West Ham United
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 By Michael Cox

A competitive Premier League may have led to England's UCL decline

Within the span of 15 years, Premier League clubs evolved from no-hopers in the Champions League, to the most dominant sides in the competition.

Now, following a few years of decline, there are questions about whether they can still compete with Europe's elite.

It feels natural that the Premier League ended up excelling in the Champions League. After all, in their modern formats, the competitions were formed in 1992, with roughly the same financial purpose. Initially, however, England was a backwater in European football terms.

In the early 1990s, English clubs were still affected by UEFA's ban from competing in Europe, handed down in the aftermath of Heysel. They were allowed to compete by the advent of the Champions League in 1992, but that period away from the competition had a longer-lasting impact upon the quality of English football.

It seems strange now, but in the mid-1990s, every European match for English clubs was a genuine challenge, particularly away from home. An away match with, say, Rapid Vienna was a genuinely terrifying prospect, whereas these days it would be an easy away victory.

Results in those early days were distinctly unimpressive, perhaps a consequence of the isolated nature of English football, physically and figuratively separated from Europe and backward in its approach to the game. Without the raft of foreigners in the Premier League, as we're now accustomed to, European football was a culture shock.

Premier League football was entirely different stylistically from continental competition, and consequently English clubs performed atrociously in the Champions League.

Sir Alex Ferguson struggled to come to grips with the competition tactically, Blackburn Rovers bombed in their only attempt (with David Batty and Graeme Le Saux famously coming to blows in Moscow) and even Arsene Wenger's Arsenal -- the most modern, continental side in English football -- appeared out of their depth in the late 1990s.

What changed, to make English clubs so dominant toward the end of the past decade? Primarily, it involved internal factors; the development of the Premier League into the most marketable, most watched division in the world inevitably increased clubs' revenue. The individual clubs became stronger and slowly their European performance improved.

The abolishment of the three-foreigner rule sped up development, bringing the world's best to the Premier League, while robbing smaller countries of their best talent. Later, the arrival of managers like Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez -- European Cup and UEFA Cup winners the previous season -- brought more tactical nous.

Crucially, however, the expansion of the competition around the turn of the century (allowing countries to enter multiple clubs) played into the hands of English clubs, who have generally provided strength in depth, rather than the outright best team in the tournament. English clubs essentially had more tickets in the raffle -- and while other countries did, too, there was more of a drop-off in quality elsewhere.

Sure enough, England's first successful Champions League winners in the modern format, Manchester United, had not qualified as champions -- they'd finished second the previous season. The same applies to Liverpool in 2005, who had finished fourth, and Chelsea in 2012, who trailed Manchester United in the the previous campaign.

On a related note, English clubs have repeatedly won the competition in somewhat fluky fashion. There has been nothing like Milan's 4-0 thrashing of Barcelona in 1994, Barca's destruction of Manchester United in 2009, or even the solid way Mourinho has won finals with Porto and Inter.

Instead, English clubs have relied on somewhat old-fashioned, stereotypical qualities: fighting spirit, commitment, determination and a bit of luck, too. It's been a tale of last-gasp goals and penalty shootouts.

On the three occasions an English club has defeated a foreign side in the final, they've been outplayed. Bayern battered Manchester United for long periods in 1999, going up 1-0 early before hitting the woodwork twice as United clung on for dear life. Without Roy Keane and Paul Scholes -- both suspended -- United couldn't compete in midfield. Only in the final moments, with typical United perseverance, did they start playing -- and turned the game around.

Liverpool's 2005 victory was arguably an even more ridiculous comeback, considering they were thrashed by a superb Milan side in the first half. Again, the English side was overrun in midfield, with Kaka masterminding a 3-0 half-time lead. Milan's complacency, combined with Benitez astutely rectifying his pre-match tactical mistakes, prompted a sudden turnaround. Liverpool won on penalties.

Steven Gerrard led Liverpool to one of the most improbable comebacks in history over AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final.

Chelsea's 2012 triumph was slightly different, as allowing themselves to be dominated was a clear tactical plan. Nevertheless, Bayern were on top for the entire game, and Chelsea simply maximised a set-piece opportunity at the death. The statistics were remarkable: Bayern had 35 shots compared to nine, seven on target compared to one, 20 corners compared to one.

One corner, one shot on target, one goal. That's all it took for Chelsea to reach the shootout, which they won. The national team might be terrible at penalties, but at club level, English sides come up trumps. Incidentally, the only all-English final, between Manchester United and Chelsea in 2008, was also settled on penalties.

The Premier League's strongest period was between 2004 and 2009, when it eventually officially became the best league in Europe in terms of coefficient points. This spell coincided with the tedious, repetitive 'big four' era where Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United finished in the Champions League places every season (Everton finished above Liverpool in 2005, but then failed to get through qualification while Liverpool entered as holders, maintaining the pattern).

There was an element of chicken-and-egg to this period. That quartet were strong domestically because they were earning money from repeated Champions League entry, and poaching other sides' best players. Equally, they were strong in Europe because they didn't have to worry about falling out of that top four.

In truth, England failed to convert this dominance into a significant number of outright victories. In three consecutive years -- 2007, 2008 and 2009 -- England provided three of the four semifinalists, but twice the 'other' club triumphed.

Between 2006 and 2009, each of the 'big four' -- Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United -- were runners-up. To reiterate an earlier point, England provided strength in depth rather than the best team in the competition.

The end of the 'big four' -- with Tottenham taking the final Champions League spot in 2010 as Liverpool slumped to seventh -- also marked the end of the English dominance of the competition.

Chelsea 2012 aside, the performance in recent years has been very poor.

The example of Manchester City, who have encountered problems in Europe because of difficult draws (because they were an 'outsider' who hadn't gained many coefficient points), almost proves the point about the big four's cyclical success.

The more repetitive a country's Champions League entrants, the more dominant they become in the competition itself. Of course, this favours uncompetitive leagues. In that respect, while English clubs aren't as dominant in the Champions League compared to the 'big four' era, the Premier League has become more exciting as a whole.

Michael Cox is the editor of and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.


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