The balance of power in European football is a thoroughly interesting topic, as it ebbs and flows between clubs and countries on a seemingly endless basis. While last year we would have been discussing the rampancy of German football, in particular the juggernauts of Bayern Munich, this year we are looking at the rise of Atletico Madrid and perhaps the return of Spanish dominance in European football. It’s been an interesting season.
Atletico Madrid have easily been the best team in Europe this season. Breaking the dominance of both Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga on a budget that is dramatically lower is impressive enough, but reaching the final of the Champions League is an even greater achievement. In a world where money matters more in football than ever before, and success is something that can be bought rather than earned, Diego Simeone’s team has bucked the trend and managed to make the world of football sit up and take notice. In the course of their league campaign they were undefeated at home and their four losses came against middling opposition, Atletico didn’t lose a match against a side that finished any higher than 8th. Atletico didn’t lose a single match in the Champions League despite facing AC Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea before their final against Real Madrid.
Real are once again champions of Europe after a 12-year wait for their 10th title. The front trio of new signing Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria were too much for their city rivals Atletico to handle in the latter stages of Saturday night’s final, and Real came away with a 4-1 win that flattered them greatly. There’s no doubt that they are back to being a side that is capable of great success, with a new era of the Galacticos, but for how long remains to be seen. Real’s league season wasn’t what was expected, with their lowest finish in 10 years despite the strength of their side.
Although Bayern missed out on what would have been a third consecutive final and their fourth in five years they aren’t to be dismissed as a spent force quite yet. They may have come undone against a Real Madrid side that sapped their spirit and energy in a semi-final, but Bayern Munich handily brushed aside both Manchester United and Arsenal on their way there. They also wrapped up the Bundesliga, a league many were calling the best in Europe last season, in record time with 25 wins, 2 draws and no defeats by the time they were crowned champions. With the arrival of Robert Lewandowski from Borussia Dortmund imminent, solving what could have been the main selection dilemma for Pep Guardiola, Bayern’s side look appear on paper to be as strong as it has ever been and will certainly continue to challenge for the Champions League for a few seasons to come.
German football’s time at the top may have been curtailed this season though by a resurgent Spanish contingent. Only 1 of the 7 Spanish sides (Real Sociedad) that competed in Europe this year were knocked-out by non-Spanish opposition. 4 out of the 8 semi-finalists in European competitions were Spanish. 3 out of 4 finalists were Spanish. The all-Spanish Champions League final was a fantastic example of the quality of the game in the country. Even though England’s Premier League has one of the most exciting finishes in years, it was still trumped in excitement by La Liga.
Whilst Spain is on the rise again, there have been some fallers in European football as well this year and the best example would be Italy. From a point perhaps 10 years ago were Italian football was some of the best in the world, the success has completely evaporated. Only AC Milan made it to the knock-out stage of the Champions League and they were soundly beaten by Atletico Madrid 5-1 on aggregate. Juventus had a good run in the Champions League, reaching the semi-finals, but no other Italian side made any real mark on the competition. Such poor performances have meant that the Italian league will slip behind Portugal’s in UEFA’s co-efficient for next season, the first time this has happened.
It’s hard to put a finger on where Italian teams have fallen behind, but I think that it’s simply an issue of money and stability. The match-fixing and corruption scandals of the last decade in Italy have hurt investors’ confidence in the sport there, and this has meant that the nation’s football teams have failed to attract the sugar-daddy owners that clubs in France, Spain and England have managed to. This has led to some of the top talents of the Italian game leaving for foreign shores, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani going to PSG over the last few years. The Milan teams have slipped badly even domestically, with Inter finishing 5th and AC having a worse season than Man Utd even coming in 10th. It’s a shame that these great clubs won’t be gracing Europe’s top table next year but it’s clear that they don’t deserve it on merit.
The tectonic plates of European football have appeared to shift a little again this season, and little can be really predicted for next season. The season after the World Cup can sometimes provide a hangover effect for some of the top clubs, as their players recover from playing football almost non-stop for a year, so next season could well be just as unpredictable as this one turned out to be.