Champions League: Deep Pockets, Deep Benches, English Winners

Champions League: Deep Pockets, Deep Benches, English Winners

That is possible, of course. Make no mistake: Chelsea and Manchester City most definitely are better teams than Real Madrid and Paris St.-Germain. They are more complete, more coherent, smarter, fitter, better drilled. But at this level, among the handful of the greatest teams in world soccer, there is no such thing as a vast difference. There are only fine margins.

That is what Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City coach, meant on Tuesday night when he said that there can be “something in the stars” in the Champions League. Strange things happen. The best team does not win. The dice roll. Games and destinies hinge on the merest details: a stroke of luck, a narrow offside, a player slipping as he takes a penalty.

It is Guardiola’s job, of course, to do all he can to make sure his team is not susceptible to the vicissitudes of fate, to ensure that the players at his disposal are talented enough, that his tactical scheme is effective enough, that his squad is fit enough to minimize the power of what is, in effect, random chance. But most managers accept there is a limit to what they can do: Rafael Benítez, who won the Champions League with Liverpool, saw his job as getting his team to the semifinals. After that, he knew, to some extent he had to trust to luck.

What is clear, though, is that increasingly those fine margins are falling in favor of English teams. Before the year 2000, there had never been a European Cup or Champions League final contested between teams from the same country. Since then, there have been eight: three all-Spanish finals (2000, 2014, 2016), one each for Italy (2003) and Germany (2013); and three for England (2008, 2019 and, now, 2021).

That concentration, of course, reflects not only the preponderance of teams from western Europe’s major leagues in the competition — those four countries now supply half of the teams that comprise the tournament’s group stage — but serves to demonstrate the shifting power balance between them, evidence of which league possesses the mix of tactical nous, technical virtuosity and sheer physicality to take center stage.

When Italian teams led the world in tactics, they tended to dominate the Champions League. Spain’s golden generation, combined with first the brilliance of Lionel Messi and then Real Madrid’s second-generation Galacticos, were so technically gifted that no master plan could stifle them, until Germany’s homespun counter-pressing approach punched a way through. The Premier League’s best years have come when its traditional athleticism is married to cutting-edge tactics and technique, imported from continental Europe.

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