FOUR clubs in the last eight of the UEFA Champions League is a welcome sight for the Premier League’s grandees, particularly as a couple of years ago, people were quick to write-off England after a string of sub-optimal seasons in Europe’s premier club competition.
Is it really so remarkable given the financial power of the Premier? You could say that, hitherto, underperformance has characterised English clubs’ record in the Champions League – since the European ban was lifted in 1990, England has won the competition just four times: Manchester United in 1999, Liverpool in 2005, United again in 2008 and Chelsea in 2012. In the same timeframe, Spanish clubs (to be precise, Real and Barca) have won 12 Champions League titles and Italy five.
Four clubs is something that only England could provide given the increasingly visible strength-in-depth of the Premier. Spain could, feasibly stretch to four, but realistically, you could expect Real, Barca and Atleti to make it that far. This season, the Madrid duo went out in the last 16, with both spurning the opportunity after winning their first legs.
If money determines football success, then the Premier is now the dominant force in European football. Using Deloitte’s Football Money League as the benchmark, six of the top clubs by revenue generation are from the Premier, and they include the four quarter-finalists: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham. In the top 30, there are 13 clubs from the Premier, a significant sign given that the other “big five” leagues account for 14 clubs between them.
But this season, English clubs have also surprised the rest of Europe with their confidence and durability. Tottenham easily disposed of one of the teams of the season, the Bundesliga’s Borussia Dortmund, and earlier came through a group that included PSV Eindhoven, Internazionale and Barcelona. Liverpool pulled off an excellent 3-1 win at Bayern Munich in the last 16 after being written-off following their 0-0 home draw with the German champions. Their group included PSG, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade.
Manchester United were also dismissed as contenders when they were beaten at home by PSG, but came back to win through. English teams, one or two years ago, would have struggled to get through these games, but the fact this trio of clubs won through indicates something has definitely changed. Perhaps they have become more savvy in Europe, but most likely, it is a reflection of the financial clout of English clubs that has finally tipped the balance.
Manchester City, in contrast, were expected to have a good European campaign this season. Their
7-0 win against Schalke made it a clean sweep for English clubs against German opposition in the round of 16. Nobody will fancy meeting Pep Guardiola’s rampant and goal-happy side in the quarter-final, not even Liverpool, who seemed to have sussed the City style last year.
Draws being draws, the likelihood of two English clubs meeting is now very high, but nobody really wants an all-Premier clash because over-familiarity will dilute the internationality of the occasion.
The last eight, even though Real and Bayern fell at the first knockout hurdle, does reflect the current power in European football. Of the eight, three are league leaders in their respective countries – Juventus, Barcelona and Manchester City. Three are in second place – Porto, Ajax and Liverpool – and Tottenham and Manchester United are in third and fifth place respectively in the Premier. Only Porto and Ajax are not in Deloitte’s top 30, but all are in the top 22 by UEFA club rankings.
There are six former winners of the competition remaining: Barcelona and Liverpool, five wins apiece; Ajax four wins; Manchester United three; Juventus and Porto two each. Manchester City and Tottenham, while winners of major European prizes, have never reached a Champions League final.
With the enormous TV money enjoyed by the Premier and the equally substantial wage bills, the Premier League’s time may have arrived in terms of major European success. But with Real and Bayern out of the way, the competition could still become the final Messi v Ronaldo shoot-out – the latter’s hat-trick against Atletico Madrid was a memorandum to the rest of Europe that he wants another stab at winning the title to justify his move to Turin. It is probable that if an English team wants to win the UEFA Champions League, Messi or Ronaldo will have to be beaten on the way to the Wanda Metropolitano. It’s also worth recalling that often, England produces unexpected winners – Nottingham Forest (1979 and 1980), Aston Villa (1981), Liverpool (2005) and Chelsea (2012).
The final in Madrid will now lack the awkward scenario of a local club playing in its home city, but Barca could still make it to extend Spain’s run beyond the five successive years that La Liga clubs have won the trophy.
Ultimately, the English Premier needs a winner to cement its claim to be the top European league rather than merely the most hyped competition. And for one or two English clubs, their position among the elite needs affirmation – Manchester City, for example, covet a Champions League victory to look their peers in the eye, not to mention their rivals across at Salford.