The Champions League Group Stage has rarely delivered as much excitement and drama as the brain-melting hype may have implied, due to the usual suspects virtually always progressing to the knock-out stages. And the usual suspects almost always include the English participants. Even when Spurs debuted last season, they progressed in style.
An even stronger Premier League this season suggested business as usual in Europe. But that’s not quite how it has panned out. The two Manchester clubs never made it out of the group stage. And as of next week, it would be perfectly plausible if there are no English representatives in the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in over fifteen years.
Of course it is par for the course that debates will start about the strength of the Premiership, if there is a power-shift, if Italian football is resurgent, and so on. But the more probable explanation, as is often the case, is one of circumstance, a consequence of short-term events at individual clubs.Chelsea appears to be the current “club in crisis”. There always has to be a “big” club in crisis, and Arsenal have passed over the mantle, having themselves taken it off Manchester City, due to their never-ending crises (if you believe what you read, which I’m confident you don’t).
Chelsea’s struggles in Europe have mirrored a slump in league form, so the explanation seems quite straight forward. A new, inexperienced manager dedicated to a distinct change in tactics to what went before has led to a bumpy ride that Villas-Boas, recalling the track record of the club’s owner, could not survive. It is of course far too early to predict a wane in fortunes for the London club, especially with such a wealthy owner behind them, who will not stop in his desire to capture Europe’s biggest club prize. But with many of their key players reaching the twilight years of their career, and with a £50m white elephant in the room, it is little surprise everything hasn’t gone according to plan.
As for Manchester City, their debut season in the competition has been an education for all concerned. Only in one of their first five games, away to Villareal, can City be credited with a good, professional performance. Otherwise, it has been a struggle. Changes in playing personnel have cost City dear. Playing Kolo Toure in Munich cost them dear, apart from Carlos Tevez super-gluing himself to the bench, wrecking Mancini’s attempts to turn the game. Playing two back-up full-backs away to Napoli brought similar results.
City can had no excuses for not qualifying irrelevant of the difficult nature of the group, because of the money they have spent. But we can see in how the crucial game in Napoli was approached by the two teams some clues that explain the end result. Whilst Napoli’s league form had tailed off and the goals dried up, they were fully focused, as were their fans, on playing City and getting the necessary victory. Mancini and City found themselves at the time five points clear at the top of the Premier League, and perhaps their focus has shifted in that direction for many a month now. Either way, Mancini probably thought he could get away with changes and still qualify, but there is nowhere to hide in the Champions League, as he discovered at Inter Milan, and the competition may prove to be his Achilles heel – it’s rather early to be drawing such conclusions though. Since demotion to the Europa League Porto have been despatched 6-1 on aggregate, but only last night they once more struggled – they remain favourites for the trophy however.
Manchester United last finished as group runners-up in 2004-05 and were duly beaten home and away by Milan to crash out in the knockout stages. In 2005-06, they finished bottom of their group. Apart from that, their progress to at least the quarter-finals has been consistent. And the statistics show their start to the Premier League season to be one of their best.And yet the murmurings continue about the quality of the side, or at least of their performances. United are used to this – such noises accompanied them to a league title throughout last season and all the way to a Champions League final.
Their Champions League group was considered one of the easier ones, especially for a club with United’s experience. Their struggles have been easy to explain, though no one expected them to struggle this much. Alex Ferguson has to rebuild another team. Much of the old guard has gone, or is going. A new batch of young players have arrived, but despite the ridiculous levels of media hype, are not fit to lace the shoes of some that have gone before them just yet. Their time may come, but they are having to learn on the job, the hard way. Throw in a few injuries and the odd player out of form, and the team certainly is not firing on all cylinders. Again, this is most likely a short-term problem. As much as many would like to see United diminish as a force, they won’t be going anywhere in the foreseeable future – but their current struggles lie in the simple fact that they are not quite as good as they used to be. There has been money to spend, but United no longer seem to have the capability to buy big, and smash transfer records, to compliment the squad’s potential.
What’s more, the fear factor seems to have gone. Ajax turned up and won at Old Trafford, and then there was Athletic Bilbao. For those who knew the Spanish outfit, last night will not have been that big a surprise – an excellently assembled side that is well organised, speedy and comfortable on the ball under the guise of a manager who devotes every waking hour to studying the opposition and how to improve his own team. In a world obsessed with two Spanish teams, there is plenty of exciting talent bubbling below the surface.
As for Arsenal, well they performed pretty much as expected for a team without any honours for seven years in 4th place in their domestic league. They qualified with ease, but were ultimately undone by one horror night. But to really challenge the best, Wenger has to soften his ideals, and buy established talent.
The Spanish League may or may not be stronger, but Real Madrid just thrashed Espanyol 5-0 on Sunday night without any trouble whatsoever. It was a victory against one of the many teams fighting for the very open fourth Champions League spot in la Primera and the 14th time in 25 league games that Madrid have knocked four or more goals against their opponents this season. So clearly there is a lack of depth in all the major divisions – and there are also big teams horribly out of form, as Inter Milan have shown recently. Even Bayern Munich have stuttered recently, especially away from home, and have already conceded the league title.
Arguments over who has the best league are tedious anyway, but the point is that teams like Manchester City and Manchester United will be back, along with the other big teams, next season and pose a strong challenge in the Champions League. Let’s nor write off the league because of a small period of struggles against foreign teams. Better instead to simply credit some of the “outsiders” for quietly building brilliant and entertaining sides – be it Napoli and their magnificent front line or the scintillating Athletic Bilbao team, and the fairytale progression of Apoel Nicosia. Rather than bemoan a “boring” quarter-final line up devoid of many of the traditional big names, let’s celebrate a more eclectic mix of teams, and some exciting emerging players. The traditional big boys are no longer having it their own way, and this should be applauded.
But there is an easier solution to eradicate the struggles faced by English sides in recent times. Every tie completed so far in the current knockout stage of the Champions League has been won by the southernmost team (a trend Napoli should continue next week). So the answer is obvious – tow Britain to somewhere off the North African coast – then we’ll conquer Europe once more.
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