Champions League: Can English Clubs Launch A Comeback Next Season?
The UEFA Champions League is Europe's premier competition, where the biggest clubs in the world compete for the prestigious trophy and a place in footballing history. It is a celebration of the greatest squads and players, and only the elite get the chance to compete and shine on its grand stage.
The most recent winners certainly fit that impeccable standard, as Barcelona overcame Juventus 3-1 to claim their fifth title. A team of superstars, especially their attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, cemented Barcelona as the top club in Europe at the culmination of the season. Yet, this should not devalue the performances of numerous other teams that excelled in this year's competition, including Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Monaco.
However, whilst these clubs and their players thrived, there was one particular nation whose teams greatly disappointed, and those were from England's Premier League. England has a phenomenal history in Europe's greatest competition, with Liverpool and Manchester United in particular two of its most prolific winners.
The past decade in particular has been profitable for English clubs, from Liverpool's stunning comeback in Istanbul, to the all-English 2008 final in Moscow, and most recently Chelsea finally climbing to the pinnacle. Nonetheless, amidst all this success, there have been some seasons that have been utterly embarrassing for the cream of the Premier League's crop. One of these awful campaigns came this last year, as none of the four contesting clubs progressed further than the last sixteen.
This was a bitter pill to swallow, especially for those that argue (myself included) that the Premier League as an overall league far supersedes any other in the world with regards to success and competitiveness.
Of course, squads like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich stand out from the crowd, and have quality that overwhelms virtually any other club, including those who have their place atop the English top tier. I still maintain that their success is upheld by immense financial backing, and the standard of the teams underneath them is ridiculously lesser. You hardly ever see a team like Real Sociedad or Levante put on an assertive performance against Barcelona, let alone surprise them with a victory.
Conversely, in the Premier League even the top clubs need to play at 100% every match to consistently produce wins, as any team could win on the day.
Chelsea had an extremely impressive domestic season, and dominated to the point where they were able to win the title at a canter. They had incredible defensive solidity and organisation, and the creative influence of Cesc Fabregas, Oscar and Eden Hazard capable of penetrating at the other end. Nevertheless, the Blues were unable to push that into success in Europe, despite the success of Jose Mourinho in that competition in particular. In the group they were imperious, sweeping aside Schalke, Sporting and Maribor.
Yet, when it came to their second round contests with Paris St Germain, they failed to show up. Chelsea deservedly were dispatched from the competition, as they could not match the hunger and intensity of their opponents, and that was very disappointing considering how strong they looked in the Premier League.
They were not alone in disappointing. Manchester City, for all the billions that is backing them and the benefits that has wrought them in England, have never produced the goods since they entered the European scene.
The first couple of years were understandable, as they were dealt challenging hands in the group stages, but at this point in time they are firmly established and should be making more of an impact. In this year's group, Bayern Munich outclassed them, and if not for Sergio Aguero they potentially wouldn't have even made it into the round of sixteen.
Then when they were paired in that competition with Barcelona, the gap in class was apparent, and very few people backed the Citizens to progress, in spite of how impressive they have been in the Premier League.
But for both of their flawed campaigns, they did not match the shameful European seasons of Arsenal and Liverpool.
The Gunners are veterans of the Champions League, and should have had more success in the competition than they have at this point. Handed a relatively easy group with only Borussia Dortmund as rivals, Arsenal could only finish runners-up, fundamentally due to losing a three-goal advantage at home against Anderlecht. This appeared to be remedied when they were given the best draw of the English clubs in the round of sixteen against Monaco, but due to another disastrous performance at the Emirates, they were sent packing at that stage for the fifth consecutive year.
As for Liverpool, the departure of Luis Suarez meant they were completely unprepared to make an impact on the competition. They exited in the group stage with Real Madrid and Basel progressing, before making a similarly rapid fall to Besiktas.
So, in the face of these bitter disappointments, will the English clubs make a more prominent impact for the 2015/16 campaign?
I believe this was a humbling experience, and in spite of the pressure the teams face in the Premier League on a constant basis, they will have an even greater focus on success in the Champions League. Manchester City in particular will be desparate to make a name for themselves in the top table in Europe after numerous seasons of flailing. They need to prove the club as a prominent force, as it is a necessary component of being taken seriously. Despite all the money spent, they need the credentials that come with trophies to cement their legacy, otherwise it would all be for nothing.
The Premier League has been conquered not once but twice; Europe is the next step.
Chelsea after winning the title have already got that success in their pocket, and Jose Mourinho will be determined to win his third Champions League trophy with the club that he regards as his spiritual home. Arsenal will need a few signings, such as the linked moves for Petr Cech and Arturo Vidal to get the muscle and strength to make their presence felt in the competition, but it is entirely possible.
As for Manchester United, they will simply be happy to be back in the top tier after their absence last season, and will probably renegade on victories here to an extent to ensure that they do not suffer like Liverpool did last year in balancing the domestic and European campaigns.
Realistically, I see all four teams having the quality and depth of manpower to progress past the group stages, although at least one is likely to be dealt a severely compromising hand. As Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus sit in Pot 1 and Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in Pot 2, none of the four English teams should be prepared for an easy ride from the outset. In terms of progressing beyond this preliminary battle into the knockout phases, Chelsea appear to be the outright favourites to bring trophy back to England's shores, simply due to the history of Mourinho in this competition and the depth of talent already in their squad.
Whether they can overcome the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid, the clear frontrunners, is another matter, but on any given day the Blues can give any club in Europe a firm test.