In almost every measure, London dwarves England’s other cities. Yet while this sprawling capital has always offered a home to government and a centre for business, it has never been seen as the power base of English football. Nor has it deserved to.
A look at the list of domestic champions shows that the north-west has accounted for 54 titles to London’s 19, and that Liverpool and Manchester – with a combined population of just over 800,000 – boast 27 and 20 respectively. Nor has the continental arena provided much comfort for the capital, with four clubs – two from the north, two from the Midlands – accounting for each of the 11 times an English outfit has been champions of Europe.
Nevertheless, while the dominance enjoyed by the country’s northern heartlands has kept a city of seven million-plus firmly in the shade, there are signs that London – which is playing host to this season’s UEFA Champions final - is finally flexing its muscles. In Chelsea, it possesses England’s champions, while yesterday’s draw for the Champions League group stage merely reinforced the capital’s current credentials, with three of its sides involved. The Blues were there, of course, while Arsenal’s presence has come to be expected, but it was Tottenham Hotspur - the group’s newcomer – who ensured that no city will be as well represented as London in this season’s competition.
Harry Redknapp’s side were outsiders for the top four last season, with Champions League veterans Liverpool and Manchester City, the biggest spenders in world football, among their more fancied adversaries. Yet it was Spurs who will be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and group rivals Inter Milan, this after the White Hart Lane side finished off Switzerland’s Young Boys on a memorable, rain-soaked evening in north London. For Redknapp, a Londoner and former product of the Spurs youth academy, the atmosphere and sense of occasion evoked memories of the club’s glory days.
He said: "As a kid I used to come training here and watched the games with Benfica in those great days. At that time it was amazing to see European football and the way this place was jumping. To bring it back was great for the fans - and that is what it is all about really, the supporters. We have given them something to look forward to."
Redknapp’s side are undoubtedly outsiders in this, their first season at Europe’s top table, but they remain well worth watching in a section that also includes the holders, Werder Bremen and Twente. Nor is it only at White Hart Lane that the significance of their qualification has been appreciated, with Spurs’ success even welcomed by their oldest and fiercest rivals. Arsenal striker Robin van Persie, for one, pointed out that boosting of London’s Champions League contingent merely increases the chances of ending the capital’s long search for a European crown.
"It is good for London," said the Dutchman. "It is about time for a London club to win the Champions League. It has been very close but it has never happened.”
The English capital have arguably never had a better chance to break their duck, and it seems that the presence of their city rivals in the Champions League field is provided added motivation. Spurs defender Michael Dawson admitted as much when he stressed the appeal in emulating and, if possible, outdoing their more experienced fellow Londoners. “We know the rivalry with Arsenal and Chelsea,” said the long-serving centre-half. “Chelsea and Arsenal have been in the top four and Europe for many years and it's something Tottenham have been building towards. Matching those clubs motivates us.”
Having each fallen at the final hurdle in recent years, Arsenal and Chelsea will be aiming to make history after landing in groups that, on paper at least, they will be expected to dominate. The Gunners, who have held on to Cesc Fabregas and started the Premier League season in positive fashion, are up against Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga and Partizan Belgrade. Chelsea, meanwhile, will kick off their bid for European glory against Marseille, Spartak Moscow and Zilina, with Arsenal star Andrey Arshavin admitting that the English champions currently look to be the strongest of the country’s four contenders.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “They have scored 12 goals [in two Premier League matches], it happens very rarely. Chelsea are still very strong defensively. It lets them play freely in attack. Of course when you have Drogba, Anelka, Malouda you must expect many goals as well.”
With Wembley set to stage this year’s Champions League showpiece, Arshavin believes that the responsibility on England, and London’s, representatives has never been greater. "An English team must win the Champions League,” he said. “Last season we let an Italian team win it and this time we have to take it back. With the final at Wembley, it has to be an English team.”
Only time will tell whether Arshavin’s conviction is justified, but with Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs all formidable figures in this season’s competition, few would rule out a continental conquest in their home city.