Malaga this term, and previously Villarreal and Valencia have emerged from the pack to make a mark on the Champions League. The progress of those clubs can be bracketed with that of a Liverpool team which lacked the consistency to feature over a 9 month steeplechase in their own land, but were able to negotiate all that Europe could throw at them in 2005 – and fall just one match short of repeating that feat two years later.
Similarly, Arsenal, during this barren 8 year spell which Wenger wishes to forget, have progressed to a final and semi-final on their annual quest to scale football’s club game pinnacle.
Atletico Madrid have lifted two of the past three Europa League titles, and were required to defeat countrymen Athletic Bilbao in 2012’s final. Atleti’s double success extended Spanish hegemony in that trophy to five victors in nine years.
Beyond the rudimentary study of on-pitch results, the challenge to the Premier League’s supremacy as the continent’s top league comes in its capacity to attract the finest players and managers working in the game.
Its ability to achieve this was most sternly examined when Barcelona’s legendary and vastly decorated former boss, Pep Guardiola, announced in January that he would be the new man in charge at Bayern Munich next season.
That decision prompted Wenger to announce, ‘Tomorrow’s football will be played in Germany, certainly’.
The 63 year-old’s belief in that fact may prove premature. Bayern this term have clinically restored themselves as a stand-alone behemoth in domestic surroundings after two years of being upstaged by Borussia Dortmund. The defending German champions were weakened by their inability to keep Shinji Kagawa from Manchester United’s clutches last summer, and appear likely to suffer a repeat scenario 12 months on with the likely departure of outstanding Polish striker Robert Lewandowski.
The trophy cabinet in Munich’s Allianz Arena is likely to need re-enforcing in coming years with the implementation of Financial Fair Play rules set to assist Bayern even further, to the detriment of any genuine challenge to their supremacy.
Serie A, twenty years after being Europe’s golden league and the number one destination for the world’s eminent talent, is steadily rebuilding its reputation after an unhappy period spent mired in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Italian football’s troubles are yet to be entirely consigned to history, but a gentle flow of authentic stars are once more choosing the country as their destination for employment.
Any renaissance in Italy is still to be translated into a lasting and pronounced effect on Europe. Since two of the Champions League’s final eight in 2007 were of Italian stock, that nation’s representatives at the same stage have been restricted to a single digit at most. In the same timeframe England provided 3,4,3,1,3 and 1 of the teams still standing.
A look at today’s draw for the business end of this campaign’s tournament informs us that both France and Turkey are represented – by Paris St. Germain and Galatasaray respectively. The progress of these two famous clubs is in large part due to their being able to invest prolifically in their playing staff – a privilege which is unmatched by any domestic adversary.
Neither of Turkey’s Super Lig or France’s Ligue 1 is currently positioned to threaten the status of any of Europe’s traditionally omnipotent top divisions.
Each year we look to Russia and Ukraine as the ‘coming countries’ of football. The financial affluence of these two countries crack set of clubs is indubitably establishing them as serious contenders – best evidenced in Shakhtar’s wonderful displays over their two tumultuous tussles with Chelsea.
Until these outfits can firmly resist the envious glances of both domestic and continental forces towards their prime performers, tangible progress will not surpass Europa League glory. In their last-16 tie with Borussia Dortmund, Shakhtar were a pale imitation of their pre-Christmas selves, subdued physically and mentally by the new-year loss of their magnificent attacker Willian to Anzhi Makhachkala for £28m.
Arsene Wenger certainly stirred up a subject to provoke plenty of thought and debate. The extent to which, how each country’s Champions League representatives fares reliably informs us of its league’s strength, is actually more likely to be found in the words of Jupp Heynckes – the man in charge of Arsenal’s midweek vanquishers, Bayern Munich.
‘I think comparisons like this don’t bring much. We have had German teams knocked-out early in previous years.
‘I think Manchester United were unlucky to be knocked out and Arsenal showed what a quality team they are.
‘You get cycles like that in football. I think the English teams will be back next year.’
There is much pride to be gleaned from this nation being home to one of the most exciting and captivating leagues in world football.
Nevertheless, during an era in which the planet is shrinking and more people are forced to watch top-level football on television as a consequence of prohibitive admission costs, the growing strength of the continental game can only be a force for good.
Yes, the Premier League has its faults. It isn’t the home for every single global superstar, and it is not without its drab matches – no matter what Sky Sports might like us to believe. Nevertheless, a fair share of the game’s first-rate exponents parade their gifts here, the division is undoubtedly a cauldron of drama, and the action takes place in a selection of grand stadia. There is no need for us all to mirror Wenger’s naval gazing quite yet.
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