Have Premier League clubs simply been unlucky in the UEFA Champions League this season?
For the first time since 1996, there will be no English representation in the last eight of the premier club competition in European football this season. Instead, the quarter-finals are made up of three Spanish clubs (Barcelona, Malaga and Real Madrid), two from Germany (Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund), and one each from France, Italy and Turkey (Paris St Germain, Juventus, and Galatasaray, respectively).
Arsenal were the last Premier League standing this term, but a 3-1 home defeat to Bayern in the second round first leg clash at the Emirates Stadium meant they had a huge task to overcome the German giants in the Allianz Arena. However, they almost made the impossible possible, but ultimately, their impressive 2-0 win stood for little.
After the game, Arsene Wenger reflected not only on the shortcomings of his own side, but also of those of the rest of the clubs which make up England’s top-flight: “It’s a massive disappointment for English football. For a number of years we’ve not had that. I think it’s a massive wake-up call for us. It means the rest of Europe has caught up on us. We have to take that into consideration when we think about the future of the Premier League.”
So is Wenger right, or is his assessment a tad misleading?
Let’s start with the Gunners. They could barely have asked for a harder second round tie, yet that is the price they paid for finishing their group in second place behind Schalke. Yet had Wenger fielded a stronger XI for their last match against Olympiakos, there is every chance they would have avoided defeat against a Greek side who had already secured a place in the UEFA Europa League by virtue of finishing third in Group B. Had that been the case, Arsenal would have played Galatasaray in the second round which, whilst difficult, would have been a more appealing prospect than facing a side who currently lead the Bundesliga by 20 points – especially as the Turks would have had to travel to London for the second leg.
Maybe Wenger needs to take that into consideration.
Finishing top of the group doesn’t always guarantee an easier route, though. Take Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side breezed through a group consisting of Galatasaray, CFR Cluj and SC Braga, yet were then handed the daunting task of playing Real Madrid in the last 16. Never mind, the Reds left the Bernabeu on the back of a 1-1 draw in the first leg, and were 1-0 up and in control of the second before a controversial red card for Nani allowed the Spaniards to score twice and progress into the last eight.
Comfortably winning your group before being eliminated against one of the best teams in the planet after being harshly reduced to ten men doesn’t require much of a wake-up call; on this occasion, surely that can be categorised simply as unlucky?
And to a certain degree, United’s rivals City have also had a lack of fortune. Yes, they have spent plenty of cash to assemble one of the best squads in Europe, and yes you have to beat the best to be the best, but even so…could Roberto Mancini’s men have asked for a tougher group than Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax; essentially, a group of four champions? Of course there is no excuse for not winning a single one of their six matches, but dealt just about any other of the possible group combinations, and there is reason to believe the Blues would have had enough quality to make the knockout stages.
It is harder to find excuses for Chelsea. Having won the competition in such dramatic circumstances last season, they were expected to make the last 16 at the very least. A 3-0 defeat at eventual group winners Juventus in their penultimate game cost Roberto Di Matteo his job, just six months after that memorable night in Munich. But it was their head-to-head record against Shakhtar Donetsk which did the damage, with the Ukraine side getting the better of the two ties courtesy of an extra away goal.
Should the Stamford Bridge club qualify for the Champions League again this season, whoever will be in charge next term – and it won’t be Rafael Benitez – will hardly be tasked with an impossible job; on the contrary, he will be lucky enough to have inherited one of the best squads in Europe. Indeed, when the favourites for the tournament are drawn up, the Londoners are sure to feature near the head of this list.
Having no English side in the quarter-finals is a massive disappointment, Wenger has that right. But the Arsenal coach would be wise to take a close look at his own squad rather than suggesting those of his rivals are in need of a wake-up call.