7 Best Football Teams Outside the Top 5 Leagues

 
 
A Palmeiras logo covers the fans during the match between Palmeiras and Sport for the Brazilian Series B 2013 at Pacaembu stadium on September 21, 2013 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

I did a video during the 2017-18 season on the 7 best players outside of the top 5 leagues, and it may be worth doing an updated version of that video at some point since I suspect it would be a rather different looking seven now. That’s for another time though, since today's video is all about clubs, and one of our subscribers asked if I would share my views on the 7 best clubs outside of the top 5 leagues.

To be clear, when I say the top 5 leagues, that isn’t my opinion. I am referring, as people often do, to the top 5 leagues according to UEFA’s coefficients. They are the Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1, the top flights of English, German, Spanish, Italian and French football. As for determining who is the best outside those five divisions, this isn’t a historic ranking. So the great Santos side of Zito and Pele have no bearing on Santos’ ranking in this seven now, just as Red Star Belgrade’s European Cup win has no impact on theirs. If all non-top 5 league clubs were in one big league right now, these are the seven I think are the strongest and - as such - would fare the best.

Here are my views on the 7 best clubs outside of the top 5 leagues:

7. Palmeiras

Kick-starting this seven just ahead of their fellow Brazilians like Flamengo and Sao Paulo, Palmeiras are the best club in Brazil right now as far as I’m concerned. That isn’t entirely reflected in this seasons league table, where Palmeiras narrowly trail Flamengo, but the club won the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A last season and personally I wouldn’t bet against them replicating that feat this season. Ten league titles makes Palmeiras the most successful club in the history of the Campeonato Brasileiro, and they have an excellent squad right now.

It can be tricky for South American clubs to hang onto their star players nowadays, with promising youngsters often snapped up and lured away from the continent by higher salaries and increased worldwide exposure in Europe. Palmeiras have assembled a really talented squad over the last few years though, laced with quality and depth. Among the best known are former Chelsea star Ramires, ex-Galatasaray enforcer Felipe Melo and one-time AC Milan striker Luiz Adriano. The likes of Dudu on either flank or through the middle, Marcos Rocha at right-back and Paraguayan international centre-back Gustavo Gomez are the real stars of this side though.

Palmeiras went through a bit of a sticky period between July and August of this year, but they’re back to winning ways now, and they’ve shown themselves to be a side capable of putting together sensational runs of form. This seven is very European heavy, and I would defend that, but Palmeiras deserve their place.

6. Shakhtar Donetsk

A FC Shakhtar fan cheers during the UEFA Champions League playoff football match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Rapid Wien at Arena Lviv Stadium in Lviv on August 25, 2015. AFP PHOTOA FC Shakhtar fan cheers during the UEFA Champions League playoff football match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Rapid Wien at Arena Lviv Stadium in Lviv on August 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO

The dominant force in Ukrainian football over the last decade, reigning supreme over their old foes Dynamo Kyiv, Shakhtar Donetsk have won eight of the last ten Ukrainian Premier League titles. Like Brazilian clubs, and all clubs outside of the top five leagues really, Shakhtar have historically struggled to keep hold of their star performers. The likes of Fernandinho, Willian and Douglas Costa have all starred for the Miners before moving on for big money, and you will notice that all three of those players are Brazilian. Shakhtar have often acted as the intermediary for promising Brazilian players between the domestic game in Brazil and the apex of the European game with a Champions League side.

Shakhtar themselves are in the Champions League this season, for the 21st consecutive season, in a group with Manchester City, Atalanta and Dinamo Zagreb. Their current squad, as we have come to expect with Shakhar, is dominated by Ukrainian internationals and Brazilians who are on the fringes of international selection. Wide man Marlos, for example, accepted a call-up from Ukraine in 2017 having been supposedly close to selection for Brazil for years. Shakhtar captain and fellow star man Taison is a full Brazilian international, whilst the likes of Dentinho and Dodo represented the country at youth level.

In addition to their South American flair, not to fall into the trap of national stereotypes too much, Shakhtar also have some outstanding domestic talent such as long-time servant Taras Stepanenko and recent recruit Yevhen Konoplyanka. No one in Ukraine is anywhere near to Shakhar’s standards, and I suspect they would top the Russian Premier League table too. They’re a seriously talented side, and they’d be a threat in the Champions League if they didn’t routinely have to sell their star men.

5. Galatasaray

Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray are obviously regarded as the big three in Turkish football, and Galatasaray are the pick of the bunch in my mind right now. They topped the Turkish Super Lig last season, and made some shrewd moves in the transfer market over the summer. That gave them automatic qualification to the Champions League, where they were drawn alongside PSG, Club Brugge and Real Madrid in Group A. Galatasaray have considerable pedigree in their side from one to eleven, with Fernando Muslera in goal, Mariano in defence, Steven Nzonzi in midfield and Radamel Falcao up top.

Throw in some familiar faces like Younes Belhanda, Ryan Babel and Yuto Nagatomo, among others, and you’re left with the makings of a really decent side. Galatasaray haven’t traditionally had a problem with retaining their best players, but more commonly failing to produce or develop really high quality players of the calibre required to challenge at the top end of European competition. Nevertheless, they’re a very good team, and they could give the likes of PSG and Real Madrid some scares this season.

4. PSV

Flags or banners with the PSV logo prior to the Eredivisie match between PSV and ADO Den Haag at Philips Stadion on April 21, 2019 in Eindhoven, Netherlands.Flags or banners with the PSV logo prior to the Eredivisie match between PSV and ADO Den Haag at Philips Stadion on April 21, 2019 in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

As with Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray in Turkey, the Netherlands has a big three of its own, namely Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV. Feyenoord have been a long way short of their two rivals ever since their title in 2016-17, but PSV have been just about neck-and-neck with an Ajax side that has won plaudits across Europe in recent times. PSV won the Eredivisie in 2017-18, they trailed Ajax by just three points last season and they are joint top of the division at the time of this recording this season too.

They went out to Basel on away goals in qualifying for this seasons Champions League, but will expect to top Group D in the Europa League, alongside LASK of Austria, Sporting from Portugal and Norwegian outfit Rosenborg. Unlike Galatasaray, PSV haven’t struggled to churn out talent, with one of the best academies in the Netherlands.

They lost two huge players in the forms of Hirving Lozano and Luuk de Jong to Napoli and Sevilla over the summer, but still have real talent in their ranks. Managed by Dutch great Mark van Bommel, PSV have lost top players before and always bounced back, and that looks to be the case once again this season.

3. Porto

Just like in Turkey and in the Netherlands, there is a very established hierarchy in Portuguese football, with Sporting, Porto and Benfica referred to as the country’s ‘Big Three’. Since the first Primeira Liga season back in 1934-35, these three have won every league title barring two. In addition to their 28 Primeira Liga titles, Porto have also won the European Cup / Champions League twice, the UEFA Cup / Europa League twice and the Intercontinental Cup twice.

That’s enough about past glories though, since this seven is all about the here and now. Porto finished second in the Primeira Liga last season, two points behind Benfica, having won the league in 2018. They’ve started this season in a similar vein, although they were knocked out of the Champions League by FC Krasnodar, whose supporters - if there are any of them watching - may feel slightly aggrieved that they don’t feature in this seven. Porto fell victim to the away goal rule though, and I don’t believe Krasnodar are a superior side to them in general.

This is the first season in the last four that Porto won’t have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League, but they’ll fancy their chances of going on a good run in the Europa League. Managed by former star Sergio Conceicao, the Porto squad boasts established veterans of the European game like Pepe and Iker Casillas, a brilliant left-back in the form of Alex Telles, and a prolific strike partnership made up of Vincent Aboubakar and Moussa Marega.

2. Benfica

Benfica's coach Rui Vitoria walks past Benfica's logo as he arrives for a training session at Benfica's training camp in Seixal, outskirts of Lisbon, on December 7, 2015 on the eve of the...Benfica's coach Rui Vitoria walks past Benfica's logo as he arrives for a training session at Benfica's training camp in Seixal, outskirts of Lisbon, on December 7, 2015 on the eve of the...

Staying in Portugal in second place, Benfica are the most successful of Portugal’s big three, having won a record 37 league titles, 26 Taca de Portugal’s and 21 other trophies, including being crowned European champions twice during the Eusebio era in the early 1960’s. Back to the present day, there isn’t a great deal between Porto and Benfica right now, but Benfica did win the league last season and if I had to back one of them to win it this season it would be the Eagles again.

Benfica have an excellent recruitment policy that has seen them develop some outstanding players and make a lot of money in the process in recent years. Right now they have Serbian international Ljubomir Fejsa, who is a bit like Nemanja Matic before his legs went, in holding midfield, the fantastic Pizzi playing out wide or through the middle and Swiss international Haris Seferovic who has been transformed into a relentless goal scorer in Lisbon, and now looks more than capable of filling the void vacated by Jonas’ retirement.

Benfica are a really strong side, they’ve won five of the last six Primeira Liga titles and they haven’t finished outside of the top two in more than a decade. They haven’t quite managed to replicate that success on the European stage over the same period, although they have reached the Europa League final twice and the semi-finals once, just failing to get over the line.

0. Honourable Mentions

This was a horrible seven to put together and there are plenty of clubs who would be well within their rights to feel aggrieved at not featuring. Whilst Palmeiras feature, no other South or North American clubs did, despite the fact that there are some real titans out there. The likes of River Plate, Boca Juniors and Club America, in addition to the Brazilian sides I have already mentioned, are all giants of the world game and footballing institutions. All also have very good sides right now, particularly Boca I would say who have made an impressive start to the season, but not quite as strong as the sides featured in the seven in my humble opinion.

Looking at the 2019-20 Champions League, Dinamo Zagreb must be wondering how I didn’t find a place for them. They comfortably qualified for the tournament this season, and won their opening group game 4-0 against Atalanta, with some real gems like Dani Olmo, Mario Gavranovic and Mislav Orisic in forward areas. Russian sides like Lokomotiv Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow were all part of my thinking, as were Czech champions Slavia Prague.

Other sides who came close but didn’t quite make the cut include the likes of Sporting Clube de Portugal, Besiktas and RB Salzburg. Ultimately, all missed out for the plain and simple reason that I consider the seven I picked to be slightly stronger. Undoubtedly some people will disagree. Give us a like if you’re feeling kind and let us know your thoughts in the comments section, and here is your top spot…

1. Ajax

A general view of the stadium and Ajax logo on the top of the bench in the Friends Arena on May 23, 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. Ajax Amsterdam face Manchester United in 2016A general view of the stadium and Ajax logo on the top of the bench in the Friends Arena on May 23, 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. Ajax Amsterdam face Manchester United in 2016

I often worry about seeming a little bit too reactionary on this channel. Football fans have this habit of fickleness, and I’m always keen to resist it. One season Luka Modric is better than Messi, the next season he’s a pound shop Scott McTominay. It all gets a bit daft. Now Ajax obviously received a lot of plaudits last season, and rightly so, as they won the Eredivisie, reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and only narrowly fell to Tottenham when they got there. The Dutch outfit saw of the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus in a tough route to the semis, playing a bold and intricate style of play that takes some guts as well as plenty of technical ability.

They were significantly weakened this summer, most notably losing Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona and Matthijs de Ligt to Juventus, but the likes of Maximilian Wober, Kasper Dolberg and Lasse Schone made less well-documented departures as well. Ajax are a club who, as things stand, will always lose their outstanding players to bigger and more lucrative leagues. Any club would be weakened by losing players of that calibre, but Ajax invest well and they have quite probably the finest academy in all of world football.

The likes of Kik Pierie, Razvan Marin, Lisandro Martinez and Edson Alvarez were brought into the Johan Cruyff Arena this summer, all young, all immensely talented and all potential £50+ million sales for the club one day. There was also the marquee arrival of Dutch international Quincy Promes, in addition to the likes of Dusan Tadic, Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech who are all still at the club. Few clubs could cope with the summer that Ajax just had, but Ajax are one of the few, and they’re the best team outside of the top five leagues right now as far as I’m concerned.

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