This was written after both Manchester clubs failed to qualify from the Champions League group stage in the 2011-12 season…
English football’s fall from grace on the European stage was all but confirmed last Wednesday as the two leading sides in the Premier League – Manchester City and Manchester United – both crashed out of the Champions League at the first hurdle.
It is only three years since the Champions League final was an all-English affair; Chelsea and Manchester United contested that finale in Moscow and were undeniably amongst the elite of European football, but in 2011/12 it is a much different story.
In the period from 2004-2009 English football enjoyed prolonged success in European football’s premier club competition, something it had not done since the first-half of the 1980s. Chelsea reached the semi-finals in 2004, but it was Liverpool’s remarkable success in 2005 which anticipated the pre-eminence of English clubs in this period.
Between 2007 and 2009 there were three English clubs in the semi-finals stages each season, whilst at least one English club contested a final in five consecutive seasons between 2005 and 2009. Since 2010 there has been just one English semi-finalist/finalist – Manchester United in last season’s competition. Yet despite this period of English excellence, only Liverpool in 2005 and Manchester United in 2008 claimed old ‘Big Ears’.
In 2012 there will stand just two Premier League clubs in the last 16 – Chelsea and Arsenal, neither of whom have won the Champions League and are unlikely to this season – the lowest number since 1999-2000, in the days before four Premier League entrants in the Champions League.
Since 2009 England’s elite clubs have been shrinking under the burgeoning shadow emanating from Spain. Every top team in Europe aspires to play like Barcelona, but it was the re-emergence of Real Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’ transfer policy that summer which pre-empted the shift in continental dominance to the Iberian peninsula.
As Cristiano Ronaldo fulfilled his life-long dream of pulling on a white shirt at the Bernabeu, so European supremacy shifted from England to Spain. The most expensive footballer in history switched allegiances from English to Spanish football, which precluded a summer of extremely lavish spending from the nine-time European champions and left the rest of Europe quivering.
The departure of the Portuguese represented a significant and symbolic exchange; since this transfer the Premier League’s elite has struggled to compete with the rest. This month Four Four Two released its countdown of the best 100 players in the world; it is of little surprise that seven of the top ten ply their trade in Spain, including the top five – David Villa, Iniesta, Xavi, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Liverpool, England’s most consistent European performer in this period, have fallen away; Chelsea’s squad has aged and is reaching a transitionary stage; Arsenal have flattered to deceive whilst Manchester United had remained functional and assured up until the departures of their most experienced players last summer. Manchester City, the Premier League’s nouveaux riches, struggled this season in a difficult group but will undoubtedly challenge the European elite soon enough, whilst Tottenham Hotspur failed last season to marry Champions League adventure with domestic consistency.
As much as Real Madrid remain the historical benchmark, it is Barcelona who have ignited the imaginations of football fans across the continent, as three European Cups triumphs in six seasons, achieved in such an aesthetically pleasing style, testifies.
Yet despite the undeniable strength of La Liga’s top two clubs, its other Champions League participants have fallen by the wayside; Valencia were brushed aside by Chelsea last week, whilst Villarreal were abject to the extreme in suffering six straight defeats. It is fair to say that the Premier League’s top six retains a healthy competitiveness, a fierce strength in depth that La Liga so clearly lacks.
As Real Madrid and Barcelona run amok at the top of La Liga and in Europe, the Premier League’s elite has weakened and become more vulnerable than during its zenith between 2007 and 2009 whilst the competition for places has intensified.
The line-up for the last 16 actually reflects well on Michel Platini’s goal of widening the scope of the Champions League, which consists of three Italian sides (the resurgence of Serie A will be an intriguing sub-plot in the latter stages), two English, French, German, Russian and Spanish sides as well as representatives of Portugal, Switzerland and Cyprus.
Despite the broad range of countries still involved in the European Cup it is almost inconceivable that the trophy will not be won by either of Real Madrid or Barcelona.
The Premier League’s golden period in the Champions League may only have been a few years ago, but football is not a sport that stands still and as La Liga’s finest aim to duopolise Europe’s elite competition, so the Premier League’s finest must fight to rejoin it.
If England’s top four fail to improve in next season’s competition there is a real danger that the Premier League’s number of Champions League entrants will fall from four to three, which would only escalate the league’s competition for places and exacerbate its fall from grace.