Today, there are two English teams realistically still in Europe. Everton have soundly beaten Swiss minnows Young Boys and Chelsea have a minor advantage going into next month’s Champions League game against PSG at Stamford Bridge. On the other side, some dodgy tactics from Rodgers has knocked Liverpool out of two European competitions. Arsenal, who had been quietly pleased over the supposed ease of their Champions League draw will now have to score three without reply at Monaco. Manchester City, thoroughly outplayed on Tuesday, will have to play Aleksandar Kolarov against Neymar for the return at the Nou Camp. Jose Mourinho’s plan to send Mohammed Salah to Fiorentina to knock out Tottenham Hotspur has worked wonders as the beat the North London side 3-1 on aggregate. As it stands now, two weeks from now it may be only Chelsea and Everton as England’s only representative in Europe.
English teams have traditionally had a great record in Europe. While it’s easy for the ignorant to claim that both City and Chelsea were ‘created’ after being bought by a rich foreign investor, both clubs had some form of European pedigree. Chelsea would have been the first English team in the European Cup, having won the First Division in 1955, but were refused by the FA, and replaced by Gwardia Warsawa of Poland. The ban on English clubs after the Heysel disaster meant that they couldn’t participate in a further three UEFA cups. Tottenham Hotspur won the European Cup Winner’s Cup and got to the European Cup semi-final in the early ‘60s, and Manchester City won the European Cup Winner’s Cup in 1970. Liverpool have won five European Cups, Manchester United three, and reached a further two. Nottingham Forest were the only team to retain the Cup, in 1979 and 1980. Perennial relegation favourites Aston Villa are one-time Champions as well. Between 2004 and 2012, there was an English team in every Champions League final, and two in 2008. Now it looks like there might not even be one in the last eight.
So what has caused this reversal of fortunes? Chelsea were the last English team to win the Champions League in 2012, before getting knocked out of the group stage the next campaign. Though Rafa Benitez would lead them to the Europa League in 2013, it was little consolation. The next season, under Jose Mourinho’s second term, they were knocked out by Diego Simeone’s resurgent Atletico team in the semi-finals.
Chelsea are generally a safe bet until the semi-finals, which they’ve reached eight times since 2004, but had a poor second half against PSG. Gary Cahill seems to be suffering from a long-term case of playing alongside Phil Jagielka, and has become hesitant to tackle and prone to losing concentration. John Terry is still in the form of his life, but will have to stay alert against the pace of Edinson Cavani, who had a brilliant game. On the other hand, Chelsea haven’t been beaten at home all season, and will have Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic in top form. Should Chelsea come up against Bayern, Barcelona and Real Madrid, it will be a true test of their mettle. They’ve often been unfairly vilified for a park-the-bus style that I don’t really believe has been espoused under Jose Mourinho as it was under Roberto di Matteo, but Mourinho will know that the ends justify the means if he becomes the first manager to win the Champions League with three different teams.
City are the opposite end of the spectrum. They have never really looked at home in the Champions League since reaching them in 2011. European football is a much different ball game than the Premier League. The play is slower and less physical, with more emphasis on counter attacking. Not since Guardiola’s team between 2009 and their defeat to Chelsea in 2012 have a team really ‘dominated’ the Champions League. City have been unfortunate, having met Bayern Munich twice in the group stages, and Barcelona, but they’ve also slipped up against teams like CSKA Moscow. It’s in the Champions League where money doesn’t make as much of a difference as long term success. Their defeat to Barcelona leaves them needing two goals without the reply at the Nou Camp to go through. Against Neymar, Messi and Suarez. I don’t expect them to come back from this, and instead will go all out at the Nou Camp, leaving plenty of space for Barcelona to play through.
Arsenal have managed to achieve Champions League football every year since 1998, but haven’t reached the final since 2006. The furthest they have reached since that time is a 4-1 semi-final aggregate defeat to Manchester United in 2009 (in the other semi-final, Barcelona beat Chelsea on away goals, making it three English teams in the semis. Spain would later repeat this feat in 2014). Since that time, Arsenal have managed to garner a reputation as plucky triers, particularly since their own naiveté often sees them needing to win their second leg by a clear number of goals. Impressive wins at Bayern (being the only team to beat Bayern at the Allianz in 2013) and a 3-0 win over AC Milan the year before have been good on paper, but have solidified their status as also-rans in the last few years. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla are world class players, but there is no one in the this current Arsenal team that looks as if they can push them up that final gear. Jack Wilshire seems to confuse arguing with passion and is made of glass. Aaron Ramsey can do the spectacular when he wants, but is subject to mercurial form. The defence is a shambles, and has been ever since the departure of William Gallas. Some of the blame for this has to come down to Arsene Wenger’s management. He never seems to be able to motivate his team until he chips are down. It will be interesting to see what direction Arsenal take after this latest debacle.
Liverpool worked so hard to get into the Champions League last year, and fans will rightly be aggrieved that Rodgers decided to play a weak team aiming for damage limitation at the Bernabeu. For a team that prides itself on its European success, it was a crime to watch and Joe Allen on that hallowed turf in place of Steven Gerrard. I do have sympathy for Rodgers, losing Suarez and in his first year in European management, but Liverpool’s Europa League campaign was no better. Playing at Anfield is always a daunting prospect for any player, but Besiktas coped well with the pressure; only a late Mario Balotelli penalty giving Liverpool a slender advantage to take to the Ataturk. In Instanbul, almost 10 years on from that famous night, Liverpool were completely overrun in midfield, and were lucky to even get to penalties. As Dejan Lovren’s awful penalty flew over the crossbar, it puts Rodgers under the pressure of achieving Champions League football twice in as many seasons.
For Spurs, Europe has often been a weak point in recent years. A glorious Gareth Bale performance against Inter Milan aside, they’ve not had many stand out moments. Spurs are a club with the finance and the support base to consistently achieve at least Europa League football, but were overcomplicated under the management of Andre Villas-Boas, and lackadaisical under Mauricio Pochettino. Harry Kane is good, but he can’t be expected to bail them out of every game. Spurs have too many flair players and not enough grit, and, at least for now, I don’t really expect them to change from that unless they bring through more players from their youth team.
At the same time, look at the opponents of the Champions League. In the semi-finals, I think that most people will hedge their bets that the big three of Bayern, Real and Barcelona will be involved. Real Madrid are the highest spenders in world football, and are the current holders. Barcelona forked out over 70 million pounds for Luis Suarez and over 50 million the year before for Neymar. Bayern Munich have spent less, but have still brought in Dortmund’s Mario Goetze and Robert Lewandowski in recent years. All three have won the Champions League in the last five years, with Bayern reaching two finals. But what of the other teams in these leagues?
Atletico Madrid won the Europa League in 2012, and reached the final of the Champions League, before a cruel last minute equalizer and an extra-time salvo by rivals Real saw them beaten in the final. In Germany, Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund were the surprise package of 2013, thrashing Real and reaching the Final against their own rivals Bayern, before losing 2-1 in the dying moments, before losing their star players and a host of injuries saw them collapse in the table as Bayern took control of the Bundesliga.
Right now, apart from Barcelona, Real and Bayern, no one in their respective leagues look like winning the Champions League. Atletico’s last-day clincher of the La Liga title was a flash in the pan, and Madrid and Barcelona’s spending power have effectively once again made it into a two horse race. Bayern snap up the majority of young German talent. Bayer Leverkussen, Schalke and Atletico are unlikely to go far.
English football is more concerned with playing beautiful football to emulate Guardiola’s Barcelona, when it should be focussed on getting the job done, at least in the early stages. The big three in Europe are based around world class players that attack from the front, whilst having little competition in their respective leagues. In the Premier League, teams will fight for every point, scrap and challenge. Whilst this in fairly true of the Bundesliga, Bayern’s power over the rest means that they can bulldoze teams on their way to the title. La Liga is a glorified SPL, with Atleti’s glory days arriving in the midst of a bad season for Real and Barcelona. Except when these three teams play each other, the Spanish league is slower, with more focus on keeping the ball on the ground, and short, slow passing. In England, our play is more focused around the long pass (not the long ball), and wingers. At the moment, England’s UEFA coefficient is in danger. Let’s hope Manchester City and Arsenal can do the impossible next month.