The self- proclaimed ‘best league in the world’ has cause to look to its laurels, as its best clubs are ejected from European football’s premier competition at the early stages. With no English club amongst the last eight, for the first time in seventeen years, a strong whiff of crushed beans and hot water heralds a reality check and reassessment of where the Premier League’s finest lie in the hierarchy of European teams.
In 2008, Moscow saw the first ever all-English Champions’ League final when Manchester United and Chelsea locked horns in the Russian capital. The parochial nature of the game illustrated the perceived dominance of English Premier League teams in the competition, and was reinforced by the fact that the London club had defeated a third English team, Liverpool, in the semi-final. Talk at the time was that the cash rich for some, debt rich for others, English clubs had established a stranglehold on the tournament that would last a generation. Five years later, as Arsenal’s exit to Bayern Munich shut the door on the Premier League’s participation in this year’s competition before the quarter final draw had even been made,Arsene Wenger was quoted as calling it a “massive wake up call” for English football. How true is this?
Without doubt, the standard of some of continental Europe’s leagues has improved immeasurably. The fate of Premier league clubs in Europe this year largely reflects that simple fact. Manchester City’s quest to pass the group stage was thwarted by technically superior teams in Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, who handed out comprehensive lessons. Even the now-supposed minnows of Ajax exposed the limitations of the Eastlands outfit, once out of the small pond of English football. Chelsea fared little better. The Ukranians of Shaktar Donetsk comfortably defeated the European champions at home, and were unlucky to succumb to a late goal at Stamford Bridge. Juventus took a 2-2 draw in London, and then ran out a win with a stroll and swagger back in Turin. Victories over Nordjaelslandonly guaranteed an unwanted trawl around the backwater clubs of Europe in pursuit of minor compensatory glory in the Europa League.
Although Arsenal can claim a ‘moral victory’ over Bayern, it only papered over the cracks ruthlessly exposed by the Bavarians at the Emirates and during the games against Schalke. One ultimately forlorn victory, shouldn’t hide the inadequacies that were apparent in previous games. Only Manchester United, could claim that fortune didn’t favour them in their exit, but there was no guarantee that, on current form the ‘stand out’ team in the country, would have prevailed anyway.
So how bleak is the future? Bayern’s coach Heynckes offered hope. He explained that “you get cycles like that in football. I think the English teams will be back next year.” Cycles do happen of course, but a bit like the Germans and Italians have took lessons on board to combat the brief English dominance, it’s important that English football learns and improves. Anything else will mean a narrow agenda bringing minor successes. It’s ‘smell the coffee’ time at the moment. Another espresso over here please!