Arsene Wenger’s assertion, that the exit of his Arsenal team from the Champions League which confirmed a quarter-final line-up devoid of any English presence for the first time in 17 years was ‘a massive wake-up call’ for the game in this country, garnered a hefty slice of the following day’s headlines.
That outcome was possibly the intention of the wily Frenchman, ensuring that the Gunners’ continued trophy drought wasn’t chewed over any further just three weeks after the subject was last football’s hot topic.
Wenger stated; ‘we (English football) accept that the rest of European football has caught us’.
Whatever the Arsenal’s manager’s motivations for speaking out, the conclusions of a man who remains one of the world’s venerable coaches deserve consideration.
The swiftest possible response to Wenger’s argument was provided by the trio of Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, and Newcastle United, all of whom progressed to the last eight of the Europa League on Thursday night.
Although still very much deemed in many quarters – most damagingly a share of the competition’s entrants – to be the all-powerful Champions League’s ugly and unwanted younger brother, the old UEFA Cup can be used as a fair gauge of a national division’s strength in depth.
A combination of the tournament’s unwieldy format and sheer number of contestants, and our clubs breezy approach to it, has resulted in only Liverpool of the English entrants lifting the grand looking trophy since Tottenham beat Anderlecht in a gripping 1984 two-legged final.
Indeed, in addition to our two winners in that 28 year period, only Arsenal, Middlesbrough and Fulham have reached the showpiece occasion – as well as Dundee United, Celtic, and Rangers of the Scottish representatives.
That paltry return brings into sharp focus the achievements of this year’s triumvirate, chiefly those of Spurs and Newcastle who have steered a path through the seemingly never ending pre-Christmas phase – the Geordies also being required to overcome a qualification round in August.
Chelsea rather infamously dropped into the secondary continental tournament as a result of the doomed defence of their ultimate European crown.
A closer look at the London club’s performance reveals them to be the highest scorers in this edition’s group stage. Furthermore, Chelsea were involved in some of the more thrilling early encounters, notably home clashes with Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk, and their return trip to the latter’s vibrant Ukraine home.
It is a mere 10 months since Roberto Di Matteo’s team lifted the Champions League. For all the talk of their fortune and of Chelsea’s name being on the trophy, the truth is rather more pragmatic. With the substantial assistance of owner Roman Abramovich’s deep pockets, the Pensioners boasted – and still do – a squad brimful with exceptional talent.
Without players of the calibre of Peter Cech, Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Frank Lampard, Juan Mata, and the talismanic Didier Drogba no side overturns a first-leg 3-1 deficit against an excellent Napoli outfit or inflicts a double defeat on Benfica.
They certainly do not stare in the face a situation that places them 2-0 down and reduced to 10 men in Barcelona’s Nou Camp and surmount that colossal hurdle. Nor do they deny a strapping and dynamic Bayern Munich outfit that was savagely intent on capitalising on their unique opportunity to lift the most sumptuous of all cups on their own territory.
This mighty European accomplishment was achieved by a Chelsea team which stumbled to a 6th place finish in the corresponding Premier League campaign.
Liverpool occupy that spot in the present table and this version of the Merseysiders is – very gradually – revealing itself as a superior version of last year’s vintage.
Despite a recent mini-slump, Everton, who are level on points with their fierce cross Stanley Park rivals, are unquestionably stronger than the group which attacked the 2011/2012 term. The Premier League jockeying for the prized European spots is increasingly merciless with each year.
Manchester United’s outing in this year’s Champions League was a vast improvement on their efforts 12 months previously when they slipped innocuously out of a first stage pool behind Benfica and FC Basel.
The Red Devils’ fatal defeat by Real Madrid owed much to an eccentric Turkish referee. There was certainly nothing to cause Sir Alex Ferguson’s men any angst concerning their ability to come again a year on.
It is the successive failures on the elite stage by present English champions Manchester City that have cast the greatest doubt on the strength of our much heralded top division.
The Citizens’ Abu Dhabi riches and princely squad were not enough to take maximum points from a single match, albeit they were pitted in the definitive ‘group of death’ with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and Ajax Amsterdam.
Most troubling was the manner of City’s displays against their illustrious opponents. In all six encounters, Roberto Mancini’s side were technically and tactically inferior to more refined adversaries.
The oft contended defence proffered by observers seeking an explanation for City’s European travails is the club’s collective lack of experience at the apex of the game. A cursory glance at the Etihad playing roster however reveals a surfeit of Champions League exposure.
Rather than a weakness to attribute to this country’s game, City’s lack of European punch looks to be a difficulty unique to the club – and especially Mancini, who in four attempts with previous employers Inter Milan couldn’t guide the Italians beyond the quarter-final stage.
That relative failure was thrown into a starker light when Jose Mourinho concluded his spell in the Inter hot-seat by taking the biggest prize of all back to the Nerazzuri after the club’s 45 year wait.
Spain’s La Liga is popularly advocated as Europe’s foremost league. With three candidates for eventual glory among this year’s Champions League last eight that particular case has added weight.
Nevertheless, the superpowers of Real Madrid and Barcelona enjoy an appreciable dominance over their home competition. The continued presence in the latter stages of this tournament of these two giants tells more of their enduring financial clout and a status which transcends their country of origin than it does the quality of their domestic league.