The conquest of Europe: Champions' League preview

As the Champions' League returns, Glenn Moore assesses which clubs - and which leagues - should be recognised as the continent's finest
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The Independent Football

Across the English Channel Gabriel Hanot, a former French international who edited L'Equipe, the daily sports paper, was sufficiently irked and intrigued to propose a competition to determine which actually was the best club in Europe.

Thus was the European Champion Clubs' Cup born. It has since morphed into the Champions' League, whose return today marks the 50th anniversary of pan-European club competition. At times it has indeed thrown up a team which is unquestionably the best of its era: Real Madrid in the Fifties, Benfica and Internazionale in the Sixties, Ajax and Bayern Munich in the Seventies, could all justifiably make such a brag.

Liverpool took on the mantle to be usurped, after the Heysel tragedy curtailed English involvement, by Milan then Real Madrid once more.

At other times it has produced a freak winner, a snapshot of success, such as Aston Villa in 1982 or Borussia Dortmund in 1997. The most recent winners, Porto and Liverpool might also fit this billing. So the argument is raging again. Can Liverpool really be the best in Europe when the Premiership table suggested they were not even the best in their own city? Or does their win best reflect the English game's growing power in Europe, like Villa's did?

Is a period of hegemony akin to that from 1977 to '82, when Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Villa won six successive titles between them, in the offing?

A neutral observer is Craig Brown, the former Scotland manager who regularly watches European football in his role advising Fulham on foreign recruitment. "There is no definitive answer but I'd say the Premier League is the strongest in Europe," he says. "It's certainly where the money is generated. The Spanish league is also well up there, but the Italian, which used to be the best, has declined.

"Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia are very good sides but the 12th-best English team would usually be better than the Spanish equivalent. I know Deportivo La Coruña beat Newcastle without a lot of difficulty in the Intertoto Cup but they were eighth last year and Newcastle 14th. Everton lost to Villarreal in the Champions' League qualifying but I thought Everton were unlucky.

"The English clubs have greater squads; they duplicate each position. That said, on the Continent players are more flexible. They can adjust better when asked to play a different position.

The best players come to England now; Chelsea are attracting them, Arsenal and Manchester United have. No one would now go to Benfica or Porto, both European Cup winners, before a top-four club in England; they may not even go to Milan or Juventus. The exceptions are Real Madrid and Barcelona. They have a mystique, a name, and South Americans tend to go there."

Brazilians, in particular, tend to go anywhere except England. One might measure a league's strength by tracking the leading Brazilians. They are the 2002 World Cup holders and 2006 favourites. Of the XIs which lifted the World Cup, and this summer's Confederations Cup, only Arsenal's Gilberto Silva currently plays in England. La Liga and Serie A have five of the Brazilians each and even the Bundesliga has four.

English football does seem to look short of individual genius. Of the seven players crowned best in the world or Europe since the turn of the Millennium only Michael Owen plays in England, and that only for the past week.

The Premiership does have three of the world's most expensive footballers but has yet to see from Gaizka Mendieta and Hernan Crespo the form which persuaded Lazio to part with more than £55m for the pair.

Yet the Premiership has Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, Petr Cech, Arjen Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo. Such is the financial might this English stable of galacticos is expected to grow. "Finance is a key factor," says Trevor Brooking, the Football Association's director of technical development and a member of Uefa's technical committee. "The best players go where the finance is. The Italian league used to be the best but they have had massive financial problems. That has reduced the capacity of clubs to retain quality players. Only Milan, Juventus, Inter and perhaps Roma still can.

"Spain is now the league people most compare the Premiership with. Anyone involved in our game would say the Premiership is best, but the level of football and quality of players is equally high in La Liga." Yet last season not one Spanish team even reached the Champions' League quarter-finals. La Liga dominated the competition in the early part of this century, during which time Serie A had three years without a semi-finalist, but the Italians, like the English, have made a comeback.

"It's become very hard to predict," says Brooking. "Look at last year's final. If anyone had said at half-time Liverpool would win you'd have put a thermometer in their mouth. It shows you can get surprises in cups." Brooking adds: "Chelsea and Man United have the greatest squad depth of the English teams though you think Arsenal, at some stage, will come good. Then there's Barcelona or Real Madrid if they can tighten up defensively."

But does the winner indicate that country has the best football? That depends how you define "best". The Bundesliga attracts the biggest attendances but the Premiership is most widely watched around the globe because it is the most reliably exciting.

Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, admits to falling asleep watching Italian football and Brooking adds: "Our game is still more consistently fast than the others."

Most observers would still argue the technical quality is greater in Spain while the most tactical football is still played in Italy.

"The coaches there are more proactive," says Brown. "Traditionally managers in England delay substitutions. They react to losing a goal or an injury. Italian coaches start with a formation and if it is not happening they will change it very quickly.

"They are constantly working during a game and they substitute earlier and more tactically than elsewhere. I think their players are more tactically aware."

Brio, technique or tactics; which quality will triumph this year?