Photo by Fernandopascullo CC BY 4.0
Domination is a strong word, and one that is not always a good thing when it comes to football or sport in general, as it tends to suggest a lack of competition. Is the English clean sweep in this year’s European finals a sign of things to come in European football, or merely a blip? Also, who is likely to prevail in both finals?
Champions League Final
The question going into this final is whether the protracted break will favour Spurs while putting a stop to Liverpool’s momentum. Tottenham were a tired side for much of the last three months. The quarter and semi-finals aside, it is hard to remember a game where they lived up to their potential this spring. With their batteries recharged however, and a possibly fit again Kane (at least from the bench), Pochettino’s men will be a different proposition.
After the season they have had, it would be cruel of the footballing gods if Liverpool were to end it empty-handed. Oddschecker shows they are firm favourites to win their 6th Champions League/European Cup but that question of the break could be telling. Their game is all about energy, and it will be a test of Klopp’s man management skills to ensure all of his players – including those on the bench – are able to reproduce the football that has characterised their play this season.
Europa League Final
Photo by Aleksandr Osipov CC BY-SA 2.0
Talk of the venue aside, this final is an intriguing matchup between two teams coming off the back of very mixed seasons and uncertain futures. Despite the press, the fans and, for much of the time, the players seeming to have given up on Sarri, his Chelsea side finished in third place and are in a European final. Victory in Baku would put the icing on a very strange cake. Arsenal, on the other hand, flattered to deceive at times, and were frankly woeful away from home for large parts of the season. With their forward line, however, the Chelsea back line could be in for a torrid time.
Is English Dominance Here to Stay?
The TV money that is awash in the top tier of English football has meant that in recent years those clubs at the top of that tier have been able to pay for the very best in terms of players and managers. Let us not forget, however, that there are richer teams in Europe. The latest available figures show that three of the top four, and four of the top six clubs, come from outside the EPL.
So if it was just a question of money, then this would suggest the fact that all four finalists are English is just a one-off and normal proceedings will carry on next season. There is more to it than this though. Firstly, it is not just the money spent (Manchester United are a case in point), it is how it is spent. The richest clubs in Europe and many of the ones further down the rich lists are littered with expensive players who have just not lived up to their price tags for a variety of reasons. Many were simply bought because they were a marquis signing, and with little thought of how they would fit into the team. If you look at the signings that Liverpool have made (and Manchester City, though of course, they have not made it to the Champions League final), every single one has improved their side. Tottenham didn’t even make any signings. At the risk of falling into clichés, it is definitely a case of how you spend it, not how much you spend. For that, the management and board of those clubs who have got it right should be congratulated, and those that haven’t need to take a long hard look at themselves and their transfer policies.
With that in mind, let us try and answer the question, is what happened this season a portent of things to come? To do that we need to look at what is likely to change next season and in the ones to come.
What Can Stop The EPL?
We can boil this down to three different factors. The first is UEFA. Chelsea are already facing a transfer ban, while Manchester City are currently under investigation and face the very real possibility of a ban from Europe. That is two of the top four that will potentially be prohibited from taking part or massively hamstrung in their ability to compete.
The second factor is the weakening of those teams just below the top two. The big four in the EPL has transformed into the big two and then a group of six or seven other clubs. Arsenal look a long way – defensively and in the middle of the park at least – from a side that can compete at the latter stages of the Champions League (and unless they beat Chelsea in Baku, won’t get the chance for another two seasons). Barring a miraculous summer in the transfer market, Manchester United are going to be struggling to repeat their Europa exploits of two seasons back. Spurs need to, and will, buy this summer, but that is mainly to replace those that are likely to move on. This year’s run, no matter how it ends up, will give their players belief, but you have to think that a repeat performance is against the odds. Of the others in the chasing group, they have all improved and many punched above their weight. Whether the likes of Everton, Wolves and Leicester can push on and become a force in Europe seems, at this stage, to be a step too far.
The final way that the rest of Europe can stop future clean sweeps is by upping their own game. PSG will always struggle in the later stages when their true mettle is tested, as a result of just not being given stern enough tests on a week by week basis domestically. The top Bundesliga teams are far from being a world force and it looks like it may take another season or two for them to find their collective feet once again. Ajax were a joy to behold at times this year, but their side is likely to be ripped apart this summer.
That leaves Italy and Spain. Juventus will be relying on an undoubtedly brilliant Ronaldo, but also an undoubtedly aging Ronaldo. Real Madrid need to go back to the drawing board, almost in as dramatic a fashion as Manchester United and it will be interesting to see how a second calamitous semi-final defeat in two years effects Barcelona. It looks like the English clubs are there for the taking but it is far from certain that there are many candidates to do it. The odds are against another clean sweep, but it may well be the case that England has a larger part to say in proceedings then any other country for the foreseeable future.