"Europe in English hands" declared Italy's Corriere dello Sport newspaper this week as three Premiership teams marched into the UEFA Champions League semi-finals for the first time.
English finalist assured
If Manchester United FC's 7-1 rout of AS Roma reverberated around Europe, the passage of Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC to a second last-four showdown in three seasons did not go unnoticed either. Be it José Mourinho's Blues or Rafael Benítez's Reds, we are assured one English finalist for the third year running and should United get the better of AC Milan in their tie, the continent can look forward to a first all-English UEFA Champions League final.
Spain led way
Other nations have been there before, of course. Spain led the way in 2000 when Real Madrid CF overcame Valencia CF in the showpiece in Paris, while it was Italy's turn three years later with Milan beating Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford. Those two campaigns were the only previous occasions a country had three representatives in the last four.
Of course, English football enjoyed a sustained period of dominance in the late 1970s and early 80s with Liverpool, Nottingham Forest FC and Aston Villa FC ensuring a run of seven straight triumphs from 1977-84. With Liverpool victorious two years ago and Arsenal FC runners-up last May, there is a growing belief that England's time has come again. According to the Corriere dello Sport, "there is no doubt the UEFA Champions League has one leading country: England."
Best in Europe
Sir Alex Ferguson believes the Premiership's top sides are stronger than in 1999, when he guided United to their second European crown. "The fact three English teams are in the semi-finals probably makes our league the best in Europe," said the Scot. "Six or seven years ago Spanish football was the best. But on the evidence of this season, [FC] Barcelona and Real Madrid [CF] are not as near to where they were in previous years. The competitive nature and the quality of the English game has improved over the seasons."
Luciano Spalletti, whose Roma outfit became the first Italian club in 49 years to ship seven goals in Europe, was in no mood to disagree. Reflecting on the shift of power towards the ever-wealthier Premiership, Spalletti said: "English sides have great players from every corner of the world, a bit like it was in Italy a few years ago. Now only a couple of Italian teams can compete with the financial potential of English clubs." PSV Eindhoven's Ronald Koeman said the formula was simple in the wake of an Anfield defeat on Wednesday: "They have money, good players and good managers."
"I think their sides are more physical, more complete," continued Spalletti, whose charges had no answer to United's pace and power this week. "The players are better equipped for one-on one duels because they are used to that in the Premiership and they bring this strength into Europe."
While there is no guarantee United will better a Milan team playing their fourth semi-final in five years, the prospect of an all-English showpiece is mouthwatering for fans of Premiership football. The Liverpool-United rivalry is defined by decades of these north-west foes contesting major prizes; a Chelsea-United final, meanwhile, would elevate the sides' domestic title squabble on to an international scale.
Indeed, it could complete a remarkable triple bill of bouts between the clubs next month. On 9 May they meet at Stamford Bridge in a potentially decisive Premiership fixture. Then, provided both come through last-four fixtures this weekend, they would dispute the FA Cup final on 19 May. To top it all, the Olympic Stadium in Athens would welcome them both for the UEFA Champions League decider on 23 May. What a finish that would be, although Milan and Liverpool will have other ideas. And as anyone present in Istanbul can vouch, those two certainly know how to put on a show.
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