Why a competitive Premier League drives England's Champions League ascendance
Background photo: Even Thorbergsen, CC-BY-SA-4.0
A quick glance at the Champions and Europa League quarterfinals draws makes great reading for English football fans. Six Premier League teams rank in the final 16. Spain can claim only half as many, Portugal and Italy two apiece while Germany and the Czech Republic round out the fields. This is the first time in 10 years that the Premier League has been so well represented so late in European competition. What is the reason?
The answer lies in the Premier League's depth. The money on offer in the English game attracts the best players and coaches, even to lesser clubs. Transfermarkt details how Wolverhampton Wanderers and Fulham spent roughly £101 million each on players upon achieving Premier League promotion. In seventh after 30 matches, Wolves demonstrate how contentious the league is while the Cottagers, second from bottom, prove that money is only a winning recipe if you use it to buy quality and hire an astute manager.
Fulham and Huddersfield aside, teams in the relegation scrap can be a handful for the top six. Newcastle recently toppled defending Champions Manchester City. Southampton bettered Arsenal and drew Manchester United. Burnley also took a point from the Red Devils. Even when they fail to nick a result, teams in the lower half often give the penthouse dwellers all they can handle. No match can be taken for granted. Such upsets tend to be less frequent in other leagues. Premier League teams must be prepared to fight it out every match. Every point dropped against weaker opposition exerts more pressure to win against the top clubs. English sides must develop a ruthless mentality out of necessity. How can that professionalism not extend to European nights?
The need to be at their best week in, week out in domestic competition carries over to the Champions or Europa League. Manchester City's 10-2 aggregate victory over Schalke 04 in the CL Round of 16 illustrates the point. So does Chelsea's 8-0 thumping of Dinamo Kyiv in the EL's corresponding bracket. When teams have the inevitable off day, such as Arsenal experienced against Stade Rennais in their Europa League R16 first leg, they're better equipped to respond in the next match. The Gunners reacted by defeating Manchester United in the Premier League before overturning Rennes' advantage with a 3-0 second-leg triumph.
Sides rarely challenged by strong opponents prove more vulnerable. Paris Saint-Germain fly 20 points above their Ligue 1 pursuit but couldn't maintain a 2-0 advantage over United in the Champions League Round of 16. Last season, Barcelona's runaway La Liga/Copa del Rey double was cold comfort after capitulating to Roma at Estadio Olimpico despite holding a 4-1 lead following the first leg at the Nou Camp.
The shift in the Bundesliga title race further emphasises the point. Early in the season, Borussia Dortmund won plaudits and admirers for their style and dominance. They beat champions Bayern in November, convincing observers they were the real deal. Tottenham exposed the truth in the Champions League, riding roughshod over BVB in both legs. Much more experienced, Bayern capitalised when the wheels fell off in Dortmund, reclaiming their customary place atop the table. Yet, even die Roten need to work out regularly to be strong in Europe. After an Anfield stalemate in the first leg, Liverpool took their game to another level at the Allianz Arena. Bayern didn't have the muscle to match the Merseysiders.
If there's a side that contradicts this argument, it might be Juventus. The Old Lady leaves Napoli and the rest of Serie A for dead, resting on a 15-point cushion during the international break. Despite poor domestic competition, the Bianconeri dug deep when Atletico Madrid brought a two-goal advantage to Turin for the second leg in their Champions League round of 16 tester. Were Juve fortunate to face another foe left soft by a lack of challengers in La Liga or is the man with five CL winners medals in his toilet kit, Cristiano Ronaldo providing the influence and experience for which the Agnelli family paid £105 million? We'll find out if and when the soon to be seven-time-defending Serie A champions face another Champions League favourite.
We'll also find out how far the Premier League's competitive nature can take English teams. In the past, the league's demanding schedule was used to defend its failure to challenge La Liga's superiority in UEFA competitions. No English fan was willing to admit their league came second in terms of quality. That said, it cannot be denied the quality on offer in the Premier League improves every season. Early returns suggest this might be the year English football stands level with Spain. Will fatigue catch up with the top six in their individual quests to conquer Europe or will Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City or United be celebrating on a podium in Madrid or Baku?