Tonight’s game between England’s two most exhilarating attacking teams offers the opportunity for one to move a step closer to the semi-final. Manchester City and Liverpool have lit up Europe’s premier football competition over the last six months, but now they must face each other in the biggest game of their respective seasons. Simmo looks at how English teams have enjoyed a European renaissance in this seasons Champions League.
English success in the Champions League has not been too common in recent years. In fact, the last time a Premier League team reached the final was all the way back in 2012. That year it was Chelsea and although they did bring the trophy home, their win merely papered over the cracks of a disastrous domestic season in which they finished in sixth place.
English success in the last five seasons of the Champions League (2013–17) has been so infrequent that only Chelsea and Manchester City have reached the semi-final stages, in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Neither ever looked likely to move beyond that stage and their forays in Europe weren’t backed up by significant domestic success either.
Compare that to the previous five seasons, (2008–12) when five English teams reached finals and two came home with the trophy; Manchester United in 2008 in an all-English classic, and of course Chelsea’s win in 2012. During that same period no fewer than eight English teams reached the semi-finals, including three in both 2008 and 2009.
After years of impasse, we are suddenly seeing English teams thrive on the European stage. But why after half a decade of mediocrity in Europe, are we now seeing a renaissance?
A big factor is the amount of money English are spending. It is well documented that the Premier League is the richest league in the world, but other major clubs also have deep pockets. This season though has seen spending records smashed with almost £1.5 billion spent by the 20 Premier League clubs. All five of the English participants in this seasons Champions League were among the 20 highest spenders in Europe. City spent more than any other club (£220 million) while Chelsea found themselves in fourth place with a spend of over £150 million.
However, spending money is not the only reason Premier League teams are doing well. At the helm of England’s biggest clubs is arguably some of the very best managers in Europe. Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino, Conte and Mourinho all led their teams into Europe’s most prestigious competition this season.
While some may debate whether Mourinho can still be classified among the elite, there can be little doubt that Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have improved their teams’ European performances.
Last season Liverpool did not even qualify, Tottenham finished third in their group, while City got knocked out in the round of 16. Only Leicester progressed to the quarter-finals.
In this season’s competition, Liverpool are the highest scorers with 28 goals from their eight games and Manchester City have kept the ball more than any other team with an average of 63% possession per game. They are also the only team to have completed over 6,000 passes in the competition.
Tottenham also enjoyed brilliant success in the group stages; winning both home and away against Borussia Dortmund as well as drawing with Real Madrid, last season’s winners, at the Bernabéu before comfortably beating them at home. Prior to their unfortunate exit at the hands of Juventus (runners-up the previous season) in the round of 16, they had won more points than any other team in the group stages.
The Premier League is unquestionably the most competitive league in the world. No other league can boast the depth of competition that it offers. However, in recent years, while the Premier League competition has continued to make compelling viewing, no team has been able to convert domestic trophies into major European success.
Now things seem different. Manchester City are the Champions League favourites; England is guaranteed at least one semi-final place as City have been drawn against Liverpool. Given the choice, both teams would almost certainly have preferred to avoid each other at this stage of the competition.
The results this season seem to suggest that the competition in the Premier League is aiding European performances. Collectively, English teams have performed considerably better. The acid test will be if English teams can maintain consistent performances in Europe over the next three or four years.
Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that English clubs are on the rise again, and the rest of Europe will be concerned.