The three rough eras of the Champions League – Italian (until 1988-89 to 1998), Spanish (1999-2004) and English dominance (2005-) – correspond with the ability of clubs in those countries to outstrip the others in transfer spending. Between 1984 and 2000, the world football transfer record was broken nine times by Italian clubs. Only twice in that period – when Alan Shearer moved to Newcastle and Denilson joined Real Betis, was the record held by non-Italian clubs.
The moves to Real Madrid of Luis Figo in 2000 and Zinedine Zidane in 2001 took the record to Spain, and ushered in their period of dominance. Transfer fees as a whole have dropped since then, but the four biggest moves since 2004 have all been to English clubs.
2. Importing New Ideas
Foreign players and coaches have brought new ideas and, while the Premier League's Big Four all play in very different ways, a general balance seems to have been achieved between physicality and technique. The way United and Liverpool were able to retain possession last week, certainly, is a leap forward from the way English sides were picked off in away ties in the nineties.
3. The Right Level of Competitiveness
Again, such things are speculative, but it may be that the Premier League has hit upon a middle ground conducive to success in the Champions League. There is a sufficient gulf between top and bottom that key players can be rested, or certain games taken at half pace, but equally sufficient good sides to provide the tough encounter that ensure players do not lose their edge.
Interestingly, the same three statements can be made about the conference that has produced the last three national champions in college football and is 10-3 in BCS Games this decade: the SEC. In an age where sports revenues have exploded as teams and leagues have figured out how to turn the passion of their fans into cash, the SEC and the English Premier League have benefited the most because they have the greatest intensity of preference among their supporters. In the same way that Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, and Arsene Wenger have brought new ideas to the EPL that have moved the league beyond the "hoof it upfield, mate!" mentality that used to dominate English football, the SEC has imported coaches like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Les Miles from other conferences to bring new ideas. (I might be stretching a little by calling Les a new ideas guy, but he does have a knack for hiring top-shelf coordinators from outside. I'm also stretching a little by giving Mourinho and Benitez credit for moving England past route one when they've both deployed that as an offensive strategy, but they are certainly ahead of the curve in terms of defensive tactics. This analogy isn't perfect.) The willingness to import new ideas is one major factor that sets the SEC apart from the one conference that can match it in terms of revenue generation: the Big Ten.
Finally, there is a good argument to be made that the SEC, like the EPL, has the right level of parity. The conference is good enough and deep enough that its teams come out of the conference schedule battle-tested and with sufficient strength of schedule to win comparisons against teams from other conferences. However, the conference is not so good that its elite - Florida, LSU, Georgia, and now Alabama - can't perpetuate their status as top teams.
The major difference between the SEC and the EPL is this: the SEC benefits from being in a talent-rich region, while the EPL has succeeded despite the fact that it is located in a country that does not produce much talent relative to other countries in the world. If the SEC were like the EPL, then its teams would be stocked with players from other regions of the country. Florida would play Penn State and have more Pennsylvanians in the lineup than the Nittany Lions, not unlike Liverpool fielding more Spaniards than Real Madrid.
Other random thoughts from Matchday 8:
1. Barca were stunning for the first half last night. If I could explain why I love this team, I would show those first 45 minutes. The Blaugrana put Lyon - a good team that has always been competitive in knock-out ties - under pressure from the start and didn't let up until the game was 4-0. Les Gones barely touched the ball for the half and certainly not in the attacking third. Barca's players were constantly linking up, and not just the offensive guys. The first goal came from an assist from central defender Rafa Marquez. (Rafa may be suspect defensively, but he does have skills beyond marking and tackling. I still think that his best role is the one he plays for Mexico: defensive midfield. I can also see how the comparisons to Franz Beckenbauer came about.) The third goal was a great move that started with a perfect cross-field pass from Gerard Pique, the other central defender.
2. I feel icky complaining about anything after a 5-2 win, but I do have some concerns:
- Dani Alves is a defensive liability. He was nowhere to be found on Lyon's second goal and he was also absent on the glorious chance that Karim Benzema fluffed at 4-2. The last ten minutes would have been excruciating if Barca were nursing a 4-3 lead. Alves's defensive issues will be a focus if Barca play Liverpool, as Benitez will make it his mission in life to tactically negate Barca's attack and exploit the spaces that Alves leaves. Alves would also be an issue if Barca play United or Bayern, as Ronaldo and Ribery could use those spaces to great effect. I wonder whether Pep would tinker with the formation by either instructing Yaya Toure to drop back into the right back role whenever Alves gets forward (although that would weaken Barca in the middle) or pushing Alves into midfield and deploying Puyol at right back.
- Samuel Eto'o is slumping right now. With the number of chances he gets from his teammates, he should have 40 goals right now. That sounds ridiculous, but I watch this team twice a week and Eto'o is anything by clinical. I love the guy because he runs his tail off and his movement is first-rate, but he just isn't top-shelf as a finisher. Maybe my standards are too high.
- Barca have a tendency to switch off for stretches.
3. Life is good in a week in which Barca clobbers a Champions League opponent one day after Real Madrid got humiliated 4-0.
4. Was I the only one who had the Yakety Sax music going through my head when watching the highlights of Sporting Lisbon trying to defend in Munich? Comical doesn't do justice to that display. They made Lucas Podolski look like Gerd Muller.
5. More evidence that Arsenal's claim to play beautiful, attacking football is crap: the Gunners didn't score from open play in 210 minutes against Roma. Roma are an offensive team who take plenty of chances, so Wenger can't whinge about how his team can't score because of an opponent packing the defense. Arsenal are either incapable of scoring (a possibility when Nicklas Bendtner is involved) or they don't take risks. A combination of the two is possible.
6. Serie A did not acquit itself well at all, but how would its performance be viewed if two Brazilian strikers - Adriano and Julio Baptista - would have converted almost identical chances at home in front of goal from about ten yards out?
7. Chelsea are a different team when Didier Drogba actually cares.
8. Right now, I would put the eight surviving teams into three tiers. The top tier is United, Liverpool, and Barca, in that order. The middle tier, in no discernible order, is Chelsea, Bayern, and Arsenal. The bottom tier is Villarreal and Porto. I'm not wild about Barca's chances to win the whole tournament because of the team's defensive issues, but if they can avoid United and Liverpool in the quarters and the semis, then they could certainly beat either team over 90 minutes. If they do draw one of the big two, then having the home leg last is imperative. Since hiring Frank Rijkaard, Barca are 6-0 in Champions League knock-out ties when they have the road leg first and 0-3 when they have the home leg first.