The argument for the Premier League being the best league in the world is fast becoming weak. Previously, any potential naysayer was quickly shouted down by allusions to English clubs’ record among Europe’s elite in the Champions League. However, this record has been severely dented in the last couple of seasons.
It does not seem so long ago that we were waxing lyrical over the superlative performances of English clubs in the Champions League, with Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool making up four of the competition’s semi-final spots in 2008. If those were the glory years for the English game, then what we’re presently witnessing is one momentous fall from grace.
Chelsea, European champions in 2012, were sent crashing out of Europe’s elite competition against PSG, a side that, although having the same sort of financial muscle as their London counterparts, they really should have seen off following a 1-1 draw in Paris three weeks earlier.
That defeat would have been difficult to take under any circumstance but the manner in which Jose Mourinho’s side succumbed to their opponents will have left many Chelsea fans with a feeling of nausea.
The Blues didn’t look up to matching the pace, endeavour or solidarity of the French side’s performance either at Parc de Princes or Stamford Bridge. In the latter match, Chelsea were even given the distinct advantage of playing 60 minutes of the regular 90 (as well as 30 more in extra time) with an additional man on the field after Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sent off for a lunge on Oscar – an incident that left the PSG man labelling his opponents as a bunch of “11 babies”.
Mourinho’s men, who are top of the Premier League and 1/14 for the title at the time of writing with betfair, played like a team who naïvely presumed their passage was already secure. The tempo was pedestrian throughout, while any commitment or desire to see the game off appeared solely in patches. The Londoners twice took the lead, which would have seen them through. But, instead of harnessing the resilience that usually augments their game in such situations, they looked shaky and vulnerable – not the sort of thing you would imagine a team of their stature and experience would even be capable of in such a position. Factor the 10 days’ rest they enjoyed ahead of this match, a top spot (and five-point cushion) in the title race and a morale-boosting League Cup victory into the equation and this result is immeasurably perplexing.
Also of interest was how much vitriol surrounded the behaviour of Chelsea’s players both during and after the game – directed by pundits, fans and journalists alike.
Jamie Carragher – who has competed in plenty of intense matches against Chelsea – was particularly critical of the West Londoner’s approach, most notably their reaction to Ibrahimovic’s aforementioned tackle on Oscar.
When the incident occurred, nine Chelsea men rushed over towards the referee, with only the challenged Oscar and Thibaut Courtois absent.
Former Liverpool defender Carragher said, “The reaction from the Chelsea players is disgraceful and it’s sad. It’s something that’s coming into the game and it comes from Jose Mourinho’s teams. They have this reaction, it’s not a one-off.”
Although, as pointed out on social media by Chelsea themselves (amongst others), John Terry and co. are far from the first team to swarm around a referee when they feel a decision has unfairly gone against them (or, as insinuated here, with the sole intention of getting an opponent booked or dismissed), with Carragher and his fellow Sky Sports panelist Graeme Souness (also critical of Mourinho’s men – we’ll come on to that later) themselves central on more than one occasion.
Regardless, Carragher also went on to suggest that Mourinho’s comments before the match, which claimed PSG had an over-zealous aggressive streak to their game, might have influenced Dutch referee Björn Kuipers when it came to producing the red card. In truth, as fellow Sky Sports pundit Thierry Henry pointed out on the evening, the card was brandished within mere seconds of the tackle coming in, hinting that Kuipers made his mind up instinctively and immediately, well before even the first Chelsea man showed any signs of grievance.
Not that this altered the view of a third prong in that particular TV punditry panel, with Souness giving the home side both barrels as well.
Known for his hard-man image, it’s understandable that the Scot isn’t in favour of gamesmanship in any form, from intimidating the referee to elaborately going to ground when a simple stumble would suffice. It’s also, therefore, unsurprising that he was also far from impressed with the perceived antics on show during Wednesday night’s encounter at Stamford Bridge.
Harping back to his own experiences, the three-time European victor bemoaned the ease and intention with which current players head to the turf when tackled.
During his playing days, Souness said, footballers would try and stay on their feet no matter what, in order to indicate that they weren’t hurt. The (also) former Liverpool man decrees that things are the lineal opposite today, with players deliberately falling over and doing their utmost to get an opponent sent off. This, he says, is the “pathetic” side of football and is “not the British way”.
These extremely admirable ethical and moral sensibilities should be applauded. After all, nobody finds that sort of behaviour tasteful. However, his comments, specifically regarding Diego Costa are particularly interesting:
“Costa – as much as I like him – starts off a game with one intention: ‘I am going to intimidate the centre-halves, nudge them, elbow them, set about them physically and just get to the border without getting myself in trouble.”
Now, please correct me if I’m wrong, but this sort of “gamesmanship” has been going on for as long as the game itself. There will be many readers of this article, able to recall occasions at school or during Sunday League matches when you were either subjected to a sustained period of provocation or happened to be the culprit of said antagonism. And I’d be willing to wager good money on Souness himself being part and parcel to all that during his career – both on and off the pitch.
Another person who might well agree with my comments is that man again, Mourinho.
Never shy of an opinion or two (who can forget his Goals on Sunday tirade over what he considers biased officiating against Chelsea?), Mourinho lambasted Carragher and Souness in his pre-game press conference ahead of the visit from Southampton on Sunday.
Clearly, The Blues boss senses a spot or two of hypocrisy in his critics’ words.
Chelsea will now have to move on and focus on regaining the Premier League for the first time in five years but their poor showing isn’t the only example of the top-flight’s finest failing in continental competition this year.
Next under the spotlight will be Arsenal and Manchester City this week.
When the draw was made for this year’s Champions League second round, North Londoners Arsenal must surely have been happiest with their lot out of the three remaining English sides.
Chelsea had been pitted against the cash-laden PSG, while City once again faced up to the prospect of having to find a way past the star-studded Barcelona. Arsenal, on the other hand, had their name pulled out alongside Monaco – a club who sat bottom of Ligue 2 fewer than four years ago. Granted, since that point they’ve been saved by the obligatory Russian oligarch in Dmitry Rybolovlev and stormed to a second-placed finish during their first season back in Ligue 1. But given all that, this was, on paper, a tie Arsenal must have been extremely pleased with.
The Gunners will have also been boosted by the knowledge that any sort of advantage they could muster from the first leg would be taken with them on their trip to Monaco. However, it will have been great frustration that Arsene Wenger and his team took from this meeting with one of his former sides, as they went down 3-1 at Emirates Stadium.
Much like Chelsea, Arsenal rarely looked up to the challenge on the night, missing myriad chances, many clear cut, with most falling to the wasteful Olivier Giroud.
The Frenchman had six opportunities to find the back of the net from within the area in the space of an hour but couldn’t convert a single one. It goes to show just how fickle sport can be, as merely a month ago he was being praised for his rekindled form and sharpness in front of goal.
Monaco, on the other hand, had no such trouble – landing seven of their 10 shots on target compared to Arsenal’s four from 14.
The visitors’ ruthlessness up front wasn’t the only key to their victory on the night, though. They were dogged in defence and simply looked far more eager for the win than their hosts. Nothing clicked for Arsenal and, although they had a decent penalty shout turned down, the scoreline didn’t really flatter Monaco, nor represent an injustice for Arsenal’s efforts.
Of course, the final curtain hasn’t quite been drawn on the Arsenal side’s European adventure this year but there’s only a slight shimmer of light shining through.
Wenger will hope his team can turn that glimmer of hope into a glorious, famous escape in the principality next week but, if they can’t, that will leave City as England’s only hope of Champions League success this year – and they arguably have the most treacherous task ahead.
In the 2014 campaign, City put in a respectable display against Barça at Camp Nou after a rather lacklustre, unorganised performance during the first leg in Manchester. They ended up on the wrong side of a 4-1 on aggregate result in that tie but it will have served as a learning curve for Manuel Pellegrini’s team as they discovered the nuances of playing knockout-stage football at this level for the first time.
Worryingly, City came perilously close to conceding a goal in second-half stoppage time once again, but Joe Hart’s crucial save from Lionel Messi’s spot kick could turn out to be a pivotal point of this two-legged affair.
The Catalan side currently sit top of La Liga and have scored a mighty 22 goals in their previous six league outings. In contrast, City are five points behind Chelsea in the race for the title and have netted 14 times in their previous six league matches at the time of writing.
City can’t allow these stats to play on their mind, though, as Pellegrini’s team revisit the ground at which they alighted last season’s European campaign. They must concentrate on the task at hand and show no respect to their opponents. They are, after all, peers, not subordinates.
If City can manage this, then it is possible for them to turn their 2-1 deficit around. We’ve seen it done before. Unfortunately, the prevailing omens of English endeavours in the competition this year suggest that what seems to be an unlikely ascension to the European summit will actually prove insurmountable for the Mancunian side once again. We can always hope otherwise.
So, where did it all go wrong for English sides in the continent’s elite competition? Some commentators argue that the standard of the English game is way behind that of Europe’s other leagues. But that claim seems to be a little knee-jerk, considering that between 2005 and 2012 the country had eight finalists in the Champions League. Chelsea made it to the semi-finals of last season’s competition and Everton are well and truly still in the running for a Europa League title this year, despite a woeful domestic campaign.
England as a nation prides itself on being pessimistic but I personally don’t think that’s particularly beneficial for any English club competing in Europe.
It would take a sustained period of decline for England to lose our fourth Champions League spot through the UEFA coefficients scoring system, even though you might have heard differently, and there’s always next season – as ever.
England have been incredibly fortunate to enjoy a long and fruitful spell at the pinnacle of European football and it just so happens to currently be someone else’s time to dominate, but these things tend to be cyclical.
Featured image courtesy of FIFA.com