The scrap to finish in the top four can look a little unseemly on the final day of the season. It’s not a battle over a trophy, or a fight to stay in the league, but usually involves clubs who have fallen short of their initial expectations back in August trying to get over the line to balance the books.
Once the title has gone for the Premier League’s big beasts the focus turns to securing Champions League football and the millions of pounds it can add to a balance sheet.
But this season there is more to it than that. For Premier League clubs it’s not just a case of fighting to qualify for the Champions League, but to have a realistic chance of winning it. There’s hurdles to be navigated between now and the next final in 12 months, but it would be a significant surprise if at least one Premier League club wasn’t in action at the aptly named Gazprom Stadium in St Petersburg next May. It could quite easily be a Premier League lockout again.
When Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea look at the competition in front of them next season they will all harbour high hopes of a European title. It’s probably between those four and Bayern Munich, perhaps Paris St-Germain, unless there is to be a shock.
The grand old names of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus will be amongst the favourites with the bookmakers, but the name of those clubs is far more intimidating than their football now.
The reputation of La Liga is at an all-time low. Atletico and Real were both comfortably brushed aside by Chelsea – the fourth best team in the Premier League – in this year’s competition. As for Serie A, champions Inter Milan finished bottom of their Champions League group this season, Juventus have lost to Ajax, Lyon and Porto in the last three seasons and only one of their clubs – Roma – made it beyond the last-16 in either the Champions League or Europa League.
Real, Barcelona and Juventus also have crippling financial headaches that will prevent them from any major overhauls this summer. If they don’t retreat from their European Super League breakaway then they might be barred from the Champions League, but even if they’re allowed to enter they won’t be close to winning it.
Unless there’s another Ajax or Monaco ready to send some ripples around Europe, this will be a battle between the Premier League’s big four and Bayern. Every Premier League club will expect to reach the quarter-finals at the very least.
United might still be licking their wounds from Wednesday’s dismal Europa League final defeat, but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if they were in an even grander European final next season.
They choked in the Champions League group stage this season, but should be wiser for that. They really shouldn’t have much difficulty making the last eight.
Quite how ambitious United’s targets are domestically and in Europe will depend on how successful their summer transfer business is. Bring in a centre back, right-winger and maybe one more elite-level player and they could dream big.
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United will certainly expect a title challenge next season, having finished second this year and added eight points to last season’s tally. But – and while this sounds crazy – it might be that the Champions League is easier to win than the Premier League next season.
Avoid any of your English rivals and Bayern Munich and an in-form United with a couple of key additions should expect to beat the rest of Europe over two legs. The same is true of all four English sides. Get a favourable draw and winning the Champions League might come down to a couple of key matches, rather than consistency over a 38-game season.
This looks like a period of English domination in Europe and that might only be strengthened next season as clubs in La Liga and Serie A try to put out financial fires. United and their Premier League rivals should have more than eye on the Champions League.