Real Madrid have won it nine times, Hampden Park holds the record attendance, Raul leads the goal charts, Dinamo Bucharest have won by the biggest margin, Celestine Babayaro was the youngest ever player to feature (getting sent off after 37mintues too), Jens Lehmann and Didier Drogba are the only people ever to be sent off in the final, Brian Clough got his hands on it twice, even Aston Villa have lifted it, Malmo FF once reached the final, Paul Scholes has picked up the most amount of yellow cards, and all this for a trophy Chelsea have never even won. It could be none other than the highly prestigious European Cup.
Now known as the Champions League, the tournament is becoming more and more lucrative with every year going by, meaning that clubs will try their absolute upmost to be one of those participating in the group stages. Last season alone, the revenue from TV and sponsorship reached €1.09bn (£947m). So what do we remember about it: Liverpool not reaching the knockout stages, Chelsea’s defeat to Mourinho, Messi’s demolition of Arsenal or perhaps Bayern Munich triumphing over Man United? For the first time in seven years there was no English representative in the semi finals. It says a great deal when the first thing that comes to mind about last year’s European campaign was Fulham reaching the Europa League final. And coming from someone who has a Fulham supporter in their house, this is something we really do need to rectify.
It would be very hard to deny that Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan were the three strongest teams last season. Each played with a flair and resilience which was demonstrated at the World Cup. Players such as Iniesta, Sneijder, Maicon, Lucio, Xavi and Muller all shone, showing that what they could do for their clubs may also be achieved for their country. Could it be that English dominance over Europe is dwindling? A counter attack from other giants of the game seems to be in place which suggests it is going to get an awful lot harder for an English team to raise the trophy once again.
Jose Mourinho’s move to Madrid has provided a new picture for this year’s competition though. Their often criticised defence is the first thing he seems to have stiffened up and the acquisition of Carvalho brings both experience and hunger for European success. New boys Tottenham are also at the centre of attention. If Modric, Lennon, Van Der Vaart and the gem of Gareth Bale play anywhere near their capabilities they may prove a thorn in the side of many unsuspecting rivals. Another two sides standing out are Shakhtar Donetsk and Spartak Moscow, who like Spurs, could provide a few shocks throughout the year. Their perfect starts to the campaign prove that once we reach the knockout stages even the big teams won’t get any easy matches. Moscow include Irishman Aiden McGeady in their squad who swapped the SPL for Russia over the summer for around £9.5 Million. It is with Chelsea that our biggest patriotic hopes lie. The Premier League champions look virtually unbeatable up to now and while they keep trouncing opponents domestically, we can only hope they take this form abroad with them.
So far after two matches events have unfolded in a fairly familiar fashion. Barcelona and AC Milan are the only top seeded teams not to be leading their group and this just because the former played out an uncharacteristic draw away to one Rubin Kazan and the latter are second to none other than Real Madrid. Chelsea and Arsenal have recorded two victories to begin their campaigns whilst Alex Ferguson’s United could only manage a goalless draw against an extremely resilient Rangers. Spurs have given out the most drama to this point. They began their first ever Champion’s League group match by notching up a quick 2-0 advantage against Werder Bremen with Bale and Van Der Vaart displaying the speed and precision that would have rocked any opposition. The hosts reacted impressively with the devilish little Marin spearheading their attack and getting himself on the score sheet for the German side and pulling it back to 2-2. With time running out Crouch was slipped through but he saw his dink over the keeper slide agonisingly wide. Manager Harry Redknapp rounded up afterwards, ‘that first 42 minutes was the best you could ever see us play’. Tottenham lie second in Group A, just behind holders Inter Milan on goal difference.
Now turning our attention to the Europa League, it will take rather a lot to forget about Fulham’s fabulous run to the final. Those who took notice will remember their stunning victory over Juventus 4-1 and Clint Dempsey’s chip which is sure to go down in West London folklore. Only the talent of Diego Forlan robbed them of a chance to be crowned Europa Champions, something which their performances suggested they deserved. This year has a completely new agenda for English teams nonetheless. Liverpool, now having at last been taken over by the owners of the Boston Red Sox, wish to bring some stability back to the club and a prolonged European season may give them that. Aston Villa disappointingly have already been knocked out after a dismal performance against Rapid Vienna which saw them lose on away goals. It is with Manchester City that people’s heads are now turning. Second in the Premier League table before the international break, their squad boasts of so many stars they’d struggle to find a constellation to fit them all. A spending spree of over £125 Million in the summer means that the pressure on them to deliver is immense. One thing is for certain; no trophies for Mancini this year and his future at the club will be in serious debate.
Everything bottles down to the question we ask ourselves year in year out. Will our pre-tournament potential mean that this time, an English club can clasp aloft a European trophy once again? Fingers crossed…