FOR some years, two of the world’s steroid-induced clubs (not literally, before the complaints come flooding in) have hankered to become part of the European elite. They’ve flickered briefly on the biggest stage, but winning the UEFA Champions League represents the tallest hurdle for any club. Chelsea, who that started the inflated investment cycle in 2003, won the competition in 2012, but in over 20 years, they have been the only new winner of Europe’s premier prize.
Of the top 20 clubs in Deloitte’s Football Money League, only 10 have won the European Cup/UEFA Champions League. In the top 10, three have yet to lift this trophy – Manchester City, Paris St. Germain and Arsenal. Past winners outside the current elite include the likes of Benfica and Porto from Portugal, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa from England, the Dutch trio of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV, Celtic of Scotland, Marseille from France, Germany’s Hamburg and the eastern European duo of Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest.
Breaking into the winners enclosure in Europe is tough. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the competition provided at least five new winners per decade. In the 1990s, this dropped to four (Red Star, Barcelona, Marseille and Dortmund) while the 21st century has produced just one – Chelsea.
This reflects the concentration of power in Europe and the expansion of the Champions League, which has not made the competition more open, but has ensured that the same clubs (with all their wealth and power) are permanent fixtures in the latter stages each season.
Both PSG and Manchester City have built squads that are not merely fighting on the domestic front (certainly, PSG do not need to spend as much as they have to secure the Ligue 1 title), but also to become the best in Europe.
Over the past three transfer windows, PSG and Manchester City have spent around half a billion pounds between them, making them the biggest spenders in world football. When you compare that to the expenditure of their chief rivals, it has been clear that both clubs have stepped-up their drive to move into the very top bracket. Real Madrid have spent around EUR 160m in three seasons, Barcelona approximately EUR 360m.
PSG have cemented their position at the forefront of French football, but they temporarily lost their crown in 2016-17 to Monaco, which underlined how much influence that Zlatan Ibrahimovic had on the team. While some people may have felt that PSG could withstand his departure and still reign supreme in Ligue 1, they were mistaken. That jolt to their status undoubtedly played its part in their dogged pursuit of Neymar and Mbappe in the summer. No other club would have had the audacity to spend as much on Neymar – yet it should be remembered that the club is owned by Qatar and this country of 2.7 million people has already rocked football once by winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Like PSG, they crave acceptance.
PSG’s owners will not be satisfied until they land the Champions League and finish ahead of Barca, Real and Bayern. In 2016-17, it looked, at one stage, as if they might actually go all the way after beating Barcelona in the first leg of the round of 16. Their capitulation in the second leg, losing 6-1 in the Nou Camp, suggested they were some way off claiming a place among the uber clubs of Europe. Their time may now be approaching, judging by their form this season.
Having Neymar and Cavani, and the emerging talent of Mbappe, gives PSG an edge they didn’t have before. What comes next? Their current coach, Unai Emery, will possibly be replaced in a year or two, sooner if the UCL doesn’t arrive this season, and PSG’s next move will be to try and lure Pep Guardiola or a comparable coach to the 16th arrrondissement. Presumably, more big names will be snared as PSG continue to seek greater credibility and the resources to become Europe’s top club.
In the UCL, PSG have netted 17 goals in four group games and they’ve yet to concede a goal. Although Celtic and Anderlecht were both hit for five, Bayern Munich have also been beaten 3-0 – if you needed a result that indicated progress, then surely it was this victory at the end of September.
Yet Emery and some critics believe that PSG’s team still lacks balance. Mbappe’s form has been patchy and there are speculative reports that Neymar regrets moving to Paris. They’re not doing badly for a team in “transition” (Emery’s words): nine wins and two draws, 34 goals scored, eight conceded in Ligue 1 and an impressive start to the European project.
It’s a similar tale for Manchester City, who spent over £ 200m in the last transfer window, including the signing of Monaco duo Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva, as well as Real Madrid’s Danilo and Tottenham’s Kyle Walker. They’ve supposedly tightened up their porous defence and they’re scoring goals for fun, 35 in 10 games, drawing ridiculous comparison’s with prolific Victorians Everton (1894-95).
This was Guardiola year two and there was pressure at the start of the campaign for City to lift a big prize in 2017-18. PSG have, mostly, had things their own way since Qatari money was injected into the club, but City have not been as successful as perhaps their owners might have anticipated. There’s a big difference here, the Premier is very competitive compared to Ligue 1, La Liga and the Bundesliga in that there are more teams capable of winning the title. City may be cash-rich, but so too are Chelsea, and the level of wealth across the league makes it more difficult for any one team to dominate in the way that PSG, Bayern and Juventus have in their respective leagues.
There is a growing feeling that City have their best squad since Sheikh Mansour took over the club and that Guardiola’s methods are now bearing fruit. Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri, ahead of the UEFA Champions League tie with City, called them “the best team in Europe with the best coach in Europe.”
Certainly, they seem to have the strongest squad in the English Premier, with goals coming from across the team – Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus are all scoring regularly. They’ve already had 10 players on the scoresheet this season. And then there’s Kevin De Bruyne, who has scored twice but has assisted eight times. City are not only winning, they’re a joy to watch.
City’s form in Europe has been good in a group that is not easy. They won comfortably at Feyenoord but they’ve had to contend with Italian league leaders Napoli and Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk. They will already be looking to the New Year and the knockout stages.
With Real Madrid struggling to hit their best form and Bayern stuttering at times, this could be the season that a new contender or two comes to the fore. PSG and Manchester City might just have their best chance of rising to the top. Regardless of your views on inflated investment and its impact on the broader game, European football could do with a new champion.