Domestic dominance gives European teams the edge in Champions League

Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea gestures prior to kickoff during the UEFA Champions League group G match between Chelsea and Sporting Clube de Portugal at Stamford Bridge on December 10, 2014 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Whether you choose to call it the best league or merely the “most entertaining,” it’s hard to argue that the Premier League isn’t the most exciting soccer competition going at club level. It’s also the one with the most money, the best coverage and the widest distribution of top-level players and managers across the league. But as the Champions League quarterfinals get underway this week, they will do so without a single English team remaining in the competition.

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Instead, we are left with a collection of teams that each basically bestrides its domestic league like a colossus. In Germany, Bayern Munich has been so far out of sight for so long that even Pep Guardiola's side must be bored with a Bundesliga campaign that’s become a foregone conclusion. Juventus, the sole remaining power in Serie A, is currently cruising to its fourth consecutive title. In France, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco have both enjoyed cash-fueled ascendancies to the top of Ligue 1.

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Barcelona and Real Madrid, meanwhile, have been using the rest of La Liga as their own personal Washington Generals for decades now. More recently, Atletico Madrid has also ridden domestic success to a place among Europe’s elite. In Portugal, Porto has won the Super Liga title nine times since the turn of the century.

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It could be argued that the lack of any real challenge domestically makes it easier for these teams to save their best for the big European nights. Especially at the business end of the season, when Premier League sides start to wear down from being put through the ringer every week in what players agree is the most demanding league in the world.

The eight teams remaining in the Champions League also benefit from taking a winter break. While Premier League teams toil during the busy “festive period,” the rest of Europe enjoys a holiday. And as continental teams return to February’s European fixtures looking refreshed and revitalized, this season the English teams went in looking drained and exhausted.

Manchester City was played off the park by Barcelona over two legs. Arsenal was knocked out by an unremarkable Monaco team that blew past it like it wasn’t even there in the first leg at the Emirates. Chelsea, the Premier League leader, was edged by a PSG side that just seemed to want it more.

Bayern Munich is enjoying another easy path to the Bundesliga crown. (AFP Photo/Patrik Stollarz)
Bayern Munich is enjoying another easy path to the Bundesliga crown. (AFP Photo/Patrik Stollarz)

It’s difficult to see any of Europe’s top teams losing the advantage of domestic dominance any time soon. The Bundesliga, which had been in danger of becoming a two-team league, has become a one-team league this season with the collapse of Borussia Dortmund. In Italy, despite occasional rumblings from the likes of Roma and Napoli, Juve continues to dominate.

However in Spain, there are signs that things might change. Atleti's emergence has challenged Barça and Real’s hegemony, and there’s talk of a new TV deal that would see the money more evenly distributed throughout the league.

Not so very long ago, Premier League teams dominated Europe. Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012 and the Europa League the following year. Manchester United beat Chelsea in an all-English final in 2008 and reached the final in 2009 and 2011, losing to Barça on both occasions. But at a time when the Premiership is hitting new heights in terms of prestige and exposure, English teams find themselves in a tough spot when it comes to European competition.

With an influx of new TV money and more top-level managerial talent working for mid- and lower-table teams, the Premier League looks set to become even more competitive, turning the domestic calendar into even more of a grind for the top teams. Although few Premier League fans would want it any other way. Nor would they want to surrender the time-honored tradition of watching matches over the holidays.

But as schedules for top Premier League players grow more congested every year with internationals, friendlies, cup competitions and regular season games, the big teams across the Channel will continue to enjoy the advantages of a relatively comfortable domestic season and a nice winter holiday.