The British Empire has crumbled once more. No, we haven’t given up the Falklands or any other sheep filled isle, but our football clubs appear to be losing ground in Europe. Following today’s Champions League last 16 draw, the sensible punter would place his cash on all three British teams being knocked out. Manchester United have Real Madrid, faltering in the league and runners up in their Champions League group but Ronaldo and co. will be up for this one, Arsenal face last year’s losing finalists Bayern Munich and Celtic are met with the unenviable task of run away Serie A leaders Juventus. When you add the Europa League draw into the equation: Liverpool against Zenit, Newcastle travelling to Eastern Europe to play FC Metalist Kharkiv, Spurs playing regular Champions League participants Lyon and Chelsea, with arguably the easiest tie of all seven clubs, facing Sparta Prague, the outlook for British clubs is more bleak than that of a Mayan Calendar.
It’s reached the stage where this is almost accepted; British clubs aren’t expected to dominate in Europe anymore. Not like the good old days, although these days were still going strong just 4 years ago. Europe belonged to England in 2008 and 2009. Four English teams, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, in the last 16 in both years, four in the quarter finals in both years, three in the semi-finals in both years and two in the final in 08 with one in 09. When the fact two English teams, Arsenal and Liverpool in 08 and Chelsea and Liverpool in 09, played each other in the quarters in both seasons, this truly was a remarkable achievement. There was no denying it, the Premier League was the best league in the world. England’s clubs ruled supreme.
But things have changed. England still produces finalists, and even winners. In fact, between 2005 and 2012 only one final has been without an English club; seven finalists and three winners in that period makes for impressive reading. The current champions of Europe are English, as Chelsea fans continue to kindly remind us, but they were knocked out in the group stage this season, along with Man City, the champions of England. One team might find be able to graft its way through, but the dominance has vanished. It’s become so desperate we’re no longer talking about four English clubs in the quarter finals of the Champions League, but three British clubs through the group stage. Depending on who you listen to, either Spain’s league of superstars or Germany’s fan friendly league is now the best in the world. It certainly isn’t the Premier League.
Based on pure quality of football, I personally believe La Liga to be the best. First of all it has the players: Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Ronaldo, Di Maria, Ozil, Falcao, Llorente, Muniain, the list could go on and on. The league is littered with world class players. When you compare that list to the Matas, Silvas and Rooneys of the Premier League, they don’t even come close. The league also contains arguably the two biggest clubs in the world. The players, the staff, and the commercial aspects of Barcelona and Real Madrid are matched by few, if any at all. It’s also more competitive than it’s made out to be. Athelitco Madrid seem to have slotted themselves in between the Barcelona/Real Madrid monopoly and, whilst there’s no denying the excessive gaps between 1st and 2nd and 2nd and 3rd aren’t what you’d expect in a competitive league, the fact that Valencia, Bilbao and Sevilla currently sit 11th, 12th and 13th respectively suggests the also-rans of the league aren’t just there to make up the numbers. This season, La Liga provides four Champions League finalists: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia and Malaga. You would fancy all bar Valencia, who play PSG, to progress. Spain’s clubs have snatched the title from the English as the dominant nation in Europe. They’ve not even unleashed Athelitco Madrid on the Champions League, with the inform side attempting to defend their Europa League title, won in an all Spanish final against Athelitco Madrid, who aren’t playing in Europe this season. Quality in abundance.
Germany aren’t far behind though. Three teams, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke have made it through the group stage. Bayern are 9 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, Dortmund finishing top of the ‘Group of Champions’ that contained Madrid, Man City and Ajax, whilst Schalke have a habit or reaching this stage of the competition year in year out. Whilst not possessing the talents the Spanish, or even the English clubs (UEFA agrees, placing Germany third in its coefficient table), have, the quality is still world class, Bayern Munich have reached two finals in the past three years for example, and Germany’s time to dominate will come. The finances of German clubs are second to none and they’ll hold an advantage when UEFA fair play rules start to bite on the bigger spenders in the coming seasons. As a league itself, the much talked about fan experience is its trademark. Safe standing, cheap tickets and unbelievable atmospheres, they’re a model to top flight leagues around the world. It’s surely only a matter of time before this efficient management translates into European success.
I’d like to be proved wrong. I’d love for the British teams to progress, I’d love to see another English, or even British, winner of the Champions League this season. I can’t see it happening though. The quality of the competition is far too high and I can’t picture Manchester United or Arsenal pulling off several gritty victories in the style Chelsea did, whilst Celtic aren’t up to this level. It’s not as if the quality overall in the Premier League itself has got worse. It hasn’t. Nor has its competitiveness and entertainment value, which remain high. It’s just teams from Spain, Germany and even Eastern Europe like Shakhtar have improved hugely, whilst the big boys of the Premier League have lost some of their better players to age and foreign leagues and are yet to replace them to the same standard. Francis Coquelin is no Alex Song.