The English Premier League (EPL) has been presenting outstanding soccer for many years. However, its excellence hasn’t fully been reflected in European club competitions.
English clubs have won the top European competition — the Champions League — only three times this century (Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea once each). By contrast, the two top Spanish clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, have won it a combined nine times.
This is a far cry from my early years of soccer fandom when English teams won six straight European championships (Liverpool 3, Nottingham Forest 2, and Aston Villa 1).
This year, however, English clubs are ascendant. All four clubs that competed in the Champions League have made it to the quarterfinals. Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, and Manchester United join Barcelona, Juventus (Italy), Ajax (Holland), and Porto (Portugal) in the last eight.
German soccer is the loser. The Bundesliga, often the EPL’s rival for best of the rest after La Liga, suffered the humiliation of seeing three teams lose to English sides in the round of 16.
Bayern Munich, the best of the lot, lost to Liverpool, the second place EPL team. Over the two matches, Liverpool prevailed by a combined score of 3-1. The fabled Bavarian side was clearly second best.
Tottenham, currently in third place, handily bested Borussia Dortmund 4-0 on aggregate. Dortmund is currently in second place, just behind Bayern Munich.
Finally, Manchester City, the EPL leaders, routed Bundesliga laggards Schalke 10-2 on aggregate.
Manchester United faced French opposition — namely Paris St. Germain a powerhouse built on Middle Eastern wealth. Man U is only in fifth place in the EPL, while PSG is miles ahead of the pack in the French top division.
Nonetheless, Man U prevailed on a penalty kick (dubiously awarded) in the dying seconds of the second match. United was a bit lucky in my view, but its grit in coming from two goals behind cannot be denied.
Two English teams also have advanced to the quarterfinals of the Europa League, Europe’s competition for also-rans. Chelsea crushed Dynamo Kiev, a perennial power in Europe, 8-0 on aggregate. Arsenal squeaked past French overachievers Rennes by a 4-3 margin.
I suppose the EPL won’t be able to declare victory unless it wins at least one of these competitions this year, preferably the Champions League. It won’t be easy. Barcelona and Juventus are arguably the favorites, followed closely by Man City and Liverpool. We’ll have a better fix on the odds when quarterfinal pairings are announced.
In the other competition, Arsenal and Chelsea should be among the favorites. (The latter club seems to have gotten through the crisis that arose from its goalkeeper’s insubordination in a recent domestic Cup Final). Both sides were probably happy to see Sevilla, which has won this tournament three times in the past five years, eliminated on penalty kicks by upstarts Slavia Prague.
However Benfica (Portugal) and Napoli must be rated as at least the equals of Arsenal and Chelsea among the final eight.
One problem with the EPL is its top-heaviness. There are no truly good teams after the top six.
However, all of the major European Leagues are top-heavy. In fact, there are few that even go six deep.
The Championship League resumes on April 9. I’ll be rooting for Tottenham.
UPDATE: The draw for the Champions League quarterfinals is in. The matchups are:
Tottenham vs. Manchester City
Manchester United vs. Barcelona
Ajax vs. Juventus
Liverpool vs. Porto
In the Europa League, Arsenal drew Napoli while Chelsea drew Slavia Prague.