Sam Wallace: Will English era in Europe end in tears?

Premier League clubs have not made the most of Champions League dominance – and now may be left to regret it
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The Independent Football

Those who would seek to claim that English clubs' "dominance" of the Champions League is over with the failure of any of the Premier League's teams to reach the semi-finals this season overlook one important fact: two English winners in the previous six years hardly adds up to a dynasty of phenomenal success.

The traditional "big four" of English football have become prolific in reaching semi-finals but there are no medals for that – just as there are only those of the losers' variety for the beaten finalists. English football may have congratulated itself in providing three of the four semi-finalists in last year's competition but it was Barcelona who won the trophy.

If these are supposed to be the golden years of English clubs in Champions League football then it is hardly record-breaking stuff.

Before this season, English football had provided six of the 10 finalists in the Champions League over the last five years. But only twice did they actually bring the trophy back to England – Liverpool in 2005 and Manchester United three years later – which does not get close to comparing with England's real salad days.

They were the years from 1977 to 1984 when three English clubs won seven out of the eight European Cups between them. Then success was measured out in who took the trophy home, not by a Uefa coefficient based on aggregate positions that dictated how many qualifying places a country earned the following season.

For real sustained success by one club you have to go back to the Ajax and Bayern Munich teams who both won three consecutive titles in the 1970s. Milan reached five finals in seven years between 1989 and 1995 and won it three times. Under Marcello Lippi, Juventus reached three successive finals between 1996 and 1998 but won it only once. Alongside those achievements the Premier League's contribution looks rather paltry.

Wealth has transformed the Premier League, giving clubs the means to sign foreign players who would never consider English football were it not for the money on offer. It has not been their spending alone that has sustained their success – if that was the case Real Madrid would win it every year – but as long as the Premier League continues to sign the world's most lucrative TV broadcast deals, so its teams will have a major say in the Champions League.

No matter that this season they have fallen short, English teams no longer feel like the innocent outsiders in European football; they feel like the establishment.

When United tumbled out against Bayern, Sir Alex Ferguson demonstrated the worst of British reactions with a nasty comment about the Germans. It was a throwback to Brian Clough railing against Juventus after their 1973 semi-final victory over Derby County. Clough's exact words to the travelling English press were "cheating fucking Italian bastards", but the sentiments were largely the same as Ferguson's.

"That bloody awful night in Turin," as a more becalmed Clough came to describe Derby's 3-1 defeat in his autobiography – a night on which a 26-year-old Fabio Capello was on the winning side – became a byword for English clubs naivety in Europe. Undone by wily foreigners and questionable referees; they had to learn how to play the Europeans' way. Liverpool, Clough's Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa duly did and thrived.

In the modern era, English football clubs in the Champions League have not simply adopted the pragmatic approach of their European cousins – they have led the way. The great experience of English players in the Champions League has been telling. There are three Englishmen in the top 10 all-time appearances list, more than any other nationality. The influx of foreign managers and players has meant that their tricks have become our tricks.

Over the last five years, Liverpool on occasions have made Real Madrid and Barcelona look like tactical innocents. United have demonstrated greater experience than Milan and Internazionale. Chelsea have steamrollered the likes of Juventus and Valencia. Arsenal have accounted for Real Madrid and Juventus. In so many respects, English football has shown more guile and ringcraft than its European opponents.

That rage that unsuspecting English clubs once felt at foreign opponents who would expertly waste time by feigning injury or defend all match and win on the counter-attack is now felt by the other side. Clubs all over Europe despair at the ability of English clubs to live on credit and sustain huge debts.

As long as English clubs can see off Uefa's threat to regulate them they will be able to acquire some of the best players in Europe and maintain their position among the best in the Champions League. Should Manchester City claim fourth place this season, they will prove an even greater threat to the rest of Europe than the relatively impoverished Liverpool or Arsenal.

The potential challenge for City – and the other English sides – will not be to reach semi-finals or finals, as has been the trend in recent years, but actually to win the competition consistently. Only then can we start talking about a dominance of European football by the English.

How the powerbase has shifted

English, Italian and Spanish clubs have enjoyed eras of dominance in the 17 years of the competition's current format. Italy provided a semi-finalist in each of the first six campaigns before Spanish clubs came to the fore, making up seven of 12 semi-finalists between 2000-02. Italy dominated 2003 before the Premier League established a stranglehold with 12 of 20 semi-finalists between 2005 and 2009.