The Greater Good
Is the recent plight of English clubs in Europe necessarily a bad thing? by AtTheMatch
When presented the option, the neutral football supporter naturally tends to gravitate towards Barcelona in his or her leanings, and understandably so in no small part thanks to the Catalan club’s perceived footballing purity and holistic attraction. It must be suspected, though, that on the balmy evening of the 27th May 2009, the Blaugrana faithful would have encountered plenty of fair-weather fans ready to bolster their cause.
The event taking place that night was the UEFA Champions League final. The venue was Rome, and the opponents awaiting the recently-enthroned La Liga winners in the Stadio Olimpico were Manchester United. Not only could the English outfit boast of being current holders of their own domestic title - in congruence with Barcelona – for good measure the Red Devils were also reigning champions of Europe and indeed the world for that matter. United, with their deeply talented, multi-faceted squad spearheaded by the player at the time universally accepted as the best of his craft. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had lifted the European Cup exactly a year previously in Moscow in 2008. In that final in the Russian capital, United of course defeated fellow English side Chelsea on penalties in a dramatic early-hours (Russian time) climax. That same season, Chelsea had eliminated Liverpool in the semi-finals, a Liverpool team who had knocked out Arsenal a round earlier. Fast forward a year to the season which the Rome final bookended, and the history books will inform that United had booked their place in the final with home and away victories over Arsenal in the semis. Chelsea had taken care of Liverpool once again that season and it would have the same contingent in the Eternal City in 2009 as had been present in the Whitestone a year earlier had it not been for Andres Iniesta’s last-minute intervention at Stamford Bridge in the final throes of the semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona. For a couple of years leading up to Iniesta’s wonder strike which knocked out the West London club at the semi-final stage, English clubs had been nigh on invincible in Europe’s top club competition. The only way, it seemed, to eliminate one of them was for another English club to do so.
The Premier League had provided six of the ten Champions League finalists between 2005 and 2009. The level of dominance from clubs on these shores in Europe’s flagship tournament was beginning to mirror the staggering amount of success enjoyed – enjoyed at least for the English, endured for everyone else - in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That particular juggernaut only came to a juddering halt due to the Heysel Tragedy of 1985 which wiped English clubs out of relevance in the European Cup for the best part of a decade, thus ruining their winning momentum. It seemed as if that momentum had returned at the end of the 2000s. No wonder the neutrals – and probably most of Europe – were hankering for a Barca win in Rome. Iniesta, Lionel Messi et al duly obliged with a 2-0 win, La Liga clubs would go on to become the dominant contingent in the Champions League over the next few years and England has only had a club lift the trophy with the big ears once since, in the shape of Chelsea’s fortuitous victory in 2012.
Surely though, the dominance could not have been broken by the simple act of winning one football match. That would be a correct assumption. Events percolating around the end of the last decade however would preclude a symbolic changing of the guard in the battle for European supremacy. The Rome final would be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last game for United, the then-Ballon D’or holder leaving the Premier League to strengthen La Liga rivals. Internal politics and personnel issues would weaken Liverpool, opening the door for a rejuvenated Tottenham Hotspur and a newly-moneyed Manchester City to take a pew at Europe’s top table. United have also spent time out of the Champions League recently. Therein may lay the answer to England’s woes in Europe. The Premier League, at the very top, is far more a competitive league than its direct counterparts. We can all be fairly assured who will win the Bundesliga and Ligue Un. The same club have won Serie A for the last four seasons. Only two clubs realistically have a chance of winning La Liga, that Atletico Madrid scooped the top prize in 2014 is nothing short of miraculous. Otherwise Barcelona and Real Madrid have divvied out the top honours in Spain between themselves for the last ten years. In England, no club has retained the league title since United back in 2009. Chelsea do not look like replicating the feat this season. The same four clubs represented England in the Champions’ League group stages every year between 2004 and 2010. In the six years since, six clubs have done so. Back in the halcyon days of 2005-09, you could safely assume that Manchester United and Chelsea would challenge for the title, and Arsenal and Liverpool would vie for third and fourth positions. That domestic stability would empower the English clubs positions in Europe, as they could plan ahead stealthily, safe in the knowledge that their participation in the Champions League was assured for the foreseeable future. It was a similar privilege enjoyed by the likes of Bayern Munich, PSG, Real and Barcelona today. These teams look the most dominant in Europe today as they do not have to fight hard for victories domestically week in, week out like the English clubs do nowadays. Six clubs in our league yearn for Champions League football each season. The title race and battle for top four positioning is enthralling each season, and the price we pay for such a dramatic and compelling league seems to be a drop in quality from our clubs in Europe.
Click here to stay up to date with AtTheMatch