to put their Champions League future in jeopardy. Mario Hermoso scored his first goal for the club to provide additional security and Yannick Carrasco secured their place in the knockout round in the 86th minute. They can take another step toward winning La Liga by avoiding defeat against Real Madrid.
4) Chelsea (ENG)
Last week: 4 (W 3-1 vs. Leeds United, D 1-1 vs. Krasnodar)
The impressive performances keep on coming from the Blues. Former Chelsea man Patrick Bamford put Leeds ahead four minutes in and it was a one-sided affair from there. Olivier Giroud netted his fifth goal in two games, Kurt Zouma headed home a corner and Christian Pulisic sealed the win after replacing the injured Hakim Ziyech. Frank Lampard then had the luxury of resting whomever he pleased against Krasnodar with first place in Group E already secured.
3) Paris Saint-Germain (FRA)
Last week: 3 (W 3-1 vs. Montpellier, W 5-1 vs. İstanbul Başakşehir)
PSG got back to winning ways in Ligue 1 thanks to late goals from Moise Kean (77th minute) and Kylian Mbappé (91st minute). The story of the week in the sport, though, was the Başakşehir game. Following allegations of racial abuse toward a Başakşehir coach by the fourth official, the Turkish side left the field with PSG doing the same in a demonstration of solidarity. The game was resumed the following day and a Neymar hat trick propelled them to an easy victory that secured a first-place finish in their Champions League group.
2) Liverpool (ENG)
Last week: 2 (W 4-0 vs. Wolves, D 1-1 vs. Midtjylland)
The winning machine Jürgen Klopp has built keeps chugging along no matter who he sends onto the field. Mo Salah registered a goal and an assist to extend Liverpool’s unbeaten run in the Premier League to seven games. That contest also featured the return of Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had not played since leaving the Manchester City game early on Nov. 8. A heavily rotated side including two teenagers earned an ultimately irrelevant point against the Danish champions having already clinched Group D.
1) Bayern Munich (GER)
Last week: 1 (D 3-3 vs. RB Leipzig, W 2-0 vs. Lokomotiv Moscow)
When Bayern answered Christopher Nkunku’s goal with two of their own in five minutes, it was fair to wonder if Leipzig were going to be able to get back into the game. But they kept exposing the holes in Bayern’s defense and would’ve won were it not for Thomas Müller and his brace. While they are still in control of the Bundesliga, the flaws are there for all to see. They are no longer the indestructible force that was head and shoulders above everyone else six months ago.
Photo by Steffen Prößdorf / Wikimedia Commons