Is this the Premier League’s European renaissance?
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NOVEMBER 4 ― Is the English Premier League finally enjoying a long overdue renaissance in European competitions?
It certainly looks that way at the moment, with the EPL's five representatives in this season's Champions League all on track to qualify for the knockout stage and playing with an assurance which suggests that they are ready to alter the continent's balance of power.
In recent years, that balance of power has been firmly in favour of Spanish football, with La Liga providing the winner of seven of the last eight Champions League and Europa League titles (the only exception being Manchester United's triumph in the latter competition last season).
So far in the current campaign, however, Spanish teams are struggling, with reigning champions Real Madrid suffering a 3-1 loss at Wembley against Tottenham on Wednesday which really could easily have been much heavier.
Barcelona are picking up points but looking unconvincing, limping their way to a pretty uneventful 0-0 draw at Olympiacos on Tuesday, while Sevilla are by no means assured of a place in the next stage as they attempt to recover from a shocking 5-1 defeat to Spartak Moscow a couple of weeks ago.
The most surprising case, however, is Atlético Madrid, who were losing finalists in 2014 and 2016 and also reached last season's semi-final but now need something close to a miracle to avoid early elimination following consecutive dispiriting draws against unrated Qarabag.
Diego Simeone’s team are enduring similar struggles on the domestic front, only managing three goals in their last four games, and the chances of them defeating both Roma and Chelsea in their last two games look slim indeed ― and even then they would still be relying on other results going in their favour.
English clubs, meanwhile, are thriving, with the Manchester clubs of City and United, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool combining for a highly impressive combined tally of 15 wins, 4 draws and just 1 defeat (Chelsea’s setback in Rome this week) so far.
This is quite a turnaround from recent seasons, which have seen at least one English team suffer a demoralising group stage exit and no EPL side even reach the final, never mind winning it, since Chelsea lifted the trophy in 2012.
Considering the amount of money splashing around the EPL, this improvement is long overdue. The league's huge popularity with TV audiences all over the world has given clubs access to riches beyond compare with the amounts earned by clubs in any other country, and it seems that money is finally starting to talk.
The important caveat, however, is that there is still a long way to go and no titles are ever won in October or November.
Around about this time last season Manchester City enjoyed a very similar night to Tottenham's Wembley triumph this week as they beat Barcelona 3-1 in the group stages, but that ultimately counted for absolutely nothing when Pep Guardiola’s team were eventually eliminated in the quarter finals by Monaco.
There's a danger that the English teams have peaked too soon while Barcelona and Real Madrid are pacing themselves to hit top form when it really matters in the spring, and their vast experience of navigating their way through the latter stages of the competition could prove invaluable a few months from now.
Other perennial contenders such as Juventus and Bayern Munich are also likely to improve as the season goes on, so the EPL shouldn't start congratulating itself too soon, but at the moment the biggest challenge appears to come from Paris St Germain, who are currently vying with Man City for the status as Europe's most impressive team.
Of course, that's also a case of money talking. Having spent literally billions to assemble a squad containing Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, Marco Verratti, Angel di Maria and Dani Alves, anything less than a serious challenge for the title would be a serious failure for the French club.
So far they are delivering the goods, with Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Anderlecht taking their overall record in this season’s competition to an extremely impressive played four, won four, 17 goals scored and none conceded. They will take some stopping.
There could be a similar story in the Europa League, where Arsenal really should be among the tournament favourites and have lived up to that billing so far by cruising through the group stage with an unbeaten record.
Spanish teams, in contrast, are again struggling, with Athletic Bilbao — who would have fancied their chances of progressing deep into the knockout stages — in serious danger of failing to even qualify from a weak group.
On current form, it would be no surprise to see Manchester City and Arsenal celebrating dual European trophy successes at the end of April. If that scenario does arise, it won't be difficult to pinpoint the explanation for the EPL's revival: money.
But don’t uncork the champagne just yet, because there’s still a long way to go.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.
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