with Nick Pulford
There are seven weeks until the end of 2007, so it may seem a little early for one of those end-of-year quizzes, but this column will start the ball rolling anyway. Question: since the start of 2007, judged on points per game in their domestic leagues, name the 10 most successful teams of the year in the top five European leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France). Answer: at the end of this column.
Two of the more surprising names in the top 10 will become apparent before the end of this column, however. Not only are those two teams among the most in-form in Europe, and therefore worthy of the greatest respect from punters, but their success is a rebuttal of the notion that big money and player power cannot be challenged at the top level.
Villarreal have had a remarkable rise in Spain under the direction of club president Fernando Roig, and more particularly under the astute coaching of Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean's talent has not gone unnoticed, with Chelsea reportedly interested in taking him to Stamford Bridge.
And no wonder, because Pellegrini has performed the difficult feat of building one successful team at Villarreal around the mesmeric skills of Juan Roman Riquelme, and then dismantling that team and constructing another that promises to be even more successful.
Riquelme in his pomp was probably the most important player for any top team in Europe, driving Villarreal to the Champions League semi-finals in 2005 - his influence was clear in the stats that showed Villarreal to be a top-four team in Spain when he played, but a bottom-four team when he didn't.
Then, at the end of 2006, it all went sour. Riquelme fell out with the club and was sent back to his native Argentina on loan at Boca Juniors. He hasn't been sold, but Villarreal have insisted there is no way back for Riquelme - a remarkable stance in these days of inflated egos and inflated transfer fees.
Pellegrini, meanwhile, got on with the job of not only coping without Riquelme, but building something better. The Chilean's success is evident in Villarreal's 2007 league record - won 20, drawn four, lost nine. That is an average of 1.94 points per game, bettered in Spain only by reigning champions Real Madrid, and over the course of an entire league campaign that average would be good enough in most seasons for second place in La Liga.
That confirms Villarreal, currently one point behind leaders Real in the La Liga standings, as serious title contenders. Robert Pires is probably their key player now (Villarreal have won 14 of the 17 games in which he has started since recovering from a serious knee injury) but Pellegrini, like Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, emphasises the club and team ethic. That is why there has been no looking back at Riquelme, only looking forward.
So, in that list of the most successful European clubs of 2007, did you come up with a name from the Bundesliga? Bayern Munich perhaps, or reigning champions Stuttgart, whose remarkable run in the second half of last season carried them to the title?
Well, neither of those teams ranks in the top 10, but one Bundesliga team does, and that is Hamburg. At the start of 2007, Hamburg were second-bottom of the Bundesliga with 13 points from 17 matches, but since then they have accumulated 58 points from 29 games at a rate of exactly two points per game. That outstrips Bayern Munich's 1.90 points per game, even though it is Bayern who have had most of the headlines this season for their exciting resurgence under Ottmar Hitzfeld.
Huub Stevens was appointed Hamburg coach in the same week that Hitzfeld returned to Bayern soon after last season's winter break, and the Dutchman has gone about his task at Hamburg with quiet efficiency. The northerners are only two points behind Bayern in the table and, like Villarreal in Spain, are serious title contenders.
Hamburg's resurgence bears some similarities to Villarreal's story, particularly in standing firm against the demands of their best player. Rafael van der Vaart was angling for a move to Valencia in the summer, but he is contracted to Hamburg until 2010 and the German club refused to capitulate.
To Van der Vaart's credit, he did not sulk and has been Hamburg's best player this season, scoring seven goals in nine appearances. There are few players at top European clubs whose presence is more important to his team's fortunes - with Van der Vaart in the team, Hamburg average 1.92 points per game; without him, that drops to 1.37. He is particularly important on the road, where Hamburg have won 17 out of 26 with him in the starting line-up (averaging 2.08 points per game), and he will hold the key to their chances at Schalke tonight. Having scored in 13 out of 24 appearances since Stevens took charge, Van der Vaart is also one of the better bets for first goalscorer.
And the top 10 teams in Europe in 2007 are (in ascending order): Lyon, Villarreal, Barcelona, Hamburg, Fiorentina, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Manchester United and Inter Milan.
Hours between Bayern Munich's Uefa Cup tie on Thursday and today's visit to Stuttgart. The leaders have the class to cope with the task: 43
Big shoes to fill
Wins out of 44 for Tottenham at home to non big four teams under Martin Jol, a success rate that Juande Ramos seeks to maintain against Wigan: 32
In black and white
Visits to north-east rivals Sunderland without defeat for Newcastle since 1980: 11
Juve to feed on minnows
Points out of a possible 21 for Juventus against teams outside the top five in Serie A. They can add to their tally: 18
FORM FACT: Arsenal have the top-scoring attack in the Premier League with 24 goals in 11 matches. The Gunners visit Reading, who have the joint-worst defence with 26 goals conceded in 12 games
Wins out of 16 at home for Villarreal in 2007. Back them for another victory against Sevilla: 10
SHORTLIST: Bayern Munich, Ipswich, Stoke, Sochaux, Juventus, Bolton, Espanyol, Villarreal
BEST BET: $100 Sochaux (HW, Sat), Juventus (AW, Sun), Espanyol (HW, Sun), Villarreal (HW, Sun). Last week: Three winning bets out of eight.
FIXTURES: Today Sunderland v Newcastle Derby County v West Ham Liverpool v Fulham Tomorrow Birmingham v Aston Villa Chelsea v Everton Bolton v Middlesbrough Man United v Blackburn Tottenham v Wigan Portsmouth v Man City