The crunch time is approaching in both Champions League and Europa League and the English fans can only turn their eyes to Chelsea in order to see a home contestant fighting for any of the above European titles. No one doubts the likes of Manchester United, City, Arsenal or Tottenham have some of the best squads on the continent but, at the same time, everybody wonders why such a competitive league has failed to have an influence on the European scene this year.
The answer probably rests in the question, as one of the main aspects to explain the lack of English teams in the final stages of the continental tournaments is precisely the competitiveness of the Premier League. Together with it, an unnecessarily overloaded calendar adds extra difficulty for the top English clubs trying to make their way to success on the continent.
It is really difficult to come across a weekend without a very attractive game in the Premier League that matches two top teams. Last weekend it was Arsenal v Everton what caught the attention, this weekend we have a Liverpool v Chelsea and a Spurs v Manchester City, and the next one will be an Arsenal v Manchester United. A blessing for the neutral fan, a nightmare for a team with European aspirations.
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None of that happens that often in La Liga, the Bundesliga or the Serie A, for example. The gap – not necessarily in points, but in quality – between the top two or three teams and the rest of their pursuers is too big for that to happen. As much as teams like Real Sociedad or Fiorentina are completing great seasons, watching a Barcelona v Real Sociedad or Fiorentina v Napoli clash cannot be compared to a Chelsea v Arsenal or a United v Liverpool game. It’s just not the same.
The immediate repercussion of enjoying high level games on a weekly basis is that those games stop the clubs from preparing European games with the desired dedication, as well as stopping managers from giving rest to their key players.
To give an example of this, Tottenham had to face their tie against Inter with the first and second leg preceded by league games against Arsenal and Liverpool just three days before. With no interest in giving up on the Europa League glory and racing for a top-four finish, there was no room for downtime for Villas-Boas’ side.
And if the Premier League was not demanding enough, the calendar does the rest. With two cups to play – FA and Capital One – a successful participation in these competitions guarantees more games to the club calendar than in other countries. Besides, both competitions include replay matches at some stage, a format that neither Germany, Spain or Italy adhere to.
The best example to illustrate the effects of the above is Chelsea. Having reached the semi-finals in both domestic competitions and still competing in the Europa League after a poor attempt in the Champions League, Rafa Benitez’s squad have played 59 games, considerably ahead of Barcelona (51), Juventus (47) or Bayern (45). And the worst of all is that after taking part in eight competitions this season, the Europa League is the only chance of lifting silverware at the end of it.
With such a busy schedule, the Blues have had to face difficult stretches, like the 11 days back in October where they met Spurs in the league, Shakhtar in the Champions League, and a double clash against Manchester United, including the thrilling 5-4 Capital One Cup game. And not much more pleasant were those days for Fergie and his men, as they faced Braga in the continental contest and Arsenal just after the two games against Chelsea.
The rest of the European challengers have also suffered the inconveniences of such a demanding agenda. For example, Manchester City had to face Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea after Champions League games, while Arsenal fans saw how the two FA Cup ties against Swansea were followed by league defeats against Chelsea and City. Sometimes it looks like it is, quite simply, too much to handle for any team.
It is obvious that the Wednesday-Saturday routine that elite football requires nowadays does not leave much room for preparing games and that it’s a damage no team in Europe can escape from. The Premier League is currently the most competitive of the domestic competitions and, as much as that can be an inconvenience when contending on other fronts, there is not much to do apart from sit back and enjoy.
Working on how to make the calendar slightly less congested, however, should be taking hours of sleep away from more than one FA top dog. Replay games could be a good point to start – after all, if this keeps up, English football is shooting itself in the foot.
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