Champions League no longer contest of champions but battle between leagues | Paul Wilson
While the old format never produced a same-nation final, this will be the seventh since 2000, as England steps into the void left by Spain. But there is no point weeping over lost romance
Richard Scudamore retired too soon! No sooner had the Premier Leagues executive chairman picked up his parachute payment and left the building than his most famous daft idea became reality. The 39th game, the extra helping of Premier League razzle dazzle featuring two top-flight sides facing off in some far-flung location for prestige and promotional purposes, is actually happening next Wednesday in Baku, except people will insist on calling it the Europa League final. Three days later the same thing will happen again in Madrid. Even Scudamore never proposed a 40th Premier League game, but that is what the Champions League final between Liverpool and Spurs is going to resemble.
Fear not, this will not be an attempt to belittle the considerable achievements of all four English sides involved in the two European finals, still less to suggest the Premier League now leads the world in any other respect than effective recruitment from abroad. It is just that a European final bringing together two sides who regularly play each other at home will inevitably lack an important ingredient: the European dimension is obviously missing.
The old European Cup format, for all its faults, would never have allowed such a thing to happen. You used to get only one team per country, and though the tradition of the winners entering the following seasons draw to try to defend their title would occasionally produce same-nation encounters in the knockout stage, there was never a year when the sides were kept apart until the final. Every single final until multiple entrants were allowed in 1997-98 pitted one nation against another.That was understood to be the point of the competition. After establishing your right to be called champions of your own country (or champions of Europe, in the case of the teams returning as holders), you then went into a hat with everyone elses champions to work out some sort of international pecking order.
Maybe that is why some find it difficult to see the romance in an all-English final, even if a second one in 11 years suggests the Premier League is in reasonable health. The first meeting of two sides from the same country in a Champions League final dates back to only 2000, when Real Madrid beat Valencia. The ultimate turn-off from a pan-European or purist viewpoint would be two sides from the same city contesting the Champions League final, which has happened twice in recent seasons. No one was complaining about Real Madrids or Atltico Madrids right to be in the 2014 and 2016 finals on both occasions they were among the strongest teams in Europe though at the same time it seemed faintly ridiculous that such a mammoth, continent-sized contest should boil down to a backyard scrap between neighbours.
This time round, no one can possibly doubt Liverpools or Tottenhams right to be in the final either. Their semi-final progress especially was exhilarating and one simply hopes there is some drama left over for next weekend, bearing in mind the meeting of Manchester United and Chelsea in 2008 was mostly memorable for the penalty shootout. Instinctively one feels that though same-nation meetings en route to the final are almost guaranteed to be dramatic think of Manchester City v Spurs last month or Liverpool v City last year the same might not be true of a final itself. In a final, ideally, the protagonists should not know each other inside out. The sheer giddiness of the English teams progress through the later stages of the Champions League also owed something to the two-leg nature of ties and even the away-goal rule, which will not be factors in Madrid or Baku.
Yet perhaps this season of comebacks and surprises still has one or two unexpected plot twists left. There is no reason why Liverpool and Spurs, or Arsenal and Chelsea, should not showcase the best of the Premier League in their respective finals, and the fact that English clubs are a little under-rehearsed when travelling to meet each other abroad should not mean a new tradition cannot be established.
It may turn out that after the next couple of weeks football fans around Europe will be clamouring for more all-English finals, and with a possible five Premier League teams competing in the Champions League next season they may get their wish. Spain, for which read Real Madrid if you like, has tended to dominate the Champions League in recent years, but with Cristiano Ronaldo now playing in Italy and neither Real nor Barcelona quite the force they once were, Premier League clubs are well-placed to fill the void, particularly if Manchester City get their act together in Europe.
All-English finals may not be what the European Cup was originally about, but with at least four teams from one of the most competitive leagues around going through each year, the amount of hired and acquired expertise at places such as Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Tottenham is now sufficient to make progress more regular. There is no point in weeping over lost romance, or mentioning that this seasons Champions League finalists have never been crowned champions in their own country for as long as the Premier League has existed. This is the modern world, and the fact is that in the last couple of decades the Champions League has become less of a contest of champions and more of a battle between major leagues.
In the 20 editions of the Champions League since the turn of the millennium this will be the seventh time two teams from the same league have met in the final, which gives a fair idea of the way the competition is evolving. Liverpool are in their second consecutive final, Spurs their very first, and both sides are still improving. Given that it is probably only a matter of time before Pep Guardiolas City join the party, there may not be an 11-year wait until we see the next all-English final.