English teams regain Champions League stride

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

The closest Sir Alex Ferguson has come to looking ahead to the Champions League final is when he blasted UEFA for its extortionate ticket prices. Make no mistake, though: When London's Wembley Stadium hosts European club soccer's biggest game on May 26, Ferguson expects to be there.

And he may find some familiar company.

Manchester United's 0-0 draw at Marseille in its round-of-16 first leg on Wednesday was another step in the right direction for the English Premiere League club, one of four EPL teams in the competition that have a good chance of reaching the quarterfinals.

After a barren spell last season when no English teams reached the semifinals, this year looks set to bring about a dramatic resurgence.

"In the last four years English teams have been very powerful," said Ferguson this week. "The success rate for getting through to the latter stages is very good, and it could happen again. The Premier League is very tough, with a lot of talented players. That has created a level over the last seven or eight years that is very tough to match."

The prize of a final on native soil seems to have been just what was needed for the EPL's Champions League representatives to start flexing their muscles once more. Chelsea is in the safest position of the bunch, having won 2-0 at FC Copenhagen, and can already start making plans for the next round.

Tottenham's shocking win at AC Milan has given it a chance to progress further in its first season in the competition, while Arsenal still has a tough assignment despite having won its first leg at home over Barcelona.

EPL clubs have their aura back this season, a far cry from 12 months ago when United and Arsenal turned in dismal quarterfinal displays. Chelsea was knocked out by eventual champion Inter Milan and Liverpool bombed out in group play.

The physical nature of the EPL serves its teams well when they play in Europe, the all-action style often too much to cope with for continental sides accustomed to a more sedate pace.

The Champions League final venue rotates every year, yet two teams from the same country have never met in a "home" venue with the trophy on the line.

"For the English teams, playing at Wembley is so special," said Tottenham goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes. "It makes you think about it a little bit, and hope."

English clubs' dominance kicked into gear in 2006-07, beginning three straight seasons where EPL teams made up three of the four Champions League semifinalists. Such hegemony caused UEFA president Michel Platini to look at ways of promoting a more level playing field, and blunting the effect of the English teams' huge spending power.

A new set of financial fair-play rules have been implemented that restrict the amount of money clubs can spend in relation to their total turnover, but the impact doesn't seem to have curbed either the lavish spending or the strength of the English sides.

The January transfer window saw a spate of expensive signings, headed by Fernando Torres' move from Liverpool to Chelsea for $79.5 million. Money doesn't always equal success (it sure helps, though), yet there is no doubt that following a disastrous World Cup for its national team, English soccer is feeling pretty good about itself again.

Of course, the English bubble could easily be burst over the next couple of weeks, especially if Barcelona, Milan and Marseille have anything to say about it. But it increasingly looks like the old EPL swagger and dominance is back, and it would be a surprise if there wasn't at least one native representative walking out at Wembley at the end of May.

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