Over the last few years, when the Champions League has gotten down to their final few teams, all the talk would surround which team was best set up to go all the way to the final. Some of the team were only there once in the past few years, such as Manchester City, Chelsea, or Juventus, while other like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and Bayern Munich seemed to hang around every year.
Ultimately, over the last seven years, the answer has almost always been either Barcelona or Real Madrid. But why is that the case.
The first and obvious answer is because they have the best players. Lionel Messi is probably the greatest player to ever play, and Cristiano Ronaldo is right behind him. But Real Madrid and Barcelona having the best players in Europe is nothing new so it doesn’t completely explain their recent dominance.
The reason for their domination has less to do with Barcelona and Real Madrid having the best players and much more to do with not just the quality of La Liga, but the depth of La Liga, which has not only been producing the Champions League winners but has also produced five of the past seven winners of the Europa League.
Football, like all sports is cyclical. One day you’re at the top, the next you can be on the bottom. You don’t need to remind Manchester United or Liverpool fans of that.
Champions League dominance works the same way. These days it’s La Liga that routinely sends three teams to the Champions League semifinals. 8-10 years ago, it was the Premier League. Before that, it was Serie A, who except for Juventus in 2015, barely even factor into the picture these days.
What makes La Liga the league best suited to produce European domination? It would be unfair to say that La Liga is the best overall league in Europe, that statement is, and always will be up for debate. It would also be false to call it the deepest league in Europe. That honor belongs to England. What has allowed La Liga to dominate Europe has been just the right level of depth to their league.
Look at the Bundesliga, which very well might be the most exciting league in Europe. Week in and week out, you’re going to see goals galore and upsets left and right in the Bundesliga. Pretty much every team can defeat or lose to anyone else with the exception of Bayern Munich.
In Germany, the Bavarians have been in a league of their own as they’ve dominated the Bundesliga over the last five years. They’ve also routinely found themselves in the last four of the Champions League but for the amount of times they’ve made it that far, they’ve been unable to take the final step.
The reason for that is because domestically, Bayern aren’t getting pushed. Their dominance of the Bundesliga is so great that most years by April they’ve already won the league. By the time the semifinals of the Champions League roll around, Bayern’s league games aren’t competitive fixtures. The squad has even admitted that it’s been hard to turn it back “on” for their Champions League contests. That may change this year now that RB Leipzig is making a run at the Bundesliga.
On the other side of that coin is England.
With all the new TV money that has come into the league recently has become the deepest league in Europe. There’s no such thing as a walk in the park anymore in England. If you don’t take a team seriously in the Premier League, they’ll make you pay. Hell, newly promoted sides Middlesbrough went to the Ethiad and earned a draw, while Burnley defeated Liverpool, who currently are in second place.
It’s no surprise that since the league added it’s depth, its struggles in Europe began to grow. From 2007-2009, England sent three teams to the Champions League semifinals in each of those years. These days England struggle to send three teams to the knockout rounds.
England’s teams are now facing the opposite problem of Bayern Munich. They’re pushed too much. Unlike seven or eight years ago, managers don’t have the chance to field a weakened side in the Premier League and still pick up their three points easily. The best players have to play, and play tough, every game. By the time they get to the Champions League they are just dead.
And then there’s La Liga, sitting right in the middle of the Bundesliga and Premier League. La Liga has three teams that battle it out right at the top, with a title race that often goes down to the final day of the season making every game that Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid play crucial. But those three teams are also head and shoulders above the rest.
There are some other teams of quality such as Sevilla, Villareal, or Athletic Bilbao who will provide them with a challenge, but then there’s also the Osasuna’s, Grenada’s, and Deportivo’s of the league that are akin to the cupcakes a big college football program would schedule in the first weeks of the season.
Unlike in Germany though, Real Madrid vs Deportivo still matters as Real needs to get three points in every game. This means that players like Cristiano Ronaldo still need to go out there and perform, but most of the time not for the full 90 minutes. After 50 minutes, the game is usually wrapped up and they can take it easy.
And that’s exactly why La Liga teams have been so dominant in Europe recently. They’ve found the exact medium between getting pushed too much and tiring themselves out or not being pushed enough. The players of La Liga’s top three teams have to be “on” for every game, but at the same time, they come into their Champions League games just a little bit fresher than their opponents, making all the difference in the world.