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The Debate: Which is harder to win – the Champions League or the Premier League?

The Champions League is set to return with Treble winners Manchester City eyeing up an unprecedented second consecutive haul of Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup.

Pep Guardiola's struggles in Europe were notorious for years, with the City boss accused of overthinking European ties, while it was often noted that the Barcelona legend had failed to win European football's top prize in nine attempts without the great Lionel Messi.

Guardiola was ultra-dominant domestically, winning five titles in six years as well as an unprecedented domestic treble, but finally landed an overdue third Champions League trophy in 2023.

With City's bid for another Treble very much underway, we're asking: Which is harder to win – the Champions League or the Premier League?


All of the most dominant Premier League champions in history have notoriously struggled to win the Champions League.

Take Pep Guardiola’s Treble-winning Manchester City side of last season as a pertinent example – their Champions League triumph in Istanbul ended a gruelling seven-year quest to get their hands on the trophy under the Catalan.

This is during an era in which the Citizens won five Premier League titles in seven seasons with the ex-Barcelona boss at the helm.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s dynastic Manchester United side, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal Invincibles and Jose Mourinho’s juggernaut of a Chelsea team all endured a similar struggle to conquer Europe.

In the Champions League era beginning in 1992, these three legendary managers delivered 19 Premier League titles between them – 13 for Ferguson at United and three apiece for Wenger and Mourinho with Arsenal and Chelsea respectively.

This contrasts starkly with their European performance, with Manchester United legend Ferguson delivering the Champions League trophy in just two of 21 seasons and the prize eluding Wenger and Mourinho completely despite their combined total of 27 seasons at the helm at Arsenal and Chelsea. 

These numbers are easy to explain – the Champions League is simply more difficult to win than the Premier League.

As a knockout competition, it only takes one slip up or sub-par performance to see your Champions League dreams crushed. In the Premier League, on the other hand, you have 38 games to prove you are the best.

The margin for error in Europe is tiny, whilst the availability of certain players is key given the winner-takes-all format.

Look at Manchester City this season – dropping 17 points in their opening 17 Premier League matches with talismanic midfielder Kevin De Bruyne absent for five months with a hamstring injury and top goalscorer Erling Haaland also spending over six weeks out.

Would City be as confident entering the knockout stages of this year’s Champions League without De Bruyne and Haaland?

When it comes to the Champions League, you don’t even have to necessarily prove you are the best team in Europe to get your hands on the trophy.

Indeed, those who claim the Premier League is harder to win will point to the relative weakness of certain Champions League victors, with the Chelsea side of 2011/12 perhaps the most relevant example.

Far from the strongest Chelsea team to have competed in the competition – with the Blues finishing sixth in the Premier League - Roberto De Matteo’s charges were able to claim the club’s first ever Champions League title by overcoming Bayern Munich in their own backyard in the final despite a host of injuries and suspensions.

Chelsea’s success was a vivid representation of the shock outcomes knockout competitions have time and time again proven to throw out. 

In one-off games anything can happen, as was demonstrated in the Munich final with Didier Drogba scoring an 88th-minute equaliser for Chelsea, Petr Cech saving a spot kick from Arjen Robben in injury time, and the Blues eventually prevailing 4-3 in the penalty shootout.

The following are the six teams who eliminated Pep Guardiola’s swashbuckling Manchester City sides in the six seasons the Citizens failed to win the Champions League under the 53-year-old: Monaco (16/17), Liverpool (17/18), Tottenham (18/19), Lyon (19/20), Chelsea (20/21) and Real Madrid (21/22).

City will have been favourites to win all six of these ties, but cup competitions are renowned for defying the odds.

When you combine knockout football with midweek fixtures overseas, heightened atmospheres, different styles of play and unfamiliar opposition – you are presented with an unforgiving cocktail of jeopardy.

Manchester City have made the Premier League nigh-on impossible to win.

Perhaps the Premier League was easier to win in years gone by; it's not any more.

If you ask Manchester City fans which is harder to win out of the Premier League and Champions League, they’ll likely say the Champions League, but there aren’t many fans of other clubs who’d agree.

It’s very rare the best team doesn’t win their league; it’s not all that often the best team wins the Champions League.

In recent years, we’ve seen Inter (who finished 18 points behind champions Napoli), Chelsea (19 points behind champions Manchester City) and Tottenham (27 points behind champions Manchester City) all reach finals, with Chelsea actually beating City, and if you ask any of them whether they felt more confident of winning between the league or Champions League, the answer is the latter. 

Nobody would suggest that Chelsea were better than Manchester City that season, but they had enough about them in 2021 to beat City over 90 minutes – and that’s all these competitions come down to. Can you navigate three knockout ties – where lady luck so often plays her part – before winning a one-off final?

Of course you need to be good to win the Champions League, but a bit of luck goes a long way. No one has ever won the Premier League only for people to reflect that the champions were lucky.

In order to win a title you have to play the same 38 fixtures as everyone else; in the Champions League you can get a fortuitous group stage draw, and you can certainly get a fortuitous run to the final.

A look back at the 2004 Champions League and we see Porto face Monaco in the most unlikely final. On their way to Gelsenkirchen, Porto faced Manchester United (who had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside in the second leg), Lyon and Deportivo La Coruna, successfully evading Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Arsenal who all played each other on the other side of the draw.

The Champions League has become a bit of a closed shop over the last decade, with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid winning eight of the last 11 iterations, but it’s no more closed than the Premier League, where Manchester City have won five of the last six titles and are odds-on to make it six in seven. 

Liverpool amassed 97 points in 2018/19 and didn’t win the league; they amassed 92 points in 2021/22 and didn’t win the league. They were two of the best seasons in Premier League history and the Reds twice came out empty-handed, and that’s the level you have to be at to win the title these days. The year they finally did win the league, they did so with 99 points.

At least in the Champions League, while three teams have dominated the competition, as many as eight teams have finished as runners-up, including Tottenham, Inter, Juventus and Atletico Madrid. While they might have come up short, they’ve at least put themselves in a position to win; only Liverpool (and at a push, Arsenal) can say they’ve put themselves in a real position to win a title in the last six years, and even then they’ve only managed it once.

It almost never happens that the best team doesn’t win the league – even Leicester in 2016, as mad as it sounds, were the best team over the course of 38 games as all the should-have-been challengers fell by the wayside.

In the end, it comes down to this: to win the Premier League, you have to be better than 19 other teams over 38 games; to win the Champions League, you need to navigate three two-legged ties (potentially avoiding the best teams in the competition) and win a one-off match at a neutral ground.

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