How Europe’s top sides are planning to halt the shifting of power towards England’s top two
Principally, I predicted that los Madridistas would slip up and finally fail to retain what had begun feeling like their own prized possession (hardly an outlandish prediction). “Step aside Real, your reign is over,” I wrote. However, at the time, nobody could have foreseen the subsequent brilliance of Ajax, who were eventually a matter of seconds away from their first UCL final since 1996, nor the extraordinary consecutive semi-final comebacks for the ages and the completion of the intertwining Divock Origi and Liverpool fairy tales, as the Reds triumphantly lifted their sixth European Cup title in Madrid.
Now, after the football world has had sufficient time to draw breath from arguably the greatest edition of the competition’s illustrious history, Europe’s top sides have taken what they deem the necessary measures to ensure that similar madness does not ensue in the 2019-20 season.
Pre-season is entering its most intense period, as clubs fly all over the world for their routine international tours — as much, if not more so, about commercial revenue and global engagement with supporters than about players’ fitness levels. However, with the season rolling back around in just a few weeks, there has been tireless work done in the boardrooms of Europe’s premier sides for quite some time now, as it became apparent that last season’s Champions League had to be a one-off. With high-profile signings including Eden Hazard, Antoine Griezmann and Matthijs De Ligt the centre of cash-splashing transfer season, the Champions League masters simply will not stand for it again.
Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich were all absent from the final of football’s grandest competition at the Wanda Metropolitano, an indictment of their collective failure. What’s more, Paris Saint-Germain (oft-disputed as to whether they are a valid member of Europe’s elite) once again failed miserably in their attempts to turn significant investment into European success.
The last time none of the above competed in the Champions League finale? The tournament’s last all-English final in 2008 — between Manchester United and Chelsea — as this time around it was Liverpool and Tottenham flying the flag for the Premier League and perhaps indicating a return of the shifting of power back in English favour, after a sustained period of Spanish and German dominance.
If truth be told, there should have been no all-English final. However, it seemed just, somehow a fair reflection of the way the European game is going, that it was. Yet in the same way a matter of seconds prevented Ajax from their fairytale final return, it was an even more acute fraction by which VAR ruled Sergio Aguero offside in Manchester City’s crazy second-leg quarter-final loss to Spurs.
Of course, it is futile, but had the goal been given you cannot help but feel that City would have proceeded to the final and played Liverpool (Anfield miracle aside). Given their utter superiority in the Premier League and their outstanding level across both competitions, this would have been the final played out by Europe’s two best sides.
The re-emergence of Liverpool as a genuine force to be reckoned with and Manchester City seeking to add Champions League glory to domestic dominance has panicked the rest of the continent’s major players. The key factor in all this is that each and every one of Barcelona, Real, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are either at the end of or between cycles of transition.
At Liverpool and City, success has arrived, but it very much feels like this is the start, not the end of the journey. These glorious paths started at slightly different times for both but now, with probably the two best managers in world football battling it out on home soil, their power has been fearfully acknowledged by Europe’s big boys.
What’s more, the balance of these sides has been years in the process, a result of elite man management from the best with big spending in the right areas at the right times. Despite this, before big spending became necessary Klopp’s astute ability to improve the majority of the players he works with led to the incredible simultaneous development of his two full-backs. Now, having spent a combined £8 million on the two of them, Liverpool may well have the best right and left backs in world football in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson respectively. In Liverpool’s case in particular, their marquee signings have all delivered: transfer policy is carefully constructed and the best players for England’s top two are all in or fast approaching their prime.
The same cannot be said for teams like Barcelona or Real Madrid, for example. With unsettled teams — over reliance on one player in the case of Barcelona, or simply having lost their difference-maker for so long in Real’s case — the accident was waiting to happen. In both cases, however, the fall was spectacular.
So far this summer, City and Liverpool have done very little in the transfer market. Guardiola — constantly demanding more from his players and seeking improvement — has made just one significant signing with a view to the future. Rodri, brought in from Atlético Madrid, has long been identified as a Sergio Busquets-type Fernandinho replacement.
With an ongoing plan to stay at the very top, Guardiola identified early what become apparent to the public eye: City appeared weaker when the aging Fernandinho was not in the side. Apart from this, such is the stage City find themselves at, Guardiola is evidently confident in relying on their masses of star quality to build on domestic dominance with European success. It hardly seems a bad position to be in – City won the domestic trouble and were inches from a Champions League semi-final.
Elsewhere, Liverpool and a certain Jürgen Klopp are ready to go again. Similarly, very little work needs to and has been done, given the remarkable achievement of last season. The balance of power in Europe is firmly in the hands of the English teams – particularly Liverpool as reigning Champions League winners and historic romantics.
After Real’s period of dominance, the impatience of Europe’s top clubs means they are ready to compete and prove that their various disappointing Champions League campaigns last year were one-offs. After all, it is the most important trophy for these sides; the one that everyone wants but only one can have.
By their high standards, each one of the teams who can rightfully place themselves at Europe’s top table underperformed in the competition in their own unique way last time around. Now, over a summer packed with chaos and bursting with spilled cash, they have made their own moves to fix their problems and ensure that the same messy underachievement does not repeat itself.