Champions League Final Four offers intriguing mix of non-EPL clubs
Pep Guardiola's Barcelona is arguably the most dominant team in the last 20 years
French side Lyon is still a work in progress and has overachieved in CL play
Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan has struggled with its domestic-league form lately
First, a disclaimer. Yes, after three consecutive seasons of having three English league clubs in the Champions League semifinals, this year there aren't any. Not since 2003-04 has Europe's Final Four included no Premiership teams.
However, make no mistake, there is no general message here, no broad conclusion to draw about the decline of the Premier League, or even the fall of its better clubs.
Judging the strength of a nation's league on European performances is silly. Doing so on the strength of one year's campaign is simply stupid. The Champions League, once past the group stage, is a knockout competition where luck and happenstance can be as important as quality.
That's why we can look at the top four and safely say that two of those teams probably are not among the continent's elite. Lyon has already lost 10 games this season (out of 47 it has played in all competitions). It may yet win Ligue 1 and has faced some very tough competition along the way, but Claude Puel's side is only just getting going and, in fact, is probably a lesser team than the OL's of four or five years ago.
Last summer's transfer revolution was bound to take time to digest. When you bring in a new left back (Aly Cissokho), new left wing (Michel Bastos) and two new strikers (Lisandro Lopez and Bafetimbi Gomis), adjustments are inevitable. Especially when you throw in Miralem Pjanic and Maxime Gonalons, who, strictly speaking, aren't new, but did not play a big role last season.
As a result, Lyon paid a hefty price, particularly earlier in the season. But once Lyon reached the knockout stage, it proved to be a tough nut to crack, with the weapons to hurt any opponent, as Real Madrid and Bordeaux discovered. Even so, this club is still a work in progress.
As for Bayern, it's probably fair to say that this club has yet to find itself. New boss Louis Van Gaal promised a lot at the start of the season, only for misfortune to take things out of his hands. Bad signings (Edson Braafheid, Anatolyi Tymoschuk); disgruntled strikers who leave midseason (Luca Toni); awful young goalkeepers who get replaced by a mediocre veteran (Michael Rensing and Hans-Jorg Butt); and star players stuck in a contract dispute (Franck Ribery) -- that's a lot for one man to deal with. And, speaking of Ribery, the fact that Arjen Robben (who has started less than half of Bayern's games this season) is the epitome of durability compared to the Frenchman tells you all you need to know about Van Gaal, wingers and injuries.
Yet amid all this, what Bayern, the club formely known as FC Hollywood, has added is a grit and determination few believed it could possess (at least not this version, Mark Van Bommel aside). It mounted comebacks against Fiorentina away, Manchester United at home and United away (on aggregate), each time stumbling into a hole and digging out. Domestically, it even concocted a way to hang on to a slender lead while down to 10 men for more than a half against league-leading Schalke. Yes, it also got the rub of the green with referees (from Rafael's second yellow on Wednesday to Miroslav Klose's absurd offside goal against Fiorentina), but the dig-deep, grind-it-out quality is something few would have associated with a Van Gaal side. And, besides, being tough and lucky sometimes matters more than being good in this competition.
Which leaves the two teams that probably do belong among the top four.
In the case of Inter Milan, it's a borderline call. In fact, you get the sense that Jose Mourinho's crew is incapable of performing on two fronts. Brilliant in Serie A early in the season, it limped through the group stage in the Champions League. And now, just as it is getting into gear on the European stage (winning home and away both against Chelsea and CSKA Moscow), it is slipping badly in Serie A, with two wins in its last nine.
But in Lucio, Maicon and Julio Cesar, Inter boasts three-fifths of Brazil's back five, which is probably the best in the world. Plus, Wesley Sneijder is probably playing as well as he has in his entire career. Most of all, it's really difficult to root against Javier Zanetti, in his 15th season with the Nerazzurri (proving that foreign players can be paragons of loyalty and class). In fact, in terms of image, Zanetti is the perfect counterweight to Mourinho, who continues to divide opinion and rub many the wrong way (though, as some continue to suggest, perhaps it really is all an act aimed at establishing a siege mentality, attracting attention to himself and taking pressure off his players).
The one -- I would hope -- nobody could argue with is Barcelona. The defending champions are deeper and even more multidimensional than last season with the return to fitness of Gabi Milito, the emergence of Pedrito and the additions of Maxwell and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As Barca goes neck-and-neck with Real Madrid in their record-breaking romp through La Liga, in Europe it delivers one breathtaking performance after another.
Exhilarating, particularly in the first half hour, against Arsenal at the Emirates, it allowed resident genius Leo Messi to take over in the return. The little Argentine equaled a Champions League record with his four goals in a single game, but, more than the sheer numbers, it's the effortlessness with which Pep Guardiola's men seem to play that leaves you stunned. Whatever happens, this Barcelona side has already eclipsed the Galacticos and Cruyff's original Dream Team and probably Fabio Capello's Milan. You have to go back more than 20 years, to Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan, to find a side this dominant. And, even then, the debate is open.
So don't be too disappointed if some of the teams you thought were "good" are now out of the competition. The Champions League isn't about that. It never was. It's about rewarding teams that can raise their game, ride their luck and find ways to win individual games.
Instead, sit back, relish the matchups and enjoy the fact that you're guaranteed to see Barcelona at least two more times (and against its arch-enemy, Mourinho, no less). Or be inspired by Lyon getting better week after week or Bayern counting on hook, crook and the sheer delicate genius of Robben. In other words, enjoy it for what it is: the greatest international club competition in the world.