PSG vs the Premier League? English clubs set for era of Champions League dominance

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“I’ll be stunned if we don’t get at least two teams in the semi-finals. I think we’ll probably get three, and maybe even four!”

As predictions go, Joe Cole’s is bold to say the least. Bold but understandable.

The former Chelsea and Liverpool midfielder is looking ahead to the Champions League, which gets underway this week, and anticipating a season, maybe even an era, of Premier League dominance.

“The top four clubs just look so strong,” Cole tells Goal. “There’s so much quality there already, and when you look at the signings that have been made this summer on top of that, it’s hard to look past the Premier League when you’re talking about the main contenders.”

Cole has a point. Last season’s final, after all, was an all-English affair, and all four Premier League participants - Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and the holders Chelsea - look stronger this year than they did last. 

So much for the bubble bursting, so much for a new era of caution and prudence in the transfer market. While the rest of the football world - with one notable exception, which we’ll come to later - counts the cost of the coronavirus pandemic, Premier League clubs have smelt blood.

The summer window was the ultimate flex in that regard, with English clubs spending an estimated £1.1billion (€1.3bn/$1.5bn) on new players. They have, according to research from the CIES Football Observatory, been responsible for 45 per cent of all transfer spending among Europe’s big five leagues during the last three windows - up from 35 per cent for the period between January 2012 and January 2020.

With La Liga at a low ebb, and while the Bundesliga and Serie A struggle to hold onto their biggest names and their biggest talents, Manchester City were able to make Jack Grealish the most expensive English player of all time. They would have done the same with Harry Kane, too, had Tottenham played ball. 

Likewise, Chelsea were able to break their own transfer record by bringing Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge from Inter. 

Manchester United, meanwhile, did a bit of everything, landing the vast potential of Jadon Sancho, the class and pedigree of Raphael Varane and, of course, the internet-breaking signing of Cristiano Ronaldo. No excuses now, surely, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his side.

And don’t discount Liverpool, either. Their summer was a little less eye-catching, though the purchase of Ibrahima Konate from Leipzig was a good one. The return from injury of Virgil van Dijk, among others, is of more importance to Jurgen Klopp, who can still call upon the bulk of the team which won the Champions League in 2019.

Their draw is tough, but you’d either be brave or stupid, or perhaps both, to write them out of the script.

So who is going to stop the Premier League’s fearsome foursome, then? Which of Europe’s heavyweights are still standing, post-Covid?

Paris Saint-Germain, naturally, are the competition favourites with most bookmakers, having added the likes of Gigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos, Gini Wijnaldum and a little-known Argentine called Lionel Messi to their already star-studded squad. 

They may not even have won Ligue 1 last season - the side that did, Lille, were picked apart within days - but Mauricio Pochettino’s side will be expected to go for everything this time around. How could they not, with an attack off Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe?

“Maybe they’re the ones who can break the [Premier League] mould,” says Cole, though he, like many others, waits to see how Pochettino will balance his team with so many star names present and jostling for space and attention. 

But having reached the semi-finals last season and the final the year before, PSG should be expected to be there or thereabouts once again. Their group-stage clashes with City could offer a fascinating insight into how much stronger they are this time.

Bayern Munich? Can the 2020 champions regain their crown? With the free-scoring Robert Lewandowski, anything is possible - it was the Pole’s absence which cost them so dearly in last season’s quarter-final defeat to PSG - but the Bundesliga champions are not without their problems, despite an impressive win at title rivals Leipzig on Saturday.

Their reliance on Lewandowski is absolute, and defensively there are more than a few concerns despite the signing of Dayot Upamecano.

What about the Spanish challenge? Real Madrid held the monopoly on this competition not so long ago, after all, and reached the semi-finals last season despite their issues. Carlo Ancelotti is a five-time winner as player and manager, but does he really have the team to make it a half-dozen?

Ramos and Varane have gone, their move for Mbappe failed and the squad looks a mix of the ageing and the emerging, with little in between. Karim Benzema remains key, but can Eden Hazard or Gareth Bale turn back the clock and deliver? 

Unlikely, too, is the idea of a serious challenge from Camp Nou. Barcelona’s has been a farcical summer, their dirty laundry aired for all the world to see. They started the summer with Messi and ended it with Luuk de Jong, allowing Antoine Griezmann to return to rivals Atletico Madrid for good measure.

However good the likes of Pedri and Ansu Fati are - and they could well be world-class before long - it just isn’t enough. The Blaugrana’s fall has been a mighty one, and it might not be over yet. 

Atletico are a more interesting proposition, given their style and the fact they have been able to nab Griezmann from a rival, just as they were able to pinch Luis Suarez 12 months previously. They’re La Liga champions, and look comfortably the most rounded and well-coached of the Spanish outfits. Dogged, consistent and defensively superb, few sides will relish facing them.

Diego Simeone’s side did, however, disappoint when exiting to Leipzig in the 2020 quarter-finals and were surprisingly meek against Chelsea in the last 16 last season. They have a bit to prove, and their group, which includes Liverpool, AC Milan and Porto, looks one of the toughest to call.

It would be a surprise, to say the least, if Serie A were to yield a contender. Inter ended an 11-year wait for a league title in May, but have lost their manager, their star striker and the brilliant Hakimi since, while Juventus have been stuck in reverse for a few seasons. They haven’t been past the quarter-finals since 2017, losing to Ajax, Lyon and Porto in the last three campaigns. 

They look a team short of genuine star quality following the departure of you-know-who. Federico Chiesa can be special, but Juve look to have too many question marks over them, evidenced by their dreadful start to the new domestic campaign.

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It looks a five, or perhaps six, horse race, then. PSG versus the Premier League, with Bayern Munich waiting intently at first slip and the rest hoping . 

Not since the mid-late 2000s has English football looked so strong. The Premier League had three semi-finalists in both 2008 and 2009, and provided at least one finalist in seven out of the eight seasons between 2004 and 2012. Those titanic tussles involving Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal will live long in the memory.

Is history about to repeat? Messi and Co. will have something to say about that, but the Premier League will take some stopping - this season and beyond.