By Nick Harris
SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year
23 February 2012
It’s happened to the Italians three times. It’s happened to the Germans three times.
It’s happened to the French nine times. It’s even happened to the Spanish.
It’s never, yet, happened to the English.
The terrible fate of which we speak? No club in the quarter-finals of the Champions League since it became a tournament for clubs other than actual champions (which was 1997-98).
With Manchester United and Manchester City both eliminated in the group stages of this year’s competition and Arsenal and Chelsea now outsiders in their ties against Milan and Napoli to progress to the quarter-finals, the handwringing about the state of English football and especially the Premier League is underway in earnest.
Collectively England’s top flight is done, spent, in decline, rubbish, never-to-recover.
If that isn’t quite the tone everywhere, it’s a bit of the tone in many places.
What is more remarkable is that in the 14 completed Champions League tournaments since the competition allowed in more than one club from each nation, England has never failed to produced at least one-quarter-finalist.
In fact England has produced 31 of 112 quarter-finalists in that period, or more than any other nation. Full details are in the graphic below.
After England’s 31 quarter-finalists, Spain has contributed 25, Italy 19, Germany 14 and France seven, with only six other nations (Portugal, Ukraine, Netherlands, Greeece, Turkey, Russia) represented at all in those 14 years.
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Three times in the past dozens seasons alone, Italy has failed to field a single quarter-finalist: 2000-01, 2001-02 and 2008-09.
So terminal was Italy’s decline in 2001-02 that in 2002-03, Italy produced three quarter-finalists, both finalists and the winner, Milan.
And so terminal was the decline in 2008-09, that in 2009-10, it also produced the winner, Inter.
Germany’s three ‘barren’ quarter-final years were 2002-03, 2003-04 and 2005-06. But they haven’t been without a quarter-finalist since and Bayern Munich were tournament runners-up in 2010.
The Bundesliga does not see itself as a league in decline and apparently Germany’s national team aren’t doing too badly either.
Spain’s year with no quarter-finalists was 2004-05. Spain’s biggest clubs have not struggled to make an impression in the Champions League since. Their national team have won some stuff too, apparently.
Some commentators think this season’s Champions League is firm evidence of England’s decline at Europe’s top table.
David O’Leary, who took Leeds to the semis in 2001, told the Press Association yesterday: “The quality of the Premier League has not improved – if anything it has gone backwards. Chelsea have gone backwards, Arsenal have gone backwards, Liverpool are not a challenge any more.
“I think even Sir Alex would not view his current United side as his best crop so it was a fantastic achievement to get to the Champions League final and win the league last year. Manchester City have had an unbelievable amount of money to spend but they are still emerging.
“Think of the Chelsea side under Jose Mourinho with a young John Terry and Frank Lampard – a really strong team; think of the Arsenal side of a few years ago or Manchester United when Cristiano Ronaldo was there. Are they as good [now]? No way.”
Sir Alex Ferguson disagrees, taking the long view that success is cyclical. “First of all, success in Europe can sometimes go in cycles,” he says. “Spain had a great cycle about 10 years ago when Valencia, Deportivo, Villarreal, Real Madrid and Barcelona were all dominant. There were three of them in the semi-final one year.
“We have had a great cycle in the Premier League for the last eight years with teams getting to the semi-finals and finals. I don’t see that subsiding. I think the English teams will still be dominant.
“We have had a bad year this year. We have in particular – I can only judge myself. We are disappointed with how we have done. Arsenal and Chelsea have had disappointing results but both clubs have had injury problems and you can’t expect them to get the best results without their best teams.
“It is maybe a little bit disappointing season but to my mind, it is not definite that we are on the slide.”
As the second graphic, below, indicates, the clubs involved at the sharp end of the Champions League, namely the finals, have followed a cyclical pattern.
The re-branded Champions League from 1992-93 onwards was first of all an Italian-dominated event with Dutch glory too.
It then became a Spanish-German fiesta, then had its most ‘varied’ era between 2002 and 2005 when the eight finalists in four years came from six different countries.
And since 2006, it has been dominated by Spanish wins (three for Barcelona), Italy (wins for each of the Milan teams) and heavy English involvement, with six English finalists and one English winner between 2006 and 2011.
Crisis? Historical perspective says that’s premature.
And Arsenal and Chelsea aren’t both definitely out this season. Not yet, anyway.