The shifting of power is something football fans take very seriously. A victory against a rival is about making a statement; it’s more than just a game. When Arsenal beat Tottenham at the weekend, this apparently wiped out the previous season’s gulf in class. In one foul swoop, what we previously believed to be true, was now apparently redundant.
False power shifts
It’s hard to really gauge what the criteria is for said change. If Arsenal beat Spurs, who beat Real Madrid, who beat Barcelona and Manchester United, does that mean Arsenal are now favourites for the Champions League? Oh wait. One swallow doesn’t make a summer. In fact, don’t expect to see any more swallows until next Spring.
Quite how you judge a shift in power depends mainly on how much the weaker of the two parties wants to believe it is true. Is it fair to suggest a single game is proof of what they want to believe? Well, no. They might argue it and by god, they’ll argue even more if it upsets you, but that doesn’t make it true.
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However a succession of collective results, in major games, might hint at the beginning of something special occurring.
Spain are Kings of Europe
LaLiga is the top dog in Europe due to its unrivalled success. Four of the last six Champions League winners ply their trade in Spain. Two of the last three were all-Spanish affairs as well. You need to go back to 2001, with Valencia, for the last time a LaLiga side lost a final to a non-Spanish team. That’s a pretty solid record.
The same record of victors is true in the Europa League. Of the last six seasons, four winners have come from Spain. The last time a LaLiga side was beaten in the final of that competition – by a non-LaLiga one – was also in 2001. This was when Liverpool beat Alaves 5-4.
And going into this season’s European competitions, I imagine most people had LaLiga sides down to win at least the Champions League. Real Madrid made history by winning back-to-back Champions League titles. Barcelona might not have Neymar but with Lionel Messi in the team you always have a chance. Atletico Madrid tend to find their best form in Europe but come unstuck in the final. All three are solid, respectable options for lifting the title.
LaLiga largely second best
Yet the big guns in Spain have stumbled a little bit and that’s caused renewed optimism amongst the Premier League’s representatives.
Barcelona are struggling to find top gear but should still finish top of their group. Atletico are on the brink of elimination after a horror opening four matches. As for the all-conquering Real Madrid, they couldn’t overcome Tottenham and finish second. And we shouldn’t forget about Sevilla either who, despite a wonderful comeback last night, still look set to finish behind Liverpool.
Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham will all finish as top dogs of their respective groups. Liverpool are likely to win theirs and Chelsea, if they avoid any more slip-ups, could finish above Roma as well. Is this the start of a power shift back to England? Does the Premier League now have an, at worse, equal pull to LaLiga?
Better coaching and recruitment in England
There’s no denying that the Premier League has improved in the last two to three years. Mauricio Pochettino has transformed Tottenham from Europa League also-rans to Premier League challengers. Jurgen Klopp, while needing a defender or two, has restored the belief at Liverpool. Chelsea easily won the Premier League last term and look strong this year. The Manchester clubs, with arguably the two best coaches in world football, are now beginning to show their true credentials.
Only a fool would deny the clear progression of English teams.
Money is a factor, but that can be said of any of the major sides in Europe. Why should they feel bad for producing, on a regular basis, fantastic coverage of their league both at home and abroad? Coverage which is far and above what their rivals produce by the way. It’s for the rest to catch up, not complain and make jealous snipes.
It’s one thing having the riches and another investing it correctly. This is an area where it’s improved drastically in England. It’s about attracting the best talent in the world to play in your league.
Messi and Cristiano are both in their 30s now, they can’t carry their respective teams forever. Paul Pogba might have been expensive at £89m but he’s dragged United from being ordinary to potentially great again. Pep Guardiola added nearly £200m worth of talent to his backline so now their defence is almost as formidable as their attack. A lot of money, sure, but it’s been spent well.
LaLiga are yet to claim a single victory over an English side
Premier League clubs are unbeaten against LaLiga ones so far in the group stages. Liverpool drew twice against Sevilla, Chelsea beat Atletico at the Wanda Metropolitano and Spurs took four points off reigning champions Real Madrid. Even if it’s only the group stages, that’s quite impressive.
However the talk of a power shift feels a little premature. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico all have at least another gear to reach assuming they all go through to the knockout rounds. Should one of the main two fall away in the LaLiga title race, it could make the Champions League even more important to them. Sevilla need to add some new faces in January to be a threat but they shouldn’t be underestimated either. They are, after all, the kings of the Europa League.
The gap is closing
Let’s take nothing away from the Premier League sides’ performances. The improvement in England hasn’t gone unnoticed in Spain either. Javier Tebas is desperate to keep his ‘Kings of Europe’ tag and knows what a threat the Premier League can be to that title. His comments about Messi signing a new deal, despite no official confirmation, are perhaps an indicator of the fear factor in play. This coming after his very public opposition to Neymar leaving Barcelona to join PSG in the summer.
Like Sergio Ramos, LaLiga is sporting a bloody nose at the moment. A sharp reminder that you can’t rest on your laurels and assume the best will always remain at the top. We’re seeing evidence of that in LaLiga with Valencia fighting for the title. Spain’s biggest teams need to react fast or face losing their status as top dogs.
The real acid test will be in the knockout stages which is when Spanish sides usually find their rhythm. You can afford to make mistakes in the group stage and still get through. But in the knockout rounds one error can bring a halt to the entire campaign. In those clutch moments, LaLiga usually comes up trumps.
Can the Premier League sustain this war or will they fade away?
I’d like to extend my best wishes to Sevilla coach Eduardo Berizzo who it’s been announced is suffering from prostate cancer.