Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs will more than likely be eliminated from this year’s UEFA Champions League when the round of 16 ties are concluded over the next fortnight, leaving only Chelsea to fly the flag of the English Premier League.
In February, Arsenal and Manchester City both suffered 2–0 home losses to Bayern Munich and Barcelona respectively, while Manchester United suffered a road loss to Olympiakos by the same score. Chelsea recorded the only positive result, a 1–1 draw away to Galatasaray.
This is a far cry from seasons 2007-08 and 2008-09 when English clubs filled three of the four semifinal positions. Five years ago the EPL could claim to be “the best league in the world” with some hard evidence to offer in support of that claim. Not least was the all-English final when Manchester United prevailed over Chelsea, plus two more United appearances in the final over the next three seasons in which they went down to Barcelona on both occasions.
Particularly noteworthy is that United’s winning team contained Cristiano Ronaldo, whereas the two losing sides did not.
In December 2008, United added the World Club crown to their European triumph. The defensive formation of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, and Patrice Evra, with the towering Edwin van der Sar behind them, rarely looked in trouble, even after Vidic received a red card.
The United that lost 2–0 to Olympiakos looked static and woefully short of ideas. Injuries and age have caught up to Vidic and Ferdinand, but even if the younger Jonny Evans and Phil Jones had been fit, they are so error prone that it is impossible at this stage to imagine a Champions League winning side with them at the heart of the defense.
Robin van Persie is obviously a class act but, unlike Ronaldo, when his team is struggling he tends to drift around in the final third, vainly waiting for the sort of service he likes, but which is not forthcoming. Having not been in the game, if a chance does finally come his way, the necessary sharpness is not always there. His miss in the second half against the Greeks that deprived his team of that precious away goal will probably be the difference between progress and elimination.
It may surprise people to learn that one has to go all the way back to 1963 to find the only time United has overcome a two-goal first leg deficit in a European tie. It will require an effort of Herculean proportions for them to pull this one out of the fire, given their patchy form in all competitions.
City’s European Malaise
Manchester City possesses a squad of international superstars that should, on paper, have guaranteed them a Champions League semifinal spot for the last three seasons. Most Premier League clubs, and many from continental Europe, would dearly love to sign any one of their reserves let alone somebody from the first choice XI.
At their best in domestic competition City are irresistible, but often on the big occasion, seem unable to bring their “A” game—the most obvious recent example being last year’s FA Cup final loss to lowly Wigan that cost Roberto Mancini his job.
Manuel Pellegrini will have his work cut out to convince his players that they are capable of overturning Barcelona’s two-goal advantage at the Nou Camp. They will have to be at their absolute best and the Catalans will need to have a very bad night. It could happen, but don’t hold your breath.
Arsenal Set to Bow Out to Bayern Once Again
The Gunners salvaged a good deal of pride in the last European campaign by atoning for a disastrous home performance against the eventual winners with a gutsy win away from home. It is arguable that the Bavarians uncharacteristically took that match rather too lightly on the assumption that they had already done enough at the Emirates to ensure progress in the tournament.
They will be unlikely to make the same mistake two years in a row.
Arsenal can be impressive enough on their day, but still have a worrying fragility that can easily be exposed by a determined opponent. A couple of injuries to key players and a dip in form from the likes of Mezut Ozil, Olivier Giroud, or Laurent Koscielny and, with that relatively thin squad, they can suddenly look very vulnerable.
A loss away at Stoke this weekend will not have helped their confidence. They will need a miracle to prevail in Munich.
Chelsea: England’s Best Hope
That leaves Chelsea as England’s best hope of representation in the draw for the Champions League quarterfinals in two weeks’ time. Galatasaray will not be a pushover with Didier Drogba keen to make a mark on his return to Stamford Bridge.
The Blues will also need to stifle the creativity of the admirable Wesley Sneijder. Nonetheless Jose Mourinho’s side should have more than enough to overcome the Turkish club on home turf, particularly having an away goal in the bank.
Whether Chelsea can go all the way again is a different matter entirely, but if they can avoid the big guns in the next round they should at least manage to make the last four.
Can the Premier League Bounce Back?
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s the Italian Serie A was confident in its position as the world’s elite competition. The Italians became complacent in their apparent superiority and one day around the turn of the century woke up to the realization that they had actually slumped to maybe fourth or even fifth in the pecking order.
A similar thing seems to be happening with the English Premier League.
The Premier League is no longer attracting many of the best players in the world. Ronaldo remains the league’s most significant loss, and last season’s outstanding player, Gareth Bale, has also moved south to ply his trade in the Spanish capital.
If this trend is to be reversed, and the likes of Luis Suarez, Eden Hazard, and Sergio Aguero are to be kept in England, then the EPL management must quickly come to terms with the reality of the situation and produce a long term strategy that will ensure the league is competitive with its continental rivals.