The Champions League resumes this week with more English clubs in the knockout stages than ever before.
All five Premier League sides who qualified to play in Europe’s elite competition — Manchester United joined last season’s domestic top four by winning the Europa League — cruised through to the last 16 with relative ease. Only Chelsea failed to top their group and they finished level on points with first-placed Roma and ahead of recent finalists Atletico Madrid.
It made for a happy contrast to English struggles in recent seasons and even led some to suggest such days were over.
“The last three years haven’t been good for the English teams and I think now you’re going to see the emergence of their strength,” said Frank Lampard after the group stages.
In three of the five seasons since Chelsea became the last English club to win the Champions League in 2012, no Premier League team has been in the semi-finals of the competition.
Chelsea lost in the last four to Atletico Madrid in 2014 and Manchester City fell to Real Madrid in 2016 but that has been as good as it has got for English clubs in Europe’s top competition over the last few years, marking a precipitous drop in performance from the previous decade.
From Leeds United’s great gamble in 2001 to Chelsea’s Munich miracle in 2012, there were only two Champions League seasons in which at least one English club was not counted among the final four — 2003 and 2010. In three consecutive seasons from 2006-07 to 2008-09, three quarters of the semi-final draw came from England.
There are reasons beyond just a strong group-stage showing to believe English clubs may be on the cusp of another period of regularly dominating the latter stages of the competition. The current £8bn Premier League broadcast deal has stretched the financial gap between English teams and the rest of Europe — five of the top 10 and 10 of the top 20 richest clubs in the world now come from England, according to Deloitte.
While England’s clubs have long been comparatively rich and underperformed relative to their economic might, revenues have often been determinative for everyone else. Since 2012 only been seven different European teams have reached the Champions League semi-finals, six of whom are among the seven richest, with the exception being Monaco last season.
Premier League squads may also be benefitting from refreshing their teams, perhaps having been guilty of holding on too long to the players who brought them success in a previous decade. The average age of Champions League-winning teams since 2012 has been 26.9. Stretching back to 2005, only two sides have won the competition with an average age over 28: Inter Milan in 2010 and AC Milan in 2007. This season, English teams’ average age in the competition has ranged from Liverpool’s 25.7 to Chelsea’s 27.2. Meanwhile last year’s finalists Real Madrid and Juventus are at 28 and 29.5 respectively.
The clearest indication as to whether the sun has set on Europe’s elite and a new Premier League dawn has broken, however, will be what happens when they face off over the next few weeks.