UEFA Champions League: A Shift from a Spanish to English Era?

The UEFA Champions League is headed towards its quarterfinal stages as eight teams will battle it out to be crowned Europe’s best. Half of those eight teams are represented by England for the first time since 2009.

A Shift of Dominance between Spanish and English Clubs?

For the last few years, Spain have dominated in the UCL. In the past five seasons, a Spanish team has won the tournament. In two of those finals, the losing team was also Spanish and only once was there an English team in a final. Significantly, that took place last season.

Since Chelsea surprisingly won the Champions League in 2012, English clubs have reached at least the semifinals on three occasions,  and each time were eliminated by a Spanish team, including last year’s Final between Liverpool and Real Madrid.

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Chelsea lifting the UEFA Champions League trophy in 2012

However, the presence of English teams in the quarterfinals suggests there might be a turn in the tide of power within European football.

The last time three English teams reached the quarterfinals came back in 2011, while there have been three teams from Spain in each of the last six seasons prior to this one.

Real Madrid have won four out of the last five titles, but they have been eliminated in the Round of 16 by Ajax. Perhaps an indication that another one of their golden eras has come to an end. Meanwhile, Barcelona haven’t qualified for the semifinals since 2015, and Atletico Madrid have failed to make it to the quarterfinals for the past two years.

This Season’s Quarterfinals

The upcoming quarterfinal ties have Tottenham Hotspur taking on Manchester City, Liverpool paired up against Porto, Manchester United facing favorites Barcelona, and Juventus up against underdogs Ajax.

Looking at the English clubs in the competition now, most can at least see two teams qualifying to the semifinals. Porto are familiar foes for Liverpool, with the Reds ruthlessly dispatching the Portuguese side 5-0 on aggregate during last season’s Round of 16.

Manchester City have the edge over Spurs as their charge for the quadruple continues. Yet, regardless of which team advances, it’s guaranteed that at least one English side will be in the semifinals. That means this season will be the first time since 2012 that there will be an English club in the semifinals for two consecutive seasons.

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Manchester City before a UEFA Champions League match

Manchester United were debatably given the worst draw imaginable, paired up with the mighty Barcelona. Los Cules have eliminated United in their last two meetings, both in finals.

The Struggle of Past English Sides in Europe

In the past, the strength of English sides wavered. Arsenal went from a club perennially knocked out by European giants such as Bayern Munich and Barcelona, to being knocked out by Monaco who hadn’t yet hit their prime, and ultimately failing to qualify for the competition in 2017.

Liverpool, a sleeping giant with one of the best histories in European competition, had struggled to qualify at all. Before their appearance in the 2018 final, the Reds last appeared in the UCL during the  2014/15 season where they failed to get out of an easy group.

Chelsea are the last English club to win this illustrious trophy, but they haven’t made it past the round of 16 since the 13/14 season, where they advanced to the semifinals. The Blues failed to qualify for the group stages this time around and for the 16/17 campaign.

Since their quarterfinal appearance in the 13/14 edition of the UCL, Manchester United failed to qualify twice and were even eliminated at the group stages four years ago.

The Beginning of Sustained English Success in Europe?

However, the narrative is changing. Manchester City have risen to become a real threat in Europe, going as far as the semifinals and quarterfinals over the past three seasons.

Likewise, Liverpool have shown their ability to challenge at Europe’s biggest stage again after making it to last season’s Final.

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Liverpool midfielder James Milner walking past the UEFA Champions League trophy

Had Loris Karius not made those horrendous mistakes and Mohamed Salah not been injured during the match, perhaps they would have been champions.

Manchester United are even showing signs of improvement. Season after season, United failed to even progress past the group stages until finally, they qualified for the Round of 16 last year. Yet, even when they were considered favorites, they lost to Sevilla. However, after the appointment of interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, their form has massively improved. Having now overcome a 2-0 deficit to beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 in Paris to qualify for the quarterfinals, there is increasing belief at Old Trafford. Whether or not it will be enough to inspire the Red Devils to a return to the semifinals for the first time since 2011 remains to be seen, but signs of improvement are definitely evident on the red side of Manchester.

Even Tottenham, perennial “bottlers” are doing better. Spurs have seemed to be building upon their experience in the competition and moving forward one step at a time. Three seasons ago, they qualified for the UCL after a six-year absence. They were eliminated in the group stages, but the next season they made it to the Round of 16 where they competed well against a strong Juventus side. This season, they have made it into the last eight and have a real shot at reaching the semifinals.

A Shift on the International Stage too?

This shift isn’t just limited to club teams, as evident by England’s recent performances international stage.  Currently, England are outperforming Spain. England made it to the semifinals of the World Cup last summer, while Spain fell at the Round of 16 after a penalty shootout against Russia.

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England before their World Cup semifinal 

The two nations were then paired together in a three-team group for the UEFA Nations League. England topped the group, advancing to the semifinals, while Spain finished in second.

Has the tide finally shifted? Time will tell whether or not England are becoming a dominant force again and if Spain’s reign as the “best in the world” is coming to an end. Regardless, England have proven to be formidable opponents this season, and are certainly on the rise once again.

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:

By Little Savage – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27032084

By rayand – File:Chelsea Champions League Winners 2012.jpg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32126781

By Football.ua, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62826703

By Антон Зайцев – soccer.ru, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69658566

By Антон Зайцев – https://www.soccer.ru/galery/1057623/photo/736120, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70779820

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