Gavin Hamilton
Tuesday March 25th, 2008

It had to happen, didn't it?

The chances of the four English teams getting kept apart in the Champions League quarterfinal draw were slim, and the Arsenal-Liverpool pairing ensures at least one will fall short of the semifinals.

Amid the inevitable discussion about each team's chances in the last eight of Europe's leading club competition, a wider issue has been raised. Namely, is it now fair to describe the English Premier League as the best in the world?

Certainly if performances in the Champions League are the main criteria, the EPL can claim to be the world's leading league. It's been a miserable Champions League campaign for the Spanish and Italian clubs.

AC Milan's aging legs finally got the better of it against Arsenal, while Real Madrid's challenge for a record 10th European Cup is now firmly back in its box.

Without doubt, the English challenge in the Champions League has never been stronger. The difference compared to two years ago is players such as Fernando Torres, Cesc Fàbregas and Cristiano Ronaldo are now opting to join or stay with English clubs despite tempting offers from Spain and Italy. Their best chance of winning the Champions League lies with an English club. They know that, and so does the rest of Europe.

However, one important caveat needs to be added. Strong performances in the Champions League do not necessarily translate into a strong domestic league. The EPL still lacks strength in depth. Nobody outside of the big four is likely to mount a serious challenge for the title this season or next.

In contrast, the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain is regularly challenged by others. Last season, it was Sevilla. This season, it looks as if Villarreal will stage a strong late bid to knock the top two off their perch.

Back in the early 1990s, Italy's Serie A was widely considered to be the world's best league. On the heels of hosting a successful World Cup in '90, Italian sides hired the world's best players and the success of that recruitment policy was reflected in the number of European competitions won by Serie A clubs.

Similarly, Spanish sides have dominated the European club competitions in recent years. La Liga sides have won the Champions League four times in the past decade (twice as many as England and Italy) as well as three of the last four UEFA Cup finals.

In contrast, since English teams were readmitted to European club competitions when the post-Heysel ban was lifted in '91, there have been relatively few English successes. One UEFA Cup (Liverpool in '01) and two Champions League titles (Manchester United in '99 and Liverpool in '05) are hardly enough evidence to declare English soccer the best in the world.

Furthermore, there are no English teams still involved in this season's UEFA Cup. Although it comes a poor second to the Champions League in terms of quality, the UEFA Cup is an important barometer of a domestic league's strength in depth. The failure of Bolton, Everton and Tottenham to progress speaks volumes for the lack of quality through the EPL.

Instead, we have a polarization taking place within European club soccer. The leading clubs -- be they English, Spanish or Italian -- are breaking away from the rest of the pack. Greater wealth in terms of playing resources is now concentrated in fewer hands.

The top four teams from England can rightly claim to be leading the way in Europe, but the middle and lower ranked teams from England are no better than their counterparts in Spain and Italy, or even Germany and France.

Gavin Hamilton is the editor in chief of World Soccer Magazine. He contributes to SI.com on alternate Tuesdays.

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