Football: can an English club win the Champions League?
Ever since the Premier League was founded, 25 years ago, English clubs have “paid the biggest wages and attracted some of the best players in the world”, said Graeme Souness in The Sunday Times. Yet those same teams have signally underperformed in the Champions League: there have been just four English winners in that period, most recently Chelsea in 2012. But now, finally, the tide seems to be turning. Four matches into the group stage of this year’s tournament, the five English clubs in the competition are thriving: they are averaging 2.45 points per game, with just one loss between them. Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are all likely to make it to the last 16; Tottenham and Manchester City have already qualified, thanks to Spurs’ 3-1 victory over Real Madrid last week, and City’s 4-2 win at Napoli. Those two remarkable results confirmed that, this season, English teams should not be “frightened of anybody”. This was the moment Tottenham “announced themselves as a European power to be taken very seriously”, said Phil McNulty on BBC Sport online. The reigning European champions, Madrid have won the Champions League in three of the past four seasons. But at Wembley, they were utterly outclassed: led by Dele Alli, who scored two goals, Spurs played with an “intoxicating combination of intensity, pace and power”. Few tipped them to even progress beyond their “group of death”, which features Borussia Dortmund as well as Madrid – yet they have qualified with two games to spare. Spurs were “very good” indeed, said David Walsh in The Sunday Times. But City’s performance in Naples was “a level up”. City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, insists that his team lag behind Europe’s elite. Yet at a time when they are playing the “best football” ever produced by a Premier League side, such claims ring hollow. For years, “English underperformance in Europe” has been blamed on the competitiveness of the Premier League, said Jonathan Wilson in The Guardian – the competitiveness that forces teams to slog away week after week, draining them of energy. Yet that now seems to be working to English clubs’ advantage. Over the past five seasons, four different sides have won the Premier League title; in that period, both Bayern Munich and Juventus have won their respective leagues five times, and Paris Saint-Germain have won Ligue 1 four times. Teams accustomed to such dominance can flounder when they finally face “genuine opposition” in Europe: witness PSG’s 6-1 loss to Barcelona last season. But English sides don’t have that problem, as even the bottom sides in the league are now “wealthy enough” to trouble even the top teams. The Premier League “rat race” is giving English clubs a new edge.
Dele Alli (right): scored twice