After Man United’s courageous exit from the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid, and Arsenal’s imminent bow to Bayern Munich, this Champions League looks like it is going to be the first in 17 years to not feature a single English side in the Quarter-Finals. You would have to go back to the 1995/1996 season, when Blackburn, the only English team, finished bottom in the group stage.
For years, English teams had dominated the Champions League, producing at least 1 Champions League finalist every year between 2005 and 2009, and of course providing both in 2008. The traditional “Top 4” of Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea were ever present in the knockout rounds, and have produced 4 winners since 1999, the most recent being Chelsea last season. But with both Manchester clubs exiting in the group stages last year, the holders Chelsea’s exit at the same point this year, Liverpool’s ongoing absence and Arsenal’s weakening performance, many across the channel, and indeed some on this side are whispering that perhaps the English Premier League is not all that it used to be.
European Club Competition has long been a common element in the ongoing debate about the best league in club football. Another frequent decider is that of League ‘competitiveness’. This refers to how easy or hard the league is for any team. It is virtually undisputed that the Premiership is one of the most competitive leagues around. Upsets occur week-in week-out, and although people would argue that it is the same teams that win the league every season, one only has to glance at highlights of last season to be proved wrong. Yes, Manchester City may have been fuelled by money, but nonetheless they claimed the title in sensational fashion in the last minute to clinch it from their arch-rivals, United. What’s more, Spurs finished 4th, only to be denied a Champions League spot a week later in Munich; Newcastle put up a genuine top 4 contender’s performance, and Swansea and Norwich excelled following their promotion to the prestigious league. The same can not be said for most other continental leagues. In Spain it is always Barcelona and Real Madrid who gallop clear of the rest of the pack very early, although this season’s emergence of city rivals Atletico Madrid has made it an interesting campaign, despite Barcelona still romping 16 points ahead of the rest. In France Lyon were the supreme leaders for most of the last decade, even though the guard seems to be changing, and in Italy, nobody looks beyond AC Milan, Inter Milan or Juventus for the destination of the Serie A. In Germany, we see a similar story with Bayern Munich so often taking home the spoils. This is of course discounting many interesting continental campaigns, such as Dortmund’s emergence as a title-contender, Valencia’s victory at the start of the century and Montpellier pipping cash-fuelled PSG last year, but the same can be said in England, about Blackburn’s victory in 1995, Arsenal’s early-21st-century dominance and the unbeaten season, and Man City’s first last year.
Despite arguably the two best teams and players in the world residing in Spain (Barcelona and Messi, Madrid and Ronaldo), the English league retains the extraordinary ability to constantly attract top-quality players from around the world, such as Eden Hazard, Sergio Agüero, Luis Suarez and Hugo Lloris. Furthermore, stars such as Gareth Bale, Jack Wilshere and Robin van Persie have wanted to stay in the Premier League for its quality and entertainment, such that they prefer it to other leagues.
One aspect that is undeniably better in England than anywhere else is the support. At every home game the stands are much fuller than some of the worse teams in the continental leagues, and there is always very little trouble between them. The football hooliganism that plagued the 1980’s and which resulted in countless deaths and a European ban has long since disappeared from the scene, and in fact both home and away fans are regularly praised by English and European teams for their conduct before, during and after the match.
Of course, the national team still leaves much to be desired, but in my eyes at least, the Premiership is by far and away the best domestic division in the world. Although European performances have waned recently, there is no doubt that the support and competitiveness of the league, alongside its ability to keep attracting the world’s best players makes it one of, if not the best league in the world.