England's biggest football clubs are currently enjoying an era of unprecedented financial dominance, with all 20 Premier League outfits reckoned to be among the 40 richest in the world.
Spiralling revenue, driven by ever-swelling television contracts, has afforded even the most modest English top-flight teams the cash to outbid all but the most prestigious sides in Europe for leading players.
Yet despite all that they now find themselves facing the possibility of losing one of the symbols – and pillars – of their exalted status: the fourth Champions League place.
Three seasons of largely poor results in both that tournament and the Europa League, its drab relative, mean that next season may be the last in which the top four gain entry to the continent’s elite competition.
Another campaign like this one could see England drop out of the select group of three nations granted the maximum four Champions League qualifiers, to be replaced by resurgent Italy.
That would mean the scramble to finish among the Premier League’s top four intensifying into a race to be in the first three in 2016-17, with a reduced presence in the Champions League from 2017-18.
European governing body Uefa uses a complex system based on results over the past five campaigns to determine the number of places each country’s clubs get in its competitions.
Graphic by Chris Parmenter. Article continues below.
Nations earn points according their teams’ performances in the Champions League and Europa League, and these figures are totted up to compile a coefficient value for each season.
Coefficients for this term and the past four years are then combined, and this total determines a country’s ranking and, ultimately, how many places its sides are allocated.
Premier League teams enjoyed huge success in Europe from 2005 to 2012, with Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea winning the Champions League and accruing another four final appearances between them.
Arsenal also finished runners-up in that spell, while England’s dominance was illustrated by clubs accounting for 13 of the competition’s 24 semi-finalists between 2003-04 and 2008-09.
Glory in the Europa League and its predecessor the Uefa Cup may have been more modest, with Liverpool winning and Middlesbrough and Fulham reaching the final, but also contributed to maintaining England’s strong coefficient.
Three seasons of comparative underperformance, lit up only by Chelsea’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2013-14, have taken their toll on England’s standings, however.
Both this term and in 2012-13 no Premier League side reached even the last eight of Europe’s most prestigious club event, meaning the coefficient has had to be propped up by past triumphs.
Some of those big successes, such as United reaching the Champions League final in 2011 and Chelsea lifting the trophy 12 months later, will soon drop off the five-year assessment period, leaving England vulnerable.
Germany – currently third behind England, with Spain top – are primed to overtake next season, when allocation for 2016-17 is determined, unless Premier League teams eclipse their Bundesliga rivals next year.
Italy, who will be represented in next month’s Champions League final by Juventus and saw two more teams reach the last four of the Europa League, are also in a position to pass England in the rankings in 12 months’ time.
That would require a repeat of this season’s performances by Italian, English and German sides, but would end the Premier League’s 16-year grip on a fourth Champions League place.
So lucrative is the Champions League that, accounting for prize money increases from next season, the winners can expect to bank more than £50m and nearer £100m from all revenue streams in the ultimate scenario.
From the season after next those riches may only be on offer to three English clubs, potentially widening the gap between the division’s wealthiest teams and the chasing pack.
Above all, losing the fourth spot would underline the fact that a financial advantage – Premier League clubs earned a combined £2.52bn in 2012-13 while Italy’s top flight made £1.44bn – is no guarantee of glory.