Money talks: England the force in European soccer again
LONDON (AP) — The Premier League has regained its swagger: England is a force again in European football, and it is Germany in decline.
England will be represented by a record five teams in the Champions League knockout phase. Germany is down to one, from four entrants at the start of the competition.
The cost controls UEFA hoped to prevent clubs going bankrupt have instead managed to hand the initiative on the pitch to the Premier League, fueled by the vast sums invested by British broadcasters in domestic and European competitions.
Premier League clubs are able to sign and retain top players, while also attracting the leading coaches in the game — including Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte.
“This shows the level of this league is very high,” Chelsea’s Conte said, “with a lot of quality players and really good coaches.”
Defending champion Real Madrid, a record 12-time European Cup winner, was humbled by a Tottenham side with a sparse trophy haul over the last half-century.
Tottenham, which collected more points than any other team in the group stage, seems an outlier in the tale of the English revival.
There has not been heavy investment on transfer fees or salaries like at Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Tottenham instead shows that even the second rung of Premier League teams can resist being bullied in the transfer market by more illustrious rivals and are better placed to keep hold of stars like Harry Kane.
Even winning the Champions League last season saw Real Madrid collect marginally less cash than English newcomer, Leicester, which only reached the quarterfinals. Leicester banked 81.7 million euros ($96.2 million) thanks to UEFA generating more cash from English broadcasters than Spanish ones.
But success is judged by the contents of a trophy cabinet. Premier League teams were in seven finals from 2005 to 2012 but have not been back since. Only twice since 2012 have teams even reached the semifinals: Chelsea, two years after its 2012 title win, and Manchester City in 2016.
“Now we need to show that we can cope with the pressure,” said Mauricio Pochettino, whose Tottenham side took four points off Madrid while winning their group.
It is sensible to wait before declaring this a bright new era for the Premier League on the continent but the group-stage success cannot be negated.
The concern at Chelsea, the only English side that failed to top its group, is the ability to keep the momentum going when the knockout stage begins in February. The assumption — or excuse — in England is that having a more competitive domestic competition saps the energy of teams pursuing trophies on multiple fronts.
“When you arrive at the quarterfinals and semifinals the English teams have a lot of games,” Conte said. “For this reason, I think it could be problematic.”
Still, Chelsea managed to win the competition in 2012. As did Manchester United in 2008 and Liverpool in 2005. United, now under Mourinho, is enjoying a good season both in Europe and the Premier League, where it lies second behind Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Juergen Klopp’s hopes of producing Liverpool’s sixth European title depend on his ability to shore up a defense prone to lapses in concentration that saw a 3-0 lead at Sevilla become a 3-3 draw. Goals shouldn’t be a problem. The full force of the exhilarating attacking options provided by Philippe Coutinho and Mohamed Salah was clear when Liverpool signed off from the group stage with a 7-0 thumping of Spartak Moscow.
Only Paris Saint-Germain, with 25 goals, eclipsed Liverpool’s haul of 23 in the six group-stage games and appears the greatest threat to English ambitions.
Five-time champion Bayern finished behind Qatari-funded PSG in their group, with the big-spending French club being propelled into the knockout stage by the goals of world-record signing Neymar.
Bayern was the last team outside Spain to get its hands on the European Cup, winning the all-German final against Borussia Dortmund in 2013.
Dortmund couldn’t even make it into the second round this time, failing to win a single game in the group dominated by Tottenham and Madrid — not even against Cypriot minnow APOEL. Leipzig only won two of its six games, leaving Bayern as the last German side in contention.
For once the threat from Italy might not be coming from Juventus, which has lost two finals in the last three seasons.
Juventus finished behind Barcelona, while Roma upstaged Chelsea to provide the only Italian group winner after a formidable set of fixtures. Roma finished ahead of Chelsea and Atletico, a finalist in two of the past four seasons won’t even make the second round.
The only blip from Italy was Napoli’s elimination, finishing behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Manchester City.
But this is a City side that seems best placed to land England’s first European Cup in six years. There’s the attacking potency provided by Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. And a coach in Guardiola who won the competition twice with Barcelona.
“We (play) the best football in Europe at the moment,” said midfielder Yaya Toure, who played under Guardiola at Barcelona. “When you see the team playing you are sure we are going to score goals because we see how we are dominating, how we control the game. It’s fantastic.”
Artistry on the pitch, though, will count for little without silverware at the end for City or its English rivals.