How ironic that our football teams should demonstrate a renewed commitment to Europe at the very point at which our politicians are negotiating an exit. In the footballing sense at least, the English are coming, not going.
All five English clubs top their respective groups in the Champions League at the halfway stage, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea outright, Liverpool on goal difference and Spurs in a straight share with Real Madrid.
Though early in the piece it remains some statement given the poverty of the English effort since Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012. On only four occasions, two in the same season, have the quarter-finals featured a Premier League club in that period. And this after the power period of 2007-09 when for three successive years England provided three of the four semi-finalists.
Thus it was quite a moment on Tuesday when Spurs opened their account against the 12-time champions in the Bernabeu at the fifth time of asking. City were already two up at the time and letting off flares at home to Serie A leaders Napoli, while Liverpool were about to crack a fourth without reply in Slovenia against Maribor.
Napoli recovered from the early shellacking at the Etihad to at least make the score respectable (2-1) and perhaps reveal how City might eventually be tamed, ultimately by playing them at their own fast-paced, attacking game. But it was resoundingly England’s night with Liverpool running up a record 7-0 score on the road in Europe and Spurs holding the mighty Madrid to a draw.
On Wednesday United continued their utilitarian step under Jose Mourinho with an unnecessarily grinding one-niler against a woefully underpowered Benfica. Not to worry, Chelsea went at it in a 3-3 barnburner with Roma at Stamford Bridge to uphold the Premier League’s reputation for unrestrained chaos.
A pattern is emerging. The usual candidates of recent seasons have already established hegemony in their groups, either leading with three straight victories in the case of Barcelona and Paris St Germain or occupying second place in groups where the uber clubs are drawn together.
Juventus are subordinate to Barca in Group D by virtue of losing the opening head-to-head fixture, likewise Bayern Munich in Group B behind PSG. Besiktas are the only team outside of Europe’s grand houses to boast a 100 percent record and top Group G. Great for them and Turkey’s Super Lig but very much the exception to the rule or, more accurately, the golden rule, or more precise still, the rule of gold.
KNOCKOUT STAGE BECKONS
A cursory glance at my crystal ball suggests, therefore, a five-pronged English presence in the knock-out stages, vying for supremacy with the champions of Germany, Italy, Spain, France and, of course, the reigning Champions League emperors Madrid. What we are seeing is economics playing out, which favours the English most broadly as a result of the Premier League’s pre-eminence in the money generation business and the more equitable distribution of that wealth among its clubs. Over time, the preceding five-season block will be viewed as an anomaly.
Accounting firm KPMG’s football listing of the world’s richest clubs in 2017 places the above ten teams discussed in the top 11. Arsenal are the only club among that number not engaged in Champions League football but they are presently top of Group H in the Europa League with a 100 per cent record following this week’s victory in Belgrade. In fact, eight of the richest 20 clubs in the world play in the Premier League, and the only team from that manor to lose in Europe in this round of games were Everton, by the odd goal at home to a well-drilled and quick Lyon side.
You can see why talk of a European Super League carries weight. In a sense, it is here already. For the moment it is called the Champions League and remains under the UEFA banner but if the growth rate continues and the clubs’ insatiable appetite for cash remains commensurate with it, then don’t be surprised to see a new format under new ownership.
Whether the greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands is good for the game is a moot point. It is certainly good for the richest clubs and brings an ever greater concentration of the best players to an elite band of super teams, the like of which we have arguably never seen. Thus we have PSG boasting talent worth a combined half a billion Euros in Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani and Marco Verratti, not to mention Julian Draxler, Lucas Moura and Adrien Rabiot.
It would cost a similar amount to prise Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane from Manchester City. And on the story goes via Madrid, Barcelona and United. It is no coincidence therefore that PSG, City, United and Barca are among the five teams to win all three of their Champions League games this term. Madrid dropped their first points against Spurs, who themselves were 100 per cent going to the Bernabeu.
City might just be a steal at 6-1 fourth favourites to win the pot. Spurs at 25-1 has to be worth a flutter. The bookies’ attachment to the form of recent years, the domination of the Spanish giants, Bayern and PSG is understandable, but Madrid did not look like favourites against a superbly organised Spurs, and Bayern look over-priced at 7-1, notwithstanding an upturn in form following the re-appointment of Jupp Heynckes as coach.
From the English point of view, it is enough that the Premier League clubs are once again at the centre of the debate. Anyone of them has the tools to win it, even if there are more proven match-winners at Barca, Madrid and PSG. City are the most persuasive, especially after Pep Guardiola emerged as a pragmatist in his programme notes before the Napoli game. Winning over entertainment every time, he said. Give me his kind of pragmatism any day of the week.
The Harry Kane team, as the chippy Guardiola likes to insult Spurs, are gaining momentum with each European encounter. The return with Madrid at Wembley will tell us more about them. Eden Hazard is back and scoring at Chelsea. Say no more. Liverpool have Coutinho and can be as good as any. And who would bet against the great killjoy himself, Mourinho, sucking the life out of any opposition en route to a third Champions League crown with a third club?
Odds of 11-1 are probably fair if this were a beauty contest, but it isn’t, and when called upon, United have higher gears to engage. This is a cup competition after all. Chelsea were not the most expansive team in 2012, but in Didier Drogba, they had a man who could settle any argument and the luck that attaches to winners.