KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Five years have passed since an English team, Chelsea in Munich against FC Bayern, last reached the final of the UEFA Champions League.
This has been a very different era to the 1970s and early 1980s when English clubs featured in eight out of nine Champions Cup finals before the five-year exclusion which followed the Heysel Disaster. Later, between the dramatic victories of United and Chelsea over FC Bayern in 1999 and 2012, English clubs featured in eight out of 14 finals.
Since then no-one even in the semi-finals.
Now the balance of power may be about to change. Italian clubs have long lost their all-conquering allure, German outfits are struggling and even Spain’s Real Madrid and Barcelona are approaching crisis point with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi now beyond their critical 30th birthdays.
On Tuesday night runaway Liverpool set an English Champions League record by scoring seven goals away to Maribor; self-confident Tottenham avoided defeat against Real Madrid for only the second time in five meetings down the years; and superb Manchester City saw off an impressively-revived Napoli.
Last night Chelsea drew 3-3 with Roma and Manchester United won 1-0 away to Benfica. All the English clubs lead thier groups after a combined 15 games, 11 wins, no defeats, 44 goals for, 11 against and 37 points out of a possible 45.
English clubs have a statistical advantage through the presence of five clubs in the group stage thanks to both a change in UEFA Champions League access regulations and the ‘free pass’ for last season’s Europa League winners (United).
But there is more to it than mere numbers. For one thing the quality of the English Champions League phalanx is higher than for many years. There is no modest outfit such as Leicester last season for whom reaching the quarter-finals was beyond their wildest dreams. Also, there is no ever-fragile Arsenal with their knockout stage, second round death wish.
All five English clubs have genuine ambitions and, with the possible exception of Tottenham, have spent heavily over the past two years in pursuit of, first, Champions League qualification and, secondly, the hungdr for European success.
This past summer transfer spending in England reached a record £1.4bn. Manchester City led the way with a record outlay of £215m while both Chelsea and Tottenham set club records by splashing £58m on Alvaro Morata and £42m on Davinson Sanchez respectively.
English clubs have the money to buy the best players so it is only logical that their performances and results on the international stage should improve.
That is not all. The money has also been spend wisely on managerial knowhow in both domestic and European arenas. City’s Pep Guardiola and United’s Jose Mourinho both know all about winning the Champions League and how to achieve it while Jurgen Klopp knows about reaching finals in both the Champions and Europa Leagues with Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool respectively.
As for Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, he won Champions League as a player and has managed at the highest level, taking Italy to the quarter-finals of the 2016 European Championship.
Only Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino is a comparative novice but he proved, with his daring use of double centre-forwards Fernando Llorente and Harry Kane in the Estadio Bernabeu on Tuesday, that he is a manager with star quality.
Of course the usual devils can bring them all down when the pressure of injuries and fatigue after the Christmas holiday programme is exacerbated by the spring’s heavy fixture demands. But this is the precise reason clubs such as City and United in particular have invested in deep squads.
England’s clubs have the money and the managers and – as this season’s results thus far suggest – they also have the momentum to engineer a Champions League turning-point.