After months spent yo-yoing with Manchester United, our final rankings place Barcelona at the undisputed height of European football. On a neutral ground, with competent officiating, the Catalans devastated the English champs, the scoreline-- just 2-0-- belying United's epic capitulation. As for the rest, our panel mostly recognized the champions of Europe's foremost leagues (sorry Standard Liege, not a vote forya), so please welcome German legends Wolfsburg and French giants Bordeaux to our final account of the season that was...
1) Barcelona - 1.00 (1st, 1.38)
Funny to think how close Barca came to bowing out at Stamford Bridge. If Iniesta pokes that ball just a bit off point, we're probably talking about United's second straight title.. or worse, Chelsea's first ever. It wouldn't have taken much. There would have been no Guardiola Gladiator video, no Catalan midfield majesty, and no Drunk Messi. One shudders at the thought.
So raise a glass to the Barcelona class of 2009... Blau-grana al vent, un crit valent, Tenim un nom, el sap tothom: Barça! Barça! Baaarça!!!!
2) Manchester United - 2.09 (2nd, 1.63)
Shame really that this year's edition will be remembered by many for their listless performance in Rome. In a way it's a credit to United that a season in which they've won three trophies, including the league, might still leave a bad taste in the mouths of the team, supporters, and pundits. With Tevez on his way out and Ronaldo feeding the boss to the lions and Berbatov being Berbatov and Rooney being inconsistent as ever and Rio getting older and the Old Guys getting older and Hargreaves career in doubt, it's a mystery what United will look like next year. Sadly or not, when all's said and done, they'll probably look like Champions again.
T-3) Chelsea - 3.55 (3rd, 3.88)
A lovely finish to the season for the Chelsea boys. Whereas the finale was a stain on United's year, the Blues were able to wrap up an uneven campaign in a pretty yellow bow-- kind of like how Lampard tied up the Everton defense on his shocking FA Cup winner. But even Frankie Boy's left-footed magic can't overshadow the Scolari disaster and that fateful evening at Stamford Bridge. The first part they were right to correct as soon as they did, the only regret being that they didn't begin the season with The Goose. It's fair to say they'd have finished no worse than second in the league if Hiddink had managed a full season. As for the Barcelona game, let's just say there were bad calls in both directions, and even if Chelsea should have had a PK here or there, the game was STILL there to be won. The actions of the players during (Ballack!) and after (Drogba!) the game make you wonder if this group will ever have the stones to bring home trophies on a consistent basis.
T-3) Liverpool - 3.55 (4th, 4.13)
The most impressive second-place side in recent memory.
A thoroughly weird season for Liverpool ended with a meaningless beatdown on Spurs, to whom Liverpool returned their prized summer signing not six months after he arrived. Such a piece of mismanagement as the Keane transfer saga could have derailed a lesser side, but Liverpool made a habit of sticking around to the end. But their refusal to die was only matched by their refusal to thrive. The Reds drew seven of ten matches from December to February, right when United were down and tired from a hopelessly clogged calendar. In the end, we'll have to look back on Rafa's odd impression of Martin Luther and the 95 Theses and wonder if that was the moment Liverpool's title drought was assured one more, dry year.
5) Inter Milan - 5.00 (8th, 8.8)
Jose Mourinho's new club were almost always in the middle third of our top ten. Oddly or not, had we done this last year, we probably could have said the same thing of Roberto Mancini's club. Inter cruised to the Scudetto, their fourth straight if you count 2006, when Juventus were scandalized and relegated. Their best chance for a special season was extinguished at Old Trafford, when they were thoroughly outclassed by a United side that might have been on their heels. They wouldn't be the last to almost beat the European champs, and in the process of failing to do so, one has to wonder if Zlatan's magic just doesn't translate to the quicker Champions League competition. Though largely out of the early rumor mill, it will be interesting to see which old favorites Mourinho can prise away from the English game. (If he wants Jermaine Jenas, I'll drive him to Milan myself. Muntari can come back to London with me...)
6) Wolfsburg - 12.91 (unranked)
Remember when that team, the Hoff, were ruling the German roost? Seems like years ago. The UF faves drifted after losing their Serbian striking sensation to injury during the winter break. But even with Ibisevic healthy, you have to doubt they had the depth to sustain their incredible first half form. With the Hoff faded and Bayern too stuck up in their own glory to let the manager get on with it and win them a title, it all came down to the German Wolves, who won their final five matches by a combined score of 21-2. In such a tight season, undoubtedly the most closely contested among the big Euro leagues, Wolfsburg finished on a big high.
7) Arsenal - 13 (5th, 4.88)
If we gave a trophy to the Seventh Placed Side in our end-of-the-year Power Poll, then Arsenal would have finished this season with their first trophy since 2005. Alas, we do not. And so the Gooners mark another year as the most influential and beautiful and unfulfilled club side in Europe. The finest performance by an Arsenal player in 2008-09 came from Theo Walcott, who at the time of his display was proudly wearing an England shirt. Even then, there is that little Arshavin fella-- who might dispute my claim from a sentence before-- and his epic display at Anfield on April 21. Now if Wenger can only shush his mangy todger and sign some men to play his byootiful game... Naaaah, he'll prob just sell Cesc to Barcelona and use the proceeds to snatch up all the Bar Mitzvah boys in Europe.
8) AZ Alkmaar - 13.09 (7th, 8.13)
Alkmaar won their first Eredivisie title in 27 years, their first trophy of any kind in 26, and for their troubles, they lost manager Louis van Gaal to title-starved Bayern. The Dutch side was a staple in this list for much of the season, largely due to their incredible six-month unbeaten run. They went from September 13, 2008 to April 18, 2009, without losing a league game. The champs only took four points from their last four matches, but the work had been done-- mighty Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord had all taken a back seat to the club with a home capacity of just 17,150.
9) Bordeaux - 13.27 (unranked)
It took all 38 matches, but Les Girondins finally clinched the Ligue title with a 1-0 win over Caen at the weekend, along the way ending Lyon's bid for an eighth straight. So, errrr, standby for the NY Kid's impassioned celebration of the new French champions, coming soon to the comments section located just below!
10) Porto - 13.45 (10th, 13.45)
Rounding out our final edition are the Portuguese champions. They notched a domestic double and earned their sixth league title in seven seasons. Most remarkable though was their Champions League assault on Manchester United. They held on for a 1-1 draw at the Theatre of Dreams, then looked as likely as anyone to knock United off in the return fixture. In the end, it was Ronaldo's strike-- the best all year?-- that did them in. But the Dragons' aggression earned our respect. Their form from the first kick means they were the tenth best team in Europe for 2008-2009.