Look around multiple British and, indeed, European media outlets and you’ll find numerous sources lamenting the state of the English game as a result of Manchester City’s exit from the Champions League last night. While an exit to Barcelona is no great shame, it follows Liverpool’s unceremonious dumping out of the competition in the group stage and both Chelsea and Arsenal’s defeats in the last 16. Both succumbed to the superiority of their respective French counterparts, PSG and AS Monaco.
It marks a stark contrast for English clubs, following on from a season in which 3 out of the 4 participating clubs in that year progressed to the quarter finals. Only Arsenal fell at the same hurdle last season, having done the same in the three seasons prior. Of course, what is lost in the current debate about the state of the English game is that this failure at the Round of 16 stage is not something new. All 4 participating clubs were out by this stage in FC Bayern’s 2013 winning campaign and you have to go back to the 2010/11 season to find a season in which more than one of the participating English clubs progressed to the quarter finals. Granted, the Premier League has produced one winner, Chelsea, and one finalist, Manchester United, in that time period. What’s more indicative of the true nature of this dropout at the last 16 stage is that you have to go back to 2008/09 to find the last occurrence in which all 4 English teams progressed to the quarters, making this same event happening last season seem even more of an anomaly.
But before continuing to bash the allegedly poor record of the Premier League in Europe’s elite competition much further, it may be worth taking a look at the other teams left in the competition at this point. Much the same as we hold up the English clubs’ performance in Europe as an indication of the standard of the Premier League, so we should consider the performances of other teams in Europe as representative of the standard of their respective leagues – right?
But see, here’s where I have a problem. Looking at the last 8 of this year’s competition, it appears to me that only three of the remaining teams can really be considered representative of the level of the domestic competitions in which they participate. And I’ll explain why.
Four-time winners of the competition, FC Barcelona have won three of those titles in the last 10 years. At various points in the last decade, they have been widely considered to be the best team to have ever played the game, particularly Pep Guardiola’s 2008/09 winning side that convincingly overcame a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Machester United side on a wet night in Rome. Boasting the talents of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez, they can hardly be considered representative of the standard of La Liga. Along with the current Real Madrid side, they’re in the process of setting a new standard for football not just in the current climate, but in the game’s history.
A relatively young club in footballing terms, Paris Saint-Germain have yet to win Europe’s premier club competition. Having only been established in 1970, they really haven’t had much time, in comparison to most of their counterparts, to make much of an impact. But, following a Qatari investment company taking a controlling stake in the club in 2011 and, subsequently, wiping their debt, PSG became one of the richest clubs in world football and, as such, could no longer be ignored as potential contenders for Europe’s major titles. Its in this regard that they can’t really be considered representative of top flight French football, in my opinion. With stars from front to back including Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Verratti and Thiago Silva, the financial clout and muscle now wielded by the Paris side mean that they would be top (or near to top) of any league in which they competed. French football has had a strong representation at this level for a number of years, with Olympique Lyonnais competing in the latter stages of the Champions League on a regular basis – they are probably more representative of the elite of French football than this rather motley crew.
Look at the teams going into the pot for the drawing of the group stage each year and you’ll almost certainly always see this Portuguese side. They are a regular participant in the competition, having played over 200 games. Having won twice in their history, most recently under Jose Mourinho in 2004, their pedigree in the competition cannot be ignored. But again, as such regular winners of their domestic championship, can they really be considered a true representation of the level we can expect from Portuguese football in general? I really don’t think so. Since 1990, they have won a staggering 17 Primera Liga titles. To put this in perspective, the team with the second highest number of titles in that period are SL Benfica with only 5. In that regard, only Benfica can truly compare to Porto, with two European Cups to their name – but the chances of any other Portuguese side outside of this dominant pair making an significant stamp outside of their own shores is near impossible.
Like the afore mentioned FC Barcelona, the current FC Bayern side are really a side by which a generation will remember its football. Led by tactical wizard and apparently all-round good guy Pep Guardiola, they boast the attacking talents of Ribery, Robben, Muller, Gotze and Lewandowski, with none other than recent Ballon D’Or nominee Manuel Neuer keeping things tight between the sticks. They have dominated the Bundesliga in the last three seasons, winning by an impressive 25 points and 19 points in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Things are no different this season, with the Munich side almost certain to secure their third consecutive domestic title, currently topping the table by 11 points. Does that sound like a team that accurately shows the level at which their domestic competition operates? My answer, in short, is no.
They don’t really need an introduction, do they? Current record holders with no less than 10 European Cups to their name, Real Madrid are Europe’s top dog when it comes to competing on the continental stage. As I said before, along with FC Barcelona, the current side are setting new standards in the game, led by the machine that is Cristiano Ronaldo. Asking whether they are an accurate account of the level of footballing quality in La Liga at the moment can be answered simply – Barca and Real are widely known in Spain as the top two. In other words, the championship is really a two horse race. Let’s just ignore the fact Diego Simeone led his Atletico Madrid side to the title in 2014 – how he did that, I don’t think even he knows.
The remaining three quarter finalists, namely AS Monaco, Juventus and Atletico Madrid, are probably more accurate representations of the league from which they come. Monaco, in particular, have surprised a few people in making it as far as they have. Juventus may be returning to dominance in the Italian league but, having had to rebuild in the wake of the match fixing scandal, their dominance is yet to be truly confirmed.
So, in summary, what can we glean from all that’s been discussed? Yes, the English game has work to do. There is no doubt that some people’s perception of the Premier League as the best domestic league in the world is not supported by the performance of more than a couple of their top clubs on the European stage. But, as we can see, the representatives of the other major European leagues are not necessarily a product of their own domestic competitions. For the most part, they have either earned their place through heavy investment, dominance of their home league over a number of years or, in the cases of Barcelona, Bayern and Real Madrid, being once-in-a-generation teams, who would have progressed in whatever league or era in which they played.