England must heed European wake-up call
There are two ways of viewing the fact that there is no British club in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in 17 years. You can put your head in the sand and say it is a blip that Manchester United were on the end of a dodgy refereeing decision against Real Madrid and that Arsenal showed good old bulldog spirit in beating Bayern Munich in Germany before going out on away goals.
You can argue that if you like, as you can argue that Celtic did brilliantly to reach the last 16, beating Barcelona at the group stage on the way. Or you can wake up, feel the wind of change in Europe and recognise that the Barclays Premier League has become too comfortable, too complacent, too ready to believe its own publicity.
Of course, there is still no league like the English top flight when it comes to filling bars from Sudbury to Singapore and from Birmingham to Bangkok.
Week on week, the Premier League is awash with controversy. It is full of goals and high on energy. No wonder millions across the globe tune in to get their fix of the most compelling sporting soap opera on the planet.
For more than a decade in Europe, English clubs have been dominant, regularly filling the quarter-final, semi-final and final spots in the Champions League. In 2008, two English clubs, Manchester United and Chelsea, contested the final for the first time and English football preened itself. Let’s be fair, Chelsea even won it last season, although football aficionados are still trying to work out how.
Yet, this season there is something missing and credit to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger for admitting as much as he came to terms with another trophyless season.
“It’s a massive wake-up call for us to have Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal all out by the quarter-finals,” said Wenger. “The rest of European football has caught up with us and we have to take that into consideration about the way we think about the future of the Premier League.”
Actually, Wenger should start with the way he thinks about the future of Arsenal. You cannot progress deep into the Champions League by constantly looking to the academy youngsters while the club’s ready cash gathers mothballs. What sense does it make to run up a wage bill approaching £150 million when expensive stars such as Andrey Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner, Sebastien Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh and Emmanuel Frimpong are either out on loan or out of favour?
For all the courage and determination of the team which beat Bayern 2-0 at the Allianz Arena, where were the Arsenal players with the magic capable of actually lifting the trophy? Where were the game-changers? Theo Walcott? Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Olivier Giroud? Hardly. Bayern had a bad night, but they have Manuel Neuer, Javi Martinez, Arjen Robben, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos. They have a team 20 points clear in the Bundesliga, one with balance and poise and experience, one full of genuine world stars.
The same could be said of Barcelona and Real Madrid. True, Lionel Messi is arguably the greatest footballer the world has seen and he is the diamond cutting edge at the tip of an already sublime Barcelona side, while Cristiano Ronaldo performs the same function for Real. They give the Spanish sides a clear advantage. The harsh fact is that the English clubs simply do not possess such quality. For all their billions, Manchester City are still searching for balance, know-how and that unique player to make a difference at the highest level.
Chelsea are Chelsea, unable to recognise that constant quick fixes and perpetual internal strife are not the way to build a footballing dynasty.
That leaves Manchester United, who were unfortunate to draw Real Madrid in the last 16, but whose European demise also hangs on their failure to find a successor to the playmaking genius of Paul Scholes.
Yet, while English football undoubtedly has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to Europe, don’t cry for the Champions League. It has never been more vibrant.
Of the eight clubs remaining, five – Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern, Barcelona and Real Madrid – realistically could win it. The final at Wembley on 25 May could witness one of football’s greatest nights. English football should watch and learn.