In the past week in the UEFA Champions League two Spanish teams tried desperately to stay with English Premier League opposition in the first legs of their semi-finals. Nobody would say that Liverpool, who defeated Villarreal 2-0, and Manchester City, disappointed to beat Real Madrid only 4-3, are in the final just yet but whatever happens in the return leg, most would agree that they are currently setting the standards at the top of the European game.
It was not always like this. From 2009 to 2019, Spain reigned. In that decade, Barcelona and Real Madrid won seven titles between them and Atletico Madrid were twice defeated in the final. At the start of the period, Manchester United were the best team in England but lost the 2009 and 2011 finals to Pep Guardiola’s magnificent Barcelona team. Then came Real Madrid, who won four between 2014 to 2018. They were prevented from making it five from five when their Catalan rivals defeated Juventus in 2015.
Spain’s last win came in 2018 as Real Madrid defeated Liverpool but that final now looks like the changing of the guard. It marked the end of the Spanish dominance and hastened in an English era that could rival the country’s success in the old European Cup in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Two of the last three finals have been all-English affairs and there is a strong chance that it will be three out of four in Paris on May 28.
English teams are helped by broadcasting riches that other leagues can only dream of. This means the best players and coaches —Klopp at Liverpool and Guardiola at Manchester City, to name just two examples of the latter — are heading to the country. For the immediate future at least, success on the continental stage looks likely to continue.
Just as the end of the previous decade brought a shift in Europe, it signalled the end of an era in the Asian Champions League. When the tournament started in 2003, Al-Ain of the UAE were the inaugural winners and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad won the next two, first in dramatic, and then in dominant, fashion. At that time, the west seemed to be comfortably the best and most people expected the Jeddah club to make it a comfortable hat-trick in 2006. That never happened as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea took the title to start an eastern dawn. Apart from Al-Sadd’s somewhat fortuitous win on penalties over the South Korean team in 2011, that streak continued until 2019 with newly rich Chinese teams joining Korea, Japan and Australia in lifting the trophy.
For most of that time, the feeling was that whenever a team from the west faced an eastern rival in the final they would lose – sometimes narrowly, sometimes easily, but always lose. That has changed and it is thanks to Saudi Arabia and specifically Al-Hilal. The Riyadh giants came close in 2014 and again in 2017, losing tight finals to Western Sydney Wanderers and then Urawa Reds. Victory finally came in 2019 with a deserved win over the Reds. Ulsan Horang-i of South Korea took the 2020 title but Al-Hilal won it back last November by beating Pohang Steelers, winning a record fourth Asian crown in the process. It remains to be seen what happens in the 2022 tournament but at the moment, Al-Hilal are the team to beat, a little like Liverpool.
The Saudi Pro League is looking like an Asian version of the English Premier League. There is plenty of money in the league which means that clubs can attract top-class playing and coaching talent. The league is competitive and the best local players tend to stay at home rather than head overseas, which also helps. In terms of continental results, there are similarities too. An all-Saudi final is an impossibility given the format of the Asian Champions League but Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab, along with Qatar’s Al-Duhail, were the standouts of the group stage and if the format were different, it would not be a surprise to see the two Riyadh clubs fighting it out for the trophy.
In the group stage, three of the four Saudi teams strolled through, with only Al-Taawoun, fighting relegation at home, failing to get to the last 16. The others all did so with a game or two to spare. It can’t even be said that these four are the best four Saudi teams as Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr are nowhere to be seen. Playing all games at home surely helped but, just as most Premier League teams have not been too stretched by group stages in recent years, that is increasingly the case in Saudi Arabia.
Nor is the challenge from the east as strong as it was. Five years ago, the Chinese Super League was one of the biggest spenders in the world but its clubs are now struggling financially. Two have withdrawn from this year’s competition and two sent youth teams and were thrashed. Teams from Japan and South Korea don’t look to be as strong as before and are being challenged by rivals from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Just as English teams are enjoying the European Champions League these days, Saudi Arabian clubs are loving life in Asia. This period may not last — they never do — but they are to be enjoyed.