The Champions League begins in earnest this week – unless you are one of the many who believe the real entertainment only commences after Christmas with the knockout stage – and with it the chance to compare English standards with those being set by the rest of Europe. This is a popular pastime, despite or perhaps even because of the fact that Premier League teams inevitably come out of the comparison badly. Anyone searching for a handy stick with which to beat the overhyped and overpaid insularity of English football need look no further than the overblown and often overrated European competition, which has become a mainly Spanish and German event after the run of success teams from these shores enjoyed in the previous decade.
Paul Scholes is just the latest commentator to use the European competition to rubbish the English one. “The Spanish league is the best by far if you’re judging on the European competitions,” the former Manchester United player says. “The best players are in Spain or at Bayern Munich and Juventus. People say the Italian league is boring but Juventus would beat any team in the English league. They came to Manchester City last season and beat them easy. Spain’s the best league, Germany has better teams than us and it’s rubbish that in Italy they only try to defend.”
All of that is undeniably true, though actually quite selective. Manchester City, for instance, topped their group last season, with Juventus in second place. The Italians also went out in the next round, whereas City reached the semi-final. Germany may have two outstanding teams in Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – although Liverpool accounted for the latter in last season’s Europa League – but is that a reasonable basis for concluding that the Bundesliga is in better health than the Premier League?
The Spanish league is less vulnerable to the criticism that just two teams dominate now that Atlético Madrid and Sevilla have made such strides in Europe, though again the question arises of whether European success is a fair measure of the strength of a domestic competition. It can certainly be said without fear of contradiction that Spain, Germany and perhaps Italy have stronger teams than we do, but if Scholes finds that makes English football unwatchable – he says he prefers games at Salford City these days – the rest of the world appears to disagree.
Something else that can also be said without fear of contradiction is that the English league is hard to win. There are half a dozen of the best coaches in the world attempting to lead their teams to the title this season and five of them are going to end up disappointed, maybe all six if the campaign produces a turn-up like last time. “The Premier League is very interesting to the rest of the world because there are five or six teams who can win it,” Ruud Gullit has just said. “There are five coaches who have to win it, but no one can be sure how it will turn out.”
This is possibly what is missing from the simplistic analysis that rates a league’s quality according to results against teams from other leagues around Europe. Leagues are much harder to evaluate than teams. Were Paris Saint-Germain to win the Champions League, for example, it would not necessarily imply that French football was the new European powerhouse.
In England there appear to be more potential title winners than ever before, the Premier League has become more competitive in recent years, and maybe that is a reason why European success has begun to dry up. It will be interesting to see what Pep Guardiola, after productive periods at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, makes of England at the end of his first season. The balance between domestic success and European commitment can be quite hard to strike in this country, and it is a theory at least worth considering that fighting effectively on two fronts is becoming more difficult.
Guardiola’s City taking on Barcelona yet again ought to be the highlight of the group stages involving English clubs, though before that we get to see Leicester making their European debut in Belgium and Tottenham returning to the competition in which Gareth Bale made his name. While Arsenal have the most testing opening game, against PSG, the side that accounted for Chelsea before going out to Manchester City last season, none of the English teams are in impossible groups – if the classification is widened to British then Celtic may find Group C a struggle – and at this stage of the competition most of the attention will surround the newcomers rather than the old hands.
It is a moot point whether Manchester City count as old hands yet, despite a run to the semi-final and Guardiola at the helm, but Leicester are definitely newcomers. They have been handed an open-looking group featuring Club Brugge, Porto and Copenhagen and should provide an entertaining diversion at the very least, though before getting too carried away it might be as well to remember that they opened their domestic season by losing to Hull.
Does that make the Premier League good or bad? Something else that Scholes neglected to mention is that English football is full of surprises. Leicester are the best example in years, and their Group G is one of the few in the opening stage where the two most likely qualifiers do not immediately stand out.
Uefa and the Champions League do not care for surprises, that is why the calls for the likes of Manchester United and Milan to take part every year keep getting an airing and the competition proceeds in a sedate and predictable fashion until the strongest teams begin playing each other. What might be termed the big six at present does not include a representative from England, and though Manchester City will be doing their best to break up the cartel, it would be a brave bet to back Guardiola accomplishing it in his first season.
With a transfer ban in place for next summer and Diego Simeone reportedly ready to leave at the end of the season, Atlético Madrid may feel it is now or never having come so close in the recent past. While it is hardly going out on a limb to suggest Spanish winners, it surely ought to be Atlético’s turn soon. Manchester City could again be the English team to go furthest, though they will probably have to wait a little longer to go the full distance.
Leicester will most likely have to wait longer still, perhaps forever, even if they can point out that this time a year ago they were not in the Premier League to win it either. Leicester in the European spotlight is mainly a reminder, a glorious one, that different leagues have different merits.