Over the last couple of years, there have been winks and nods that the English Premier League is losing its claim as the best soccer league in the world. La Liga has become slightly more competitive, Bayern Munich has evolved into a true superpower while increasing its global brand, and more teams than ever can throw eight figures at the year's biggest transfer targets. In this respect, the Champions League is not helping the EPL's case, as all four EPL teams failed to win their first leg, putting the league as a whole in jeopardy of not reaching the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year.
Manchester City, strong contenders for the league title, faced off against Barcelona, still one of the global heavyweights. City conceded possession in the early minutes, but came into its own with a threatening counterattack, asking serious questions of Barcelona's defensive alignment and looking equally likely to get the first goal. The suspense quickly dissipated once centerback Martín Demichelis was given a straight red and a penalty early in the second half, which simultaneously put Barca on top and ensured City could offer no reply.
The following day, in a nearly identical storyboard, Arsenal were severe underdogs to Bayern Munich, the defending champions and undeniably the best team in the world with seemingly no weakness. Still, Arsenal surprised everyone by throwing the first punches, playing strong on the ball and fluid with their early movement. Ozil will largely be remembered for missing a penalty in the opening minutes, but up until that point he was playing one of his best games as a Gunner with intelligent, well-timed off the ball runs. Like the City-Barca game, what could have been a fascinating tactical and competitive match was rendered one-sided when a penalty and straight red card was called against Arsenal keeper and consonant-mugger Wojciech Szczesny. Now, both English teams will enter the second leg down two goals.
While neither Arsenal or Manchester City can be blamed too much for losing to arguably the two best teams in the world, Manchester United and Chelsea have lots of questions to answer. Stunningly, Man Utd lost to lowly Olympiakos -- considered by some to be the weakest of the 16 teams remaining -- by the same 2-0 margin, a scoreline that hardly reveals Man Utd's genuine and total incompetence. Standard passes routinely went astray, chances were discarded like an empty pizza box, and United's back four moved as if Chori Dominguez utilized his Mario Kart-esque lightning strike. After the match, Robin van Persie channeled the little boy inside of him and took to the press to lament David Moyes's tactics and criticize other players for being in his space. But the loss had little to do with tactics: United is better than Olympiakos, position by position, and to imply the squad's tactics were the cause of defeat is to make a scapegoat of the man who stands on the sidelines rather than the ones who couldn't put the ball in the net against an inferior team.
Chelsea, with their draw at Galatasaray, was the lone EPL team to not lose during the first leg. Chelsea was in control for the first half hour, then allowed the Turkish side to gain more possession and slow the game down. A late goal evened the score, and now Chelsea must win at home in the second leg to advance.
Meanwhile, the top clubs from other leagues took care of their business. Atlético defeated a floundering AC Milan side, while Madrid absolutely shellacked Schalke 6-1 in a gorgeous display of skill and domination. Dortmund did not disappoint, making short work of Zenit's lamentable defense and scoring four goals on the road in St. Petersburg. Paris Saint Germain looked equally commanding on the road against lowly Bayer Leverkusen. This is all to say the EPL embarrassed itself.
Still, this poor Champions League showing doesn't preclude the EPL from making lofty claims about its global standing. It is without question the most successful league in the world (of any sport) and has the best global (hashtag) brand. The EPL's traditional claim to excellence has been its parity; the worst team in the league can and does compete with the best on occasion. This is a great year to make that argument. Newly-promoted Cardiff City can beat the mighty Manchester City -- and it's not even the biggest upset of the year -- while the standings reflect a gradual decline rather than a sudden gorge; the first gap greater than six points is between Southampton (ninth place) and West Ham (10th). This is in stark contrast to the Bundesliga (Bayern is 19 points clear of second place Leverkusen) and La Liga (there's a 13-point gap between the three Champions League teams and fourth place Athletic Bilbao), which are so top-heavy they topple in a brisk wind.
In terms of attracting the world's best players, it is true that the power is shifting -- and has been shifting for some time, really -- away from the EPL. Come the World Cup this summer, many of the best players will be unfamiliar to EPL loyalists, a basic result of more entrants into the upper echelons of the player market. Paris Saint Germain and Monaco have drastically increased their spending rates thanks to owners to whom money is as limitless as air. When there are only 10 to 15 teams willing to spend $50 million or more on a transfer, even two new bidders can shift the market.
One leg of Champions League play shouldn't result in any drastic conclusions, especially when two matches were determined by early red cards. But the EPL's relative demise isn't based on the outcomes of those matches, but rather the perceptions of both English teams as underdogs, at home, going into the games. This trend has been developing for years, and it may require eye-opening results to notice it. The EPL may be the most accessible league, the most competitive league, and the league that shares a common language with America. But it isn't the dominant league it once was, and that's just fine. That means there's more good soccer to go around.