Exclusive: Gary Lineker on why Premier League clubs will soon close the Champions League gap

Former England striker Gary Lineker will present BT Sport’s extensive coverage of the Champions League this season and he has penned an exclusive column for Yahoo Sport UK before the group stages kick-off on Tuesday…

Real Madrid and Barcelona have dominated the Champions League in recent years – but England’s Premier League clubs will soon be presented with a golden chance to get back into the mix to win the biggest prize in European football.

Recent history confirms that England’s top clubs are a long way behind the top three or four teams in the Champions League, despite all the money that has been swirling around the Premier League, but I believe we will see this season that the English teams are creeping closer and may soon be ready to overtake the Spanish giants.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have a magical appeal to players all over the world and can generally sign any player they want, which is a major reason why they have won the Champions League more than any other team in recent years.

Yet the big factor they have on their side is that they have had Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at their peak for the last few years, which has been a deciding factor in so many big games.

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The two magnificent players now getting towards the back end of their careers and when they go – which sadly for all of us they will -it is going to be impossible to replace them. The exit of Ronaldo and Messi will equalise things quite significantly because those who players have been so far above everyone else in the world game for an extended period of time over the last decade.

These things are cyclical and we have been through a period of domination of our own not so long ago when we were very strong and had two and three teams in the semi-finals of the Champions League on a regular basis.

At the minute, it is definitely the Spanish league that is the strongest. They have won the Champions League and Europa League consistently. It is not just Real Madrid and Barcelona leading the way. We have seen Sevilla and Atletico Madrid also getting in the mix at the business end of the two competitions, so the English teams are playing catch-up. La Liga sides look infinitely better on the ball technically and they also have big advantages over the English teams.

The way all the teams play in the Spanish league is not as physically combative as the English league and that helps them at the back end of a long season when they also have a winter break to recharge the batteries, which is something we don’t have in England.

So when  we get to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, teams from Spain, Germany and Italy look fresher than Premier League sides, but the quality in the English game on the field and with the managers working at our top clubs suggests to me that they will be closer to Europe’s top sides this time around.

We have five Premier League teams in the Champions League this year and I am very hopeful that we will see the gap between English teams and the Spanish giants is closing, with Liverpool and Manchester United both capable of making a big impact as they return to the competition.

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Real Madrid’s head coach Zinedine Zidane celebrates with the trophy
Real Madrid’s head coach Zinedine Zidane celebrates with the trophy

Jose Mourinho’s record in the Champions League has to be respected and he will be hopeful of getting Manchester United into the latter stages and I like what I see from an attacking perspective from Liverpool.

Of course, Premier League sides appear to be struggling a little at the other end of the field, with defensive issues in evidence every week in English football, which is part of the reason why it is the most exciting league in European football to watch.

The concern would be Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have attacking firepower that will be too much for Premier League clubs to deal with in the latter stages of the competition, but manager like Mourinho at United, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Antonio Conte at Chelsea have the tactical nous to get their teams into the latter stages of the competition at the very least.

Their high profile presence would be good for a competition that is still the best competition in the game, even if some cynics have suggested interest has faded a little in the Champions League.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was among those who suggested Champions League football is not as exciting as it used to be, but that is nonsense. We saw some incredible games in the competition last season and anyone who witnessed Barcelona’s incredible comeback against Paris Saint-Germain will never forget it.

Oh and I wonder whether Mr Wenger has an alternative reason for suggesting he has lost some of his own interest in the Champions League? Might this be that this is the first year in two decades that his Arsenal team are not in the competition? Maybe Arsene was talking about Arsenal fans when he made that comment and I fully agree that they may well have lost interest in the Champions League this season for a very good reason.

This is the biggest club competition in football and all fans want to see it. I can’t wait for it to get going once again.

BT Sport is where the best in sport go head to head, bringing you live coverage of the Premier League, UEFA Champions League and Europa League, Aviva Premiership, European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, The Ashes, Boxing, UFC, NBA and MotoGP. For more information, visit www.BT.com/sport

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