Sitting on top of the soccer world

Martin Rogers

Soccer's purists in England will never stop bemoaning the top-heavy nature of the English Premier League until a team from outside the Big Four makes a serious and consistent bid to break up the long-standing status quo.

However, the ongoing dominance of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal is having a knock-on effect on the European scene, and it's boosting the Premiership's reputation in the process.

For the second straight year, three of the four teams in the Champions League semifinals are from England, with Liverpool hosting Chelsea on Tuesday and United taking on Barcelona 24 hours later.

If the tournament draw had kept Arsenal away from domestic opposition at the quarterfinal stage, where the Gunners lost a controversial but thrilling encounter to Liverpool, then all four EPL clubs would have made up the final four of the competition. Few could have complained they were not there on merit.

Either way, the makeup of the protagonists in this week's semifinal first legs is, and will continue to be, used as ammunition for those wishing to highlight the EPL's strength when compared to Europe's other top leagues.

The issue is slightly blurred, though, as some will argue that it is actually a lack of depth in England that has carved out a path for this type of European dominance.

The Big Four rarely have much of a fight on their hands to qualify for the Champions League, even though Everton sneaked into the Premiership's fourth qualifying spot three years ago and Tottenham came within one point in 2006.

That, especially in the case of Liverpool, has allowed the big teams to rest key players in league matches and enabled them to be fresh for Champions League games the same week. In Spain and Italy, the fight for qualification is generally much tougher, and such luxuries are not a realistic option.

There is also the matter of finance and the lavish millions that pour into each club's coffers from Champions League revenues.

The rich get richer – and therefore stronger – and the Big Four are even less likely to relinquish the grip on their positions of power. Combine that with the experience gained from countless big European matches, year after year, and you start to see why the results of the past two seasons cannot be dismissed as coincidence.

And don't expect it to change any time soon.

Whereas once English teams struggled to show the sort of sophistication needed to progress through the obstacle-ridden knockout stages of the Champions League, now the blend of British steel and continental flair that courses through the Premiership's elite seems to be the perfect blueprint for success in Europe's top club tournament.

At Liverpool, manager Rafael Benitez has proven himself as something of a genius when it comes to European competition and is close to reaching his third Champions League final in four years, which would be a truly remarkable achievement by any standard. He has been able to tap into the homegrown passion of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, while also getting the likes of Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso to buy into the history and spirit of the club.

Down in London, Chelsea boss Avram Grant is in a tough spot, having still failed to win over the fans who pine for a return to the exciting days of the outspoken and charismatic Jose Mourinho. There is a sense that Benitez will have the tactical edge over Grant, even though the Israeli has a deeper talent pool to call upon. Expect Liverpool to reach the final once again and fight for the Cup in Moscow on May 21.

It can be argued that ever since Manchester United's dramatic comeback victory in the 1999 final, the Red Devils have underachieved in the Champions League. However, Sir Alex Ferguson gives no indication of wanting to step down, and his hunger this season has been as strong as ever.

Cristiano Ronaldo's brilliance has spurred a charge toward the league title that can only be derailed by a late Chelsea surge (the teams meet Saturday), but the threat of Barcelona is real. Even so, Ferguson's men should have too much momentum and confidence and should book their place in the first ever all-English final in tournament history.

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