Are a competitive Premier League and English success in the Champions League mutually exclusive?

Image credit: Max Pixel

The Premiership’s status as Best League in the World™ has been undermined by a spate of dismal performances by English clubs on the big stage, that undisputed colosseum of domestic football, the UEFA Champions League. The hallowed ‘big ears’ of the European Cup is regarded by many as the most accurate barometer of supremacy in club football and it is therefore telling that in the last eight seasons only one Premier League side has been able to lift it – and even that was a triumph of sheer will-power as opposed to pure footballing ability as an injury-stricken Chelsea side overcame Bayern Munich and the odds in 2012.

 

The well documented gold rush of TV money over recent years has not done much to curb this decline; in fact, things have got steadily worse and even as bank balances rise, the competitiveness of English clubs seems to fall. As Arsenal make their annual departure at the round-of-16 stage, hit for another cricket score by Bayern Munich, memories of the old English giants – United under Sir Alex Ferguson, Liverpool in Istanbul, your Chelseas and Arsenals of the noughties – fade into the annals of history. Last year only Leicester, everybody’s favourite underdog, but underdog nonetheless, could get as far as the quarter final where they too were sent packing. Instead, it has been Spanish clubs who have monopolised the Champions League, and thus staked their claim as foremost footballing nation, with a staggering six out of the last eight finalists hailing from either Madrid or Barcelona.

 

However, this season there is evidence of improvement with the germinal first whispers of a shift, once more, towards England in the European power rankings. This season all five English teams in the competition find themselves perched comfortably at the top of each of their respective groups, and all five are likely to make the knock out stages with relative ease. Tottenham Hotspur’s defeat of reigning champions Real Madrid at their supposedly cursed home-away-from-home and going on to win this year’s token ‘group of death’, is demonstrative of a rejuvenated English cohort in international competition; Manchester City, in particular, are many pundit’s favourite to go all the way and ultimately return the crown to the British Isles next May.

 

So, what, we must ask ourselves, is behind this apparent upturn in fortunes? Previously, the failures of English clubs were blamed on both the lack of a Christmas break and, more significantly, the unique competitiveness of the Premier League. Casting their eyes across to Spain, where Barcelona and Real Madrid could reputedly bank on three points in every game that wasn’t El Classico, many commentators pointed to the fact that these clubs – or fellow European colossuses Bayern and Juventus in their predictable strolls to yet another Bundesliga or Serie A title – would go into a mid-week Champions League game well rested and with a crucial advantage over their comparatively exhausted English rivals.

 

By extension of this logic, perhaps the Premier League’s infamous anybody-can-beat-anybody mantra may be beginning to ring a little false and it is a reduction in the ferocity of Premier League games that is allowing clubs a more prominent emphasis on the Champions League. After all, Manchester City have dropped only two points in the Premier League this season, scoring a monstrous 44 goals across these 14 games, and this may be indicative of a general diminution of that competitiveness which would previously have sapped the strength of Premier League teams before they crossed the channel. Once again, we see an orthodox ‘big four’ of City, United, Chelsea and Arsenal pulling away in the Champions League qualifying positions and weekly Premier League games between these traditional powerhouses and ‘smaller’ opposition are looking increasingly cut and dry before a ball has even been kicked.

 

Could it be that gone are the days where a mid-table team like Leicester City could battle it out with the best, even come top of the division? And is this the reason behind a recent resurrection of English footballing might in the Champions League? It seems very possible. And, as a result, we as fans must weigh up what we believe to be the ideal configuration of English football: whether nominated champions like City, Spurs, United, Chelsea, Liverpool should be prioritised for a clear run in Europe in an international defence of the English game, or whether the best thing for English football is a more level playing field – a league where, as in seasons past, Palace can beat City and every three points has to be torn, battled, clawed away from an opponent and truly earned.

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