For a almost a decade after the ban on English clubs competing in Europe post-Hesyel ended, the English champions (mostly Manchester Utd, but also Arsenal, Leeds and Blackburn) struggled to make an impact at Europe’s top table. The powerhouse of continental football was Italy, being represented in 7 consecutive European Cup/Champions League finals between 1992-1998.
These were testing times for English teams in Europe’s elite competition. Whilst the Cup Winners Cup was kind, (Man Utd winners in 1991, Arsenal in 1994, Chelsea in 1998), the gulf in class between in the English champions and their continental counterparts was highly visible. The aura of English clubs, created by the European glories of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa – winners of 7 out of 8 finals between 1977 and 1984 – was long forgotten. The English stranglehold on the European Cup was lost on that tragic night at Heysel when 39 Juventus fans were killed. In the ensuing 5 years, the English club game would be left behind.
Without wanting to rely too much on a held opinion, however true it may be – that English players are not as technically gifted as their comrades from mainland Europe – English clubs and players in the early 90’s had lost whatever edge they had over European teams that allowed them to dominate the 70’s and 80’s. The enforced 5 year sabbatical created a power vaccum that needed to be filled, and as the English clubs returned, that power had very much shifted to Italy.
In a self-perpetuating cycle of success begetting success that we would witness first hand in the Premier League at the turn of the century, the lustre of Serie A would attract top talent from around the world: Van Basten, Batistuta, Rui Costa, Bergkamp, Sensini, Boksic, Deschamps to name but a few, joining the plethora of home grown talent which would make it the benchmark by which other European leagues would measure themselves.
But, as with all occurrences and all situations, this too would pass. Arguably, the biggest turning point, the pivotal moment which saw the power slip away from Serie A would again involve Juventus, this time as they were pegged back from 2-0 ahead in their Champions League Semi-Final second leg against Manchester Utd, losing 3-2 on the night of April 21, 1999 and going out 4-3 on aggregate.
Whilst the two Milanese clubs would enjoy further Champions League success in the next decade, the end of collective bargaining for TV rights in Italy and the all-consuming sprawl in popularity of the Premier League as it began to dig its claws into every corner of the planet signalled a fading in the Serie A star. As the money gushed into the coffers of the Premier League clubs, and with Sterling trading very strongly, so did the talent turn its head. Just as Britain quietly assimilates the parts of other cultures who have immigrated here into its own, so would the Premier League become technically more pleasing whilst keeping the high-tempo and intensity more associated with the kick and rush heyday of times past.
Of course, it would be highly remiss of me not to mention that the current dominant forces of Europe lie in La Liga’s two horse race. Barcelona have set the bar; only Mourinho’s doggedly defensive Inter Milan team stopped them winning 3 consecutive Champions League finals. The rest of Europe, Real Madrid included, have been left playing catch up, trying to find a way of dealing with the relentless pressing and passing, without being Tiki-taka‘d into submission.
But, this too shall pass. Barcelona trailing by Real Madrid by 3 points after 16 games may not be a sign of their imminent demise, but it at least gives hope to others that they may not be as invincible as was once thought. And if the torch of continental domination is to be passed once again, the two Anglo-Italian ties in the 2nd round of the Champions League could act as a power broker.
Arsenal, having seemingly put their early season woes to bed, face a Milan side level on points with Juventus at the top of Serie A. January may provide the Gunners with the chance to bring in defensive reinforcements, but their somewhat creaky back line could struggle to deal with the attacking prowess of Pato, Robinho and Ibrahimovic. Chelsea and their under-fire manager Andre Villas-Boas must take on Napoli, conquerors of Man City. A swift counter-attacking side, their front of three of Lavezzi, Hamsik and the lethal Edinson Cavani will surely trouble Chelsea’s weakening defence and out-of-sorts goalkeeper.
The last time there was no English representative in the last 8 of the Champions League was in the 1995-96 season, when Graeme Le Saux and David Batty’s comical in-fighting saw Blackburn finish rock bottom of their group. If the same outcome were to be repeated this season, it would be a far less ignominious situation for the clubs, and the league as a whole. The longer-term significance, though, would be far greater.