Last night was supposed to be a potential banana skin for Chelsea, with the returning Didier Drogba intent on inflicting an upset on his previous employers. The reality though couldn’t have been any more different with the West Londoners progressing to the Champions League quarter-finals at a canter, comfortably despatching Galatasaray 2-0 on the night.
The worry though for fans of the English game is that Chelsea are fast becoming the anomaly in Europe. Whilst group stage progression has been a near formality for the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal down the years, advances beyond that are becoming worryingly rare.
Manchester United need a miracle tonight to join Chelsea in the last 8, leaving Chelsea as the lone ambassador for the English game in the continents premier competition. Surely the alarm bells should be ringing?
In this country we do like to glamourise our league, and rightly so in my opinion. The Premier League is the most watched, the most competitive of the top leagues and the most lucrative. But if you take the best teams from the continents top leagues and pit them together sadly the English lag behind. The evidence in the Champions League is clear, with Chelsea the only side in the last few seasons to make a significant mark on the continent. Chelsea’s critics would point to a campaign in 2012 based on nullifying the opposition rather than imposing themselves on the game; you would find it difficult to argue that Chelsea’s success in that year was anything but a grind.
I’m not trying to detract from Chelsea’s achievements, more so to emphasise what an anomaly that title was in terms of the English sides more generally. Our top 3 or 4 clubs are no longer good enough to compete with the best on the continent, when you see a Manchester City side forced to contain rather than impose you know something is wrong.
Chelsea will enter the last 8 as one of the rank outsiders for the competition, current odds of around 11/1 actually seem a little short for a side most would be happy to face at this stage. Over two legs a tie with the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich is effectively a non event; player for player the English sides are inferior and unless someone like Mourinho can spring a tactical surprise or two the situation seems hopeless.
But it isn’t just the usual contenders that have climbed far above us; you can add the likes of PSG, Athletico Madrid and perhaps even an ailing Dortmund side to the list of clubs capable of taking our sides apart. It wasn’t long ago that English sides would consistently be making it to the latter stages of the Champions League, capable of beating anyone on their day. But fast-forward to 2014 and we now have a handful of English clubs happy to play on the back foot, almost accepting of their fate.
The difference for us is how our league has developed. The gulf in class between top and bottom is shrinking, few games are formalities and teams up and down the country are willing to compete. This just isn’t the case on the continent; the likes of Real Madrid, PSG and Bayern Munich dominate their respective leagues. When Madrid line up against Real Betis there isn’t the same sense of caution and pessimism.
If there were a European competition for the bottom half of the continents leagues you can expect English sides to flourish, but sadly when it comes to the top sides we are falling far behind.
English interest in Europe could be on the wane by May. Chelsea look set to be the sole point of interest beyond the week and given the task facing them the future doesn’t look all that promising.
The cocoon of ignorance about European football needs to change. Failure in the Champions League is becoming the norm for our sides rather than the exception, sliding further and further behind our European adversaries it isn’t a surprise that English football is on the decline.