Old Trafford, Manchester United vs. F.C. Barcelona UEFA Champions League Quarter Final 2018/19ALEX MOTOC | UNSPLASH

With the recommencement of European football this month, along with the dramatic Champions League final which saw Bayern Munich claim their 6th Champions League trophy, the focus of the footballing world has shifted away from the domestic leagues and towards the annual battle for European glory.

Having witnessed the dynastic teams of Europe claim their usual league titles, the Champions League allows us to find out which of them is actually best. Without it, we would rely purely on speculation when discussing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the elite teams – and, indeed, leagues – of Europe. Despite frequent claims that 'the Premier League is the best in the world’, the Champions League has the potential to sway such potentially short-sighted opinions.

Arguably, it is the extreme pressure of the knockout stages, scenarios which are so rarely experienced in domestic club football, that gives pride and prestige to the clubs that succeed in them. This is truer still this season, following the introduction of one-legged knockout games. It would seem that it is the added confidence and assurance required in such situations - on top of the skill, strategy and physicality that are already required for domestic success – that allows a club to achieve the elite status of European champions. But for how long does a club retain this status and precisely when does it become a part of the club’s history?

In the most literal sense, the Champions League is a league above the domestic leagues of Europe. Theoretically, by looking at UEFA’s country coefficient (which dictates the number of Champions League places permitted to each league) we should be able to rank the quality of each domestic league. This coefficient is calculated over the period of the last 5 years and currently places La Liga at the top with a coefficient of 102, the Premier League second with 90, followed by the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1. However, this coefficient only takes into consideration the teams that participate in European football.

“It is often argued that the Premier League is the best league in the world, but it is not since the 2011/12 season that the EPL has ranked top of UEFA’s coefficient.”

It is often argued that the Premier League is the best league in the world, but it is not since the 2011/12 season that the EPL has ranked top of UEFA’s coefficient. The argument then might be that the Premier League is the most competitive of all European leagues, which, at least since Manchester United’s demise over the last seven years, is backed up by statistics: Juventus have won every Serie A since 2012; Bayern Munich have won every Bundesliga since 2013; PSG have won all but one of the Ligue 1 titles since 2013; and Real Madrid and Barcelona have shared all but one of the La Liga titles since 2004. In the Premier League, however, since 2013, there have been five different title winners and the last three English Champions League victories have all been by different clubs (Manchester United 2007-08, Chelsea 2011-12, and Liverpool 2018-19).

The question English football fans are forced to face is this: does this level of competitiveness on which we pride our league translate to genuine success? The answer – not really. Whilst we can easily point to PSG as an example of consistent European failure (following domestic dominance) we cannot ignore the impressive achievements of equally dominant Spanish teams in Europe over the last decade. Real Madrid have claimed four of the last five La Liga titles between 2014 and 2018, with Barcelona claiming the other; no English team has ever achieved such a streak, despite the vast array of talent that is drawn to the league and the supposedly all-important competitiveness.

Yet, this year no Spanish, nor any English teams, even made the semi-finals. If the Champions League gives us the ability to compare and contrast European leagues, it also allows us to do the same for individual clubs. Take, for example, Bayern Munich’s quarter-final domination of Barcelona. Thanks to their capitulation in La Liga this season, and the high average age of their team, Barca were by no means expected to beat a Bayern Munich team who had stormed to the Bundesliga title following its restart in May, but the 8-2 thrashing highlighted just how far behind the Catalans were. Lyon’s performances against Juventus, Manchester City and even Bayern Munich, similarly forced us to reconsider the strength of the side who finished seventh in Europe’s fifth-rated league. Most significantly, Liverpool’s defeat to Atletico Madrid, before the lockdown, cast real shadows of doubt over their incredible run of good form in the domestic league. With the exception of their bizarre meeting with Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup, and a CL group game against Napoli, their 1-0 loss to Atletico in February marked their first defeat in any competition during the 2019/20 season. In the following month, Liverpool then went on to lose their unbeaten PL record to Watford, were knocked out of the FA Cup by Chelsea, and lost to Atletico in extra time at Anfield: perhaps the power of the Champions League is strong enough to derail the confidence of the teams themselves.

Despite this year’s misfortune, Liverpool fans can at least point to European success over the past few years, as well as historically, and winning the Champions League last summer must have softened the blow of missing out on the Premier League title in 2018/19. Whilst Manchester City fans can celebrate many more Premier League titles, they cannot point to a single Champions League semi-final appearance, let alone a trophy. Which is more important then: domestic or continental success? Continental, surely. Thus, the question of elitism presents itself: can clubs with unquestionable quality and domestic success, like Manchester City, PSG or Juventus, be grouped among the elite European clubs without a Champions League title recently, if any at all?

Undoubtedly, Manchester United and Chelsea fans reading this will be waiting for their mention. However, it has been eight and twelve years respectively since they last held the trophy, which begs the question: how long does the elite status of Champions League Winners last? UEFA, with their coefficient, imply that results over five years old no longer matter. Ostensibly, it depends more on the performances that follow. Both Manchester United and Chelsea have struggled in the Champions League since their victories, despite a Europa League trophy each. Clubs like Juventus and Atletico have performed reasonably well in recent Champions League campaigns, each twice finishing runners-up between 2014 and 2017, but have either never won it (Atletico) or have not won it in 24 years (Juventus). All fall short of the elite European group.

This is not to say that clubs who have won a Champions League trophy, however long ago, cannot remain proud of it today. Many Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest fans can rightfully hark back to 40 years ago to revel in their own European Cup successes: history is still important. However, the strongest pride comes when historical and current success come together. As is the case with Real Madrid, who won all of the first five European Cups in the 1950s, as well as four more of the last six in recent years. To this day, all things considered, you would struggle to argue against the opinion that Real Madrid are the best club in the world – this can only be credit to their long-standing, consistent Champions League success.

Such is the value of the Champions League. Its high-stake, pressurised, knockout format provides the only stage where European clubs and leagues can truly be compared. Perhaps it is precisely because it is the only means of doing so that it brings with it so much prestige. When domestic leagues are the focus of football fans, attention is divided across Europe. When the Champions League is on, everybody watches.

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