European football, more specifically the European Champions League, is arguably the summit of world club football. For the clubs involved, the Champions League provides not only a financial incentive but also global acknowledgement and status for being a top European club.
For the players who are fortunate enough to participate in the tournament, it provides a personal accolade and again a status to having played with the very best of European and world football.
For the past seven years, there has been at least one English team in the semifinals of the Champions League; such has been the dominance of the English Premier League over top European Leagues including La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga. In the last three seasons alone, three of the final four clubs remaining in the competition has been English. That’s not to mention the past five finals having five English teams competing for the prestigious European crown, two of those finals being victorious by an English team.
The year on year ascendancy of the English sides in the Champions League has made giants from Germany, Italy, France and Holland take a back seat. However, this season—as players prepare for the World Cup—the English stranglehold has been broken. The resurgence of the Galacticos at Real Madrid and progression of French football has provided stiff competition for England’s elite.
Five times European Champions Liverpool—winners in "that" epic 2005 final in Istanbul and runners up in 2007 - failed to make it out of a group stage that consisted of this season’s semi-finalists Lyon, Fiorentina and the unknown Debrecen. Finishing third, five points behind second place Lyon, Liverpool have been forced to contend with a place in Europe’s second tier competition the Europa League.
Regardless whether they win the competition in its new format, fans remain despondent at exiting the Champions League and failing in the race to gain a position for next season’s competition.
Last season’s runners up Chelsea were dumped out of the Champions League by former manager Jose Mourinho, who tactically engineered his Inter Milan side through to the quarterfinals, 3-1 on aggregate. Another season, and another manager later, Chelsea are unable to deliver the coveted Champions League trophy for owner Roman Abromovich.
Inter Milan, despite winning back-to-back Serie A titles, are one of those giants who have failed to deliver on the European stage. Yet this season, under Mourinho, they have a robust attitude that has enabled them to progress into the semifinals. Nevertheless, having won the Champions League twice with AC Milan, Chelsea have in Carlo Ancelotti a manager who has the pedigree and know how in wining the top European prize.
Football at its best is irresistible and puts on a show for a global audience. Arsenal conjured up a mouth-watering tie with Barcelona, a repeat of the 2006 final in which Barcelona ran out winners. Unfortunately, for Arsenal, they came up against perhaps the best player in the world in a rich vein of form as they were undone by a scintillating display of football. Irrespective of this, Arsenal’s youngsters fell short. The youth of Arsenal are no longer innocent, they have matured and grown over the past few seasons and inexperience can no longer be an excuse for Arsene Wenger to hide behind.
The remaining English side of this season’s Champions League were Manchester United who went into their second leg tie at Old Trafford needing to overturn a 2-1 deficit against Bayern Munich. As Inter Milan have done this year, the German giants have risen from recent lacklustre and underachieving European campaigns as they came from 3-0 down to go through to the semis on away goals. United’s exit, despite the shocking manner in which they went out, signalled an end to the English side’s supremacy in Europe’s top club competition.
As mention previously, with the World Cup this year, English players playing in the final would have put them in a great shape going into the tournament. Instead, it seems highly likely that the final will be graced by an array of Spaniards, Argentineans and the odd Brazilian.
The strength of the Premier League and the supposed elite "top four" has been brought into question. Last season, the fearful top four lost 17 games between them from; this season – with five games remaining – they have lost 28 games. Granted, a huge chunk of that has come from the decline of Liverpool.
The priceless fourth place in the Premier League is no longer a foregone conclusion. The money power at Eastlands and Harry Redknapp’s shrewdness in the transfer market has enabled Manchester City and Tottenham to assemble a side capable of competing at the top level.
Last season it was a two-horse title race, while this season it remains a three-horse race, as the top four have been prone to more defeats. This speaks volumes for how competitive the Premier League has become, or perhaps how the top four are no longer feared across the homeland.
While the Premier League has flourished in the European competitions, the national team has been apparently suffered. Perhaps the no English side being in the semi finals, let alone a final this year, in the Champions League is a blessing in disguise. Could the elimination from the top European club competition enable the national team to flourish at the summit of world football at the World Cup?
This is just an assumption of course. Even so, do England triumph in South Africa and win the World Cup for the first time since 1966, I am sure Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand and Terry will not dwell at failing to make an appearance at the Bernabéu.
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