This isn’t a radical claim that the most prestigious trophy in European club football doesn’t need the Premier League’s finest competing for it. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of just how impressive the non-English participants are this year.
The group stages of this year’s Champions League has already seen one manager of an English club sacked over his failure (in part) to take them through to the knock-out phase. And while Roman Abramovich may try desperately to find some justification for his actions at Chelsea, he need only look at Manchester City—an equally wealthy and dominant English club—who have been knocked out of the competition by superior teams from the continent. It’s worth pointing out that Chelsea haven’t been eliminated yet, but for many it’s just formalities that will see Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk advance.
For so long and for so many years in the last decade, English football has rightly been able to claim the title as the most consistent and impressive in European competition. For five consecutive years, an English representative had featured in the final, resulting in the egos on the British isles to rise and the seemingly valid questions to be raised as to whether the Champions League would draw as great an audience without an English club.
That appears to be done away with now, for the most impressive teams this season haven’t been from England. In fact, every English club so far has been beaten, and of the four—Manchester United excluded, partly due to the relative weakness of their group—each of Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea have been put to the sword by a greatly superior opponent. At least on the day.
The impressive rise of German football in recent years has been owed a lot to the competitive nature of the league. Since 2006, four different clubs have won the Bundesliga title: a figure that surpasses both the English and Spanish tally of winners since that year. But Borussia Dortmund are proving that a strong candidate from Germany isn’t just limited to Bayern Munich. Jurgen Klopp’s side have comfortably been one of the most eye-catching and devastating teams in this season’s competition, and there’s a very good argument to say they’ve outperformed Bayern thus far in the Champions League.
While the Italian Serie A may arguably be on the decline as a forgotten giant of European football, Juventus are looking imperious and are one of the prime candidates to potentially lift the trophy in May. Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine are only ever exposed to western audiences during Uefa competitions, but even they have washed over their challengers from England in relentless fashion.
Manchester United and Arsenal have gone through, although Chelsea have an extremely slim chance of still qualifying for the next round. But no one is really looking to either of those teams to make up the final at Wembley in May. Both teams have their obvious weaknesses, and in all fairness, neither have been totally impressive up until this point.
Barcelona are continuing to set their own records in Spain, and even the loss to Celtic at Celtic Park can do little to deter the notion that they’d be among the final four—at the very least. But quietly, teams like Porto and PSG have begun their preparations for the next round in February. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a greater draw than any player the three remaining English clubs can muster, and James Rodriguez is proving to be the shining light in Porto’s drive through the group stages. The Colombian midfielder has already received a great deal of praise from England, and there’s no doubting that he will be one of the players to watch as the competitions progresses.
Part of England’s strength in the Champions League was that they used to boast some of the best players in the world: Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and most recently Didier Drogba. Since then, however, all of those big names have moved on, helping to strengthen other countries—most prominently Spain—and force a shift of power.
It’s no mistake that the best teams this year are those who have the greatest source of talent. Even a struggling Real Madrid can still call on Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Karim Benzema, among others. But teams like Dortmund and Bayern have been able to dip into the vast talent pools of German football, helping to create an almost formidable twin attack from one of Europe’s most exciting leagues.