The managers of the five Premier League clubs (Liverpool’s qualification pending) involved in next season’s Champions League must have endured a sleepless night on Saturday. Cardiff final winners Real Madrid proved poles apart from runners-up Juventus come the final whistle – three goals apart, to be precise.
Yet, as the quality of both sides truly showed in the first half and Real Madrid’s even more so in the second, it became abundantly clear how far ahead they are of anything the English top flight currently has to offer.
Of course, a summer transfer window is a long time in football and Premier League clubs unquestionably have the financial resources to spend their way towards a more even pegging. But as things stand, you have to wonder how poorly even the champions, Chelsea, would fare against the first-ever Champions League retainers, with a manager dogged by an underwhelming record in the competition and an industrious yet inconsistent winger their best choice at right wing-back throughout the 2016/17 campaign. In contrast, Juventus and Real Madrid don’t have a single weak link in their starting XIs.
If Saturday night wasn’t the wakeup call English sides need to get their act together, following five years in which Premier League clubs have made the semi-finals just twice and made the quarter-finals just five times, then the consequential Super Cup on the 8th of August just might be, when Real Madrid take on Europa League winners Manchester United.
In terms of prestige and history, the two clubs are befitting of any European final as members of the continent’s all-time elite. But in practice, the chasm of quality between the Red Devils and Los Blancos is so vast, one can only imagine any game between the two would be a humiliation for United – not only highlighting how far the club have fallen since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement four years ago but also the Premier League since its most talented and valuable asset, a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, was allowed to leave England for the Bernabeu in 2009. Since then, things just haven’t been the same.
Of course, the European Super Cup is, in theory, the most glorified friendly in world football, more glorified than the gigantic 50pence piece handed to one English club at Wembley at the start of every domestic season. That may well provide Jose Mourinho with the excuse he needs to take the game less seriously, to play down a poor result and argue the pejorative comparisons between his current club and his former employers are based on a nothing game.
But a European Cup is a European Cup and the fans will expect United to be competitive against the Champions League winners at a bare minimum. That, however, will likely depend on Mourinho’s ability to spoil the game as much as possible, in the hope of stealing a result on the counter. Whilst that may produce a more flattering scoreline, it’s once again a massive indictment of the kind of tactics a Premier League side would have to employ to give themselves a chance against Zinedine Zidane’s vastly dominant side.
The way both teams would likely approach the match is itself a symbol of how far away Premier League clubs are from Europe’s current elite. Although other sides would employ a much different philosophy such as Liverpool or Manchester City, Real Madrid’s rampancy in the final third suggests that would only be to their detriment – and, once again, the Premier League as a collective.
As previously stated, much can change over the course of the summer transfer window, especially when you have budgets as big as the Premier League’s top clubs. Yet, considering how far ahead Juventus and Real Madrid appeared on Saturday night – Mario Mandzukic’s wonder-goal highlighted the quality the Italian champions have as well – it’s hugely unlikely the difference can be made up in one off-season alone. The Premier League is still some way from returning to the level that saw it once produce three semi-finalists in consecutive Champions League seasons.
That is not to say the situation will never change. The Premier League will boast three Champions League winning managers next season including Newcastle’s Rafa Benitez and a further two managers who’ve made the final before in Jurgen Klopp and Arsene Wenger. With that kind of expertise and the level of money available, it seems implausible Premier League clubs won’t find a way back to the latter stages of Europe’s leading competition over the course of the coming years. Likewise, Spanish football can’t dominate forever – every empire eventually comes to an end.
Currently, however, there’s a huge amount of work to be done. The performances and the result of the European Super Cup, just three weeks short of a full summer of likely unprecedented spending in the Premier League once again, will give us the biggest and clearest indicator of just how much.