That the EPL is the best championship in the world is plain for everyone to see. The teams are far and away the strongest, most physical, and quickest. With exceptions to super teams like Barcelona, the four Premier League teams involved in the Champions League can (and do) knock off foreign opposition rather easily.
Yet in 5 finals in which an English team has played, only two have been champions. A 40% winning percentage doesn’t seem bad, but consider that the winner between Man United and Chelsea had to be from the EPL. That leaves 4 finals that a continental team could win, and they have won 3 of them. 1 out of 4 is not at all impressive, especially considering the ease with which the EPL teams seem to reach the final. So what accounts for this discrepancy in dominance and silverware?
One account might be that the English teams have been unlucky to only win one. I would disagree. If anything, Liverpool (and by extension, the EPL) are the luckiest winners of the four games, beating a Milan team that really should have won if not for a string of miraculous goals and saves. Barcelona and Milan in ’06, ’07 and ’09 were in far greater control of the games than their British opposition, though Arsenal at least had the excuse of being a man down.
One account might be that the EPL is not as dominant as it seems. There is strong bias in the English-language press, and it manifests in the constant recitation of English superiority. Considering this, one could argue that despite the routine losses, continental clubs actually put up the stiffest resistance to English clubs.
One can see this during the 2009 edition. Over two legs, Manchester United beat Arsenal by 3 goals, but Porto by 1 and Inter by 2. Chelsea beat Liverpool by 2 but could only beat Juventus by 1 and could only tie Barcelona. Against weaker opposition in the group stage, the EPL looks fantastic, but against top clubs, especially those with lots of players with Champions League experience like Milan and Barcelona, passing through to the next round in the knockout stage is never assured.
Unfortunately for this theory, those who actually watched the games will probably say the 1 and 2 goal score lines do not really do the games justice, and that Chelsea should have won the second leg by at least 1. The EPL teams have been stronger over the past five seasons; it should be quite clear to anyone who watches for a few matches with EPL clubs and then compares it to a Porto vs. Atletico Madrid showdown, for instance.
I would argue that the reason is a strange combination of luck and inspiration, and maybe a touch of club attitude.
The best team does not always win the Champions League. In 2007 Milan was not the best club in the tournament. They were lucky at times, but mostly it came down to a Kaka playing like he was inspired by God. (Oh, that’s right, he actually was.) He single-handedly took apart Man United, downed Celtic, and was the impetus behind both Inzaghi goals in the final. During that season in the Serie A, they finished 5th. Runners-up Liverpool were 3rd, ahead of Arsenal on goal difference. They were also not the best team in the competition, they were like Milan in that they were best at the competition.
AC Milan, according to their website, is the most successful international club in the world. It seems part of their culture to do well in in tournaments, just like Liverpool seem to light up on European nights as they flounder in EPL purgatory. There’s no science to it. Arsenal and Chelsea try and try to be successful in the UCL but it hasn’t come. Sometimes the best win, like in 2006, 2008 and 2009 but often times the teams that are good at winning it do so, like in 2005 and 2007.
This season the best team won, but they also had all the right ingredients. They had Messi the inspired superstar; they had the 93rd minute Iniesta wondergoal, and the general team inspiration in quest of the first Spanish treble. Barcelona might not have the history of Milan or Liverpool, but it looks like they’re trying to build it.
While the EPL dominance may continue for 2 years, 5, or 10, I’m not sure how many Champions League trophies will find their way back to England. As long as teams like AC Milan, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are around, the gulf in class can be overcome on any given European night.