Gabriele Marcotti
Thursday December 18th, 2008

With the European seasons just about at the halfway mark, there seems to be one overriding theme. Every one of the big boys (except Barcelona) is generally stinking it up. Some more so, some less so, admittedly.

But one thing is pretty clear: If you go around the top leagues and ask yourself who's playing consistently well, you'll find that very few fit the bill and, if they do, they're more likely to be Hoffenheims and Hulls rather than the traditional giants.

First off, a definition. Playing well does not mean simply getting results. You can win games by having better individuals, by running into opponents who are playing worse than you are or by simply being lucky. Or, indeed, some combination of the above.

Nor does playing well necessarily mean playing entertaining soccer (though the reverse is usually true). Some teams just aren't built to entertain and create dozens of chances. José Mourinho's Chelsea comes to mind as an obvious example. What matters -- in terms of "playing well" -- is executing well, being able to do what your manager wants you to do.

With those criteria in mind, let's take a quick tour around Europe, shall we?

In La Liga, Barcelona is the obvious exception. Real Madrid has served up a genuine nightmare, getting beaten home and away by an unimpressive Juventus and losing four of its last five domestically. Unai Emery has performed a small miracle in getting Valencia into second place, but it's worth remembering that this is the same team who lost at home to -- ahem! -- Sporting Gijón a month ago. Sevilla, Villarreal and Atlético Madrid have similarly been up-and-down all year.

Liverpool leads the way in the Premier League, despite drawing its last three home games against the likes of Hull, West Ham and Fulham. The Robbie Keane as second striker experiment looks dead and Rafa Benítez seems poised to rip up the script and go back to the 4-2-3-1. Chelsea has won just three of nine home games and Luiz Felipe Scolari -- who has been forced to fiddle with formations all season -- is coming under increasing pressure.

Manchester United looks a pale imitation of the fearsome attacking force that swept to the Premier League and Champions League double last season. Cristiano Ronaldo has been inconsistent, injuries have hit hard and some people are wondering whether accommodating Dimitar Berbatov was worth it, since it meant disassembling a system which worked well last year. As for Arsenal, Arsène Wenger's crew has slipped into fifth, paying the price for the lack of a holding midfielder and the absence of a cutting edge up front.

How about Serie A? Mourinho's Inter Milan may be in first place, but it has looked neither efficient nor entertaining. He has tried three different formations, and the two wingers he signed over the summer (Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma) are looking like duds. Losing to Panathinaikos (at home!) and Werder Bremen and scraping to an embarrassing 3-3 draw with Anorthosis Famagusta of Cyprus in the Champions League are evidence of a side that needs to find itself.

Over at Juventus, Claudio Ranieri's job was in jeopardy following a nightmare start and a reported players' revolt. Results have improved, but performances are still hit-or-miss. AC Milan, with no Champions League to worry about, is still a tactical and technical hodgepodge, nine points off the pace in the league. The fact that AS Roma sits in 10th place in Serie A tells its own story.

Over at Bayern Munich, Jürgen Klinsmann is slowly righting the ship, but who can forget the embarrassment suffered earlier this season, with the absurd three-man defense and the horrific 5-2 home defeat to Werder Bremen? Again, results are starting to roll in, but you get a sense it has more to do with individuals (mostly Franck Ribéry of late) stepping up to carry the team than any kind of rational game plan. As for Werder Bremen, the less said the better: out of the Champions League and nine points off the pace in the Bundesliga.

Lyon is, once again, top of the table in France, just like in the previous seven seasons -- except Claude Puel's crew has been somewhere between pedestrian and insipid. Oh, and did we mention that Lyon has managed just 22 goals in 18 games?

What else? How about FC Porto? Two points off the pace in Portugal after winning five of the last six titles (including the last three in a row). PSV Eindhoven, winners of the last four Dutch league titles? Fourth place in the Eredivisie, nine points behind, and bounced straight out of the Champions League.

I don't know if there's any good reason for all this, any logic which explains why Europe's elites have been -- top to bottom -- so bad this season. But I'm open to ideas. In the meantime, thank goodness for Barça.

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