The Champions League is normally seen as the crown jewel of a dominant team’s period of success. Barcelona, Inter Milan and Manchester United in recent years have proven that, coming out victorious in domestic competition and accentuating that success with victory in Europe. But should domestic titles always outweigh Champions League glory, especially as the first step to the building of a dynasty?
Europe’s most prestigious tournament is the richest prize in club football, but it’s still very much a cup competition with an incredible amount of luck pushing the eventual winner to glory. On many occasions, it certainly doesn’t give a realistic indication as to who was the best team in Europe or even in their domestic league.
Chelsea’s Champions League win last season was off the back of a set of tactics and approaches that would never work in a 38 game league campaign. They rode their luck in some stages, benefited from the shortcomings of their opponents in others, but very much came to highlight the famous cup run of an English underdog. They didn’t have a prayer of finishing in the top four of the league as last season wound down, but as the Champions League participants started dropping off en route to Munich, it became increasingly likely that they would lift the trophy.
The parallels between them and Liverpool’s win in Turkey in 2005 are obvious: neither team were anywhere close to being the best in England and arguably not in Europe either, but the Champions League acted as a getaway from the troubles of competition at home.
A league title is more often than not a better indication of how good a team were. Take Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid last season, both of whom dominated on their way to lifting their league titles, showing the necessary consistency against equally or more powerful opposition and etching their names into the books as the best team of that season. It was always a mammoth task for a club like Dortmund to replicate that season, and teams like Real Madrid and Manchester City are proving that the follow-up year can prove to be incredibly difficult to push on again in the same manner.
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But Dortmund have built on their first title success under Jurgen Klopp and that disappointing campaign in Europe last year, and even if they don’t retain their title again this season, they are certain to be among the favourites for the Bundesliga crown next year. The idea of three titles in four years or Klopp’s Dortmund side would be the work and creation of a dynasty in domestic competition, especially if the squad is largely the same year on year. Their improvement in Europe this season has also been noticeable and they are good enough to go far in the competition.
A Champions League win for Dortmund this season may be a step too far in predicting the outcome, but so much luck can go into who claims the trophy that a good set of draws and the wind against their backs could see the German champions make a surprise appearance at Wembley.
It won’t matter to them if they don’t make it, and a club like Ajax will also not feel too disheartened if the best they can do this season is qualify for the Europa League via their Champions League group. The Dutch champions are battling a much more realistic and achievable storm at home, for which Frank de Boer was heavily praised for finally reclaiming the Eredivisie title for the Amsterdam-based club. That is where their priorities lie, along with teams like the Greek champions and those from the east; they don’t have the resources to create their own luck in the way the bigger teams can, and they certainly don’t have the players to combat the very best of the top three or four leagues. However, as we’ve seen recently, Shakhtar Donetsk may be one of the few exceptions to that thought.
Those clubs build their reputation at home and through their dominance of domestic competition. Even with Liverpool’s success in Europe and the domestic cups that have come their way in subsequent years, the Premier League title, which continues to elude them, is seen as the biggest prize.
The Champions League isn’t always the most accurate way of measuring the best in Europe. But by winning consistently in the Premier League, for example, clubs establish or re-establish themselves as the finest their country has to offer. It’s also an idea that in many cases domestic form will spill over into Europe and help to create a winning mentality that can equal that of European competition.
While every major club wants to get their hands on the European Cup, almost all fan bases will be united in the view that domestic dominance is the greatest priority and the necessary first step to building for something greater on the continent.