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Sunday, 20 May 2012

You Can Call Me Statto

In honor of last night's Champions League final, I thought it would be fun to have a look at the last few years of the competition, and try to tease out some trends. Just from the outset, I'm only looking at the last eight years, because you could make the case for this period being an era of English dominance in the tournament. I'm also looking only at each year's final, so impressions will of necessity remain just a bit superficial. But I think the table below is still illuminating:


Year
Winner
Runner-up
Score
Venue
2005
Liverpool
AC Milan
3-3 (Liverpool win on penalties)
Istanbul
2006
Barcelona
Arsenal
2-1
Paris
2007
AC Milan
Liverpool
2-1
Athens
2008
Manchester United
Chelsea
1-1 (Man United win on penalties)
Moscow
2009
Barcelona
Manchester United
2-0
Rome
2010
Inter
Bayern Munich
2-0
Madrid
2011
Barcelona
Manchester United
3-1
London
2012
Chelsea
Bayern Munich
1-1 (Chelsea win on penalties)
Munich


As you can see from the table, at least one English club has made it to the final every year but one. In those seven attempts, the English club has won three times, and curiously enough, always on penalties. A Spanish club has won three times, and an Italian club has won twice, always in open play. A German club has made it to the final twice during this period, and has lost both times.

So the three countries who have the most Champions League places - England, Spain and Italy - have dominated the competition for the last eight years, while Germany continues to threaten to muscle its way into this club. The last time a country outside of the Big Three won the competition was 2004, when Porto beat Monaco.

Eight clubs have played for the title, and six have won it. Of those six only one, Barcelona, has won more than once. Barcelona has, in fact, won all three finals in which it participated.

As I said above, it would be fair to call the last eight years an era of English dominance in the Champions League, since they've reached the final so many times. But given that no English team has won in open play during this period (the last time was 1999, when Manchester United beat Bayern in the last two minutes of the match), I'd also argue that proponents of the English game shouldn't get too excited - as we see every two years during the international tournaments.

There's an idea that the key to the English game is fast-paced, attacking play, and this is true to a certain extent. But I think that the real reason for English success in the tournament has been in the disruptive play that Chelsea, in particular, has been so good at. Chelsea plays best as a unit, rather than as a collection of stars (as we saw when talismanic players like Michael Ballack, Hernan Crespo or Andriy Shevchenko struggled to make a ripple at the club). It's not quite catenaccio, because they're strong on the counter-attack, but you know the score's going to be low when two of the big English teams play one another, in any tournament.

Last night's match is a good test case. Although Chelsea came away winners, Bayern had the clear advantage in ball possession, shots and shots on goal. Large portions of the match occurred in front of Chelsea's goal. In fact, as good as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry were, if Bayern had had better strikers up front they could have probably walked away with the game (Mario Gomez was pretty terrible).

This was also the case on both occasions when Manchester United played Barcelona. United is probably the most "English" club, in that it still relies on a more direct attacking approach, but in both 2009 and 2011 Barcelona ran rings around them. Part of it was, of course, that Barcelona essentially the best team in the world, being comprised so heavily of players from the Spanish national team that won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. But it's also simply that on the continent, football clubs know how to pass around their opponents - Wayne Rooney can run until he's blue in the face but he'll never catch a team with a good passing game.

Just to wrap up quickly here, Spanish success in the Champions League is due more, as I said, to Barcelona's dominance than to any particular strength in the Spanish game; Real Madrid hasn't made it to a final in ten years, after all. And frankly, the Spanish league is about as uncompetitive as the Scottish league - what with only Barcelona and Real Madrid ever winning the domestic league.

And finally, turning to Italy: like Michael Myers they just won't die. People have been talking for ages (and not without cause) of the decline of the Italian game. But the last two times an Italian team played in the final, they won pretty convincingly; I don't want to take anything away from Liverpool's achievement in 2005, but it's probably safe to say that Milan peaked a little early by going up 3-0 by half-time, and sat back a bit in the second half. Still, it's telling that no matter how close Italy gets every year to losing its fourth Champions League spot, Germany is still not quite able to capitalize. I think that's a good demonstration of the gap between the top three countries in Europe and the rest of the pack.