If you asked the managers of the reigning title winners in Europe’s top five leagues whether they would be happy with a convincing league title win but no other silverware this season, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City is probably the only one who would even consider it. The rest would likely turn it down before you even finished the question. If you added a domestic cup into the equation, then maybe Ernesto Valverde would be interested as well. But even for the Barcelona manager, you can be almost certain that most supporters would want him sacked if he delivers another domestic double but fails to reach at least a semifinal in the Champions League.
For a number of reasons, we seem to be at a point where the biggest clubs consider their season a failure unless they either win the Champions League. The main cause is the monopoly that a small number of teams enjoy over the domestic title in each country. PSG have won five of the last six titles in France, Bayern the last six in Germany, Juventus the last seven in Italy, and Barcelona seven of the last ten in Spain. The premier league has had a far more equal distribution of titles since the mid 2000s due to the influx of money at City and Chelsea, as well as Sir Alex’s retirement. But even in England, Manchester City’s 19 point gap over second place was just two behind Bayern Munich for the biggest in Europe. Furthermore, all five of those teams are considered odds on to win the title again next season.
Given the growing importance of winning the Champions League, it’s almost inevitable that most of the very top teams will end up considering their season a failure. Starting with Juventus, they’ve reached Champions League finals while winning domestic doubles in two of the last four seasons and just signed Cristiano Ronaldo. Although the commercial side was a huge factor in Ronaldo’s signing, nothing short of improving on those seasons by completing the treble would likely go down as much of a success. Similarly for Bayern, they’ve won six league titles in a row and finished 21 points ahead of second place Schalke. Although reclaiming the German Cup will surely be an important objective after last season’s shock defeat, the Bavarians are so far ahead of the competition in Germany that bringing home the biggest trophy for the first time in six seasons will surely be a requisite for a successful season. Likewise for PSG, they’re so far ahead of the rest in France, and you can be sure that they didn’t spend close to $500m on Mbappe and Neymar just to win Ligue 1.
England and Spain is where it gets a bit more interesting. In normal circumstances, a domestic double including a big Clasico win would be cause for celebration in Barcelona. But after seeing Madrid and Ronaldo win three consecutive Champions Leagues in Messi’s prime, it’s tough to imagine a scenario in which Barcelona can have a successful season without winning the ultimate prize. On the other side, Madrid are in a rather strange position after all their recent success but a very underwhelming transfer window and the sense that the club is in a rebuilding phase. Although it would be criminal in most other seasons to say, if they could stay competitive in La Liga while maybe nicking the Copa Del Rey, that would probably be a successful season provided that Barcelona doesn’t win the Champions League.
As for Manchester City, winning the league alone would likely be enough to qualify as a success given that no club has retained the title since 2009 and the threat posed by rivals like Liverpool. That being said, Pep Guardiola probably needs to win the Champions League during his time at City for it to be considered a clear success after all the money he’s spent. Overall though, the growing importance of the Champions League represents a new trend in the game with the success of an entire season for teams, managers, and players now primarily coming down to their performances in a few knockout matches.