David Cameron will have something to celebrate in the coming weeks: it looks like English football clubs, at least, will be out of Europe in the very near future, aligning perfectly with the British Prime Minister’s Eurosceptic agenda. Despite making it through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, there is a real possibility that not one of the four English clubs will make it any further. After Arsenal and Manchester City suffered home defeats to Bayern Munich and Barcelona respectively, Chelsea and Manchester United brought back little from the Eastern reaches of the Mediterranean, with José Mourinho’s side less than “special” as they failed to beat Galatasaray and David Moyes’ team slumping to defeat at the hands of the mighty Olympiacos.
Cue sweeping generalisations in the media about English football’s fall from grace: a potent cocktail of nostalgia and thinly-veiled jingoism fuelling a post-lapsarian narrative obsessed with the “good old days” of Champions League Finals – you know, John Terry parading around the pitch in full kit despite not having played a minute, that kind of thing. But, if this doomsday scenario does come to pass, will it really herald the symbolic “end” of English football? Manchester City and Arsenal had very similar experiences as they took on two of the most feared clubs in Europe, and both succumbed to 2-0 defeats. Just as Thomas Müller’s goal in the dying moments in North London represented a crushing blow to Arsenal’s hopes of progressing to the quarter-final stage, Dani Alves’ 90th minute strike at the Etihad left City with a mountain to climb in Barcelona.
If only, supporters of both clubs lamented, those late goals could have been avoided, the results might have seemed passable, particularly given that both teams had almost managed to limp to the final whistle with only ten men. As things stand, however, their chances of progressing are almost non-existent, unless Arsenal can not only repeat, but better their surprise victory in Munich last year and Barcelona crumble against a City reinvigorated by their returning saviour, Sergio Agüero. Meanwhile, Manchester United and Chelsea can be slightly more optimistic.
For United fans, although the 2-0 defeat in Athens was something of a low-point (of this season? of the last twenty years?) the fact remains that Olympiacos are not of the same calibre as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and will be more brittle than either in the second leg. Whether they will be brittle enough to facilitate redemption for a toothless United remains to be seen, but the Greeks’ visit to Old Trafford will be possibly the most interesting fixture to come. That said, Didier Drogba’s glorious return to Stamford Bridge will also be eagerly anticipated, although if he manages to tip the balance his side’s way during the second leg then the home crowd may be less than happy to see him come the final whistle.
With the advantage of an away goal from the 1-1 in Istanbul, it is fair to say that Fulham’s finest are probably the best positioned of all the Premier League clubs to make it through to the quarter-finals, even if that would mean the exit from the competition of the only striker in recent memory to score goals for Chelsea on a consistent basis. Arsenal, City and Chelsea are wrapped up in a manic scramble for the Premier League title, a fact which might be used to explain their Champions League weariness. Bayern Munich and others, such as PSG (4-0 winners away at Bayern Leverkusen), seem to have their domestic leagues already won, thus lacking the distraction which burdens Premier League clubs. However, all three La Liga clubs have been impressive in Europe (Real Madrid annihilating Schalke 6-1 in Gelsenkirchen and Atlético coming away from the San Siro with a 1-0 win over Milan) despite the Spanish league being a three-horse race for the first time in a long time, with only 3 points separating Madrid in first and Atlético in third, either side of second-placed Barcelona. Premier League clubs simply cannot use the league as an excuse.
So why are they falling short? Mesut Özil’s tired penalty miss against Bayern Munich might provide an answer: Özil’s recent poor form has been put down to fatigue by many, and it may be that the lack of a winter break (which Özil enjoyed both in Germany and while playing for Real Madrid) is not only behind the Arsenal playmaker’s downturn since Christmas, but the reason for the struggles of Premier League clubs more generally. Increasing the strain on clubs at a crucial point in the season may be having a significant impact on Premier League performance in the Champions League, in stark contrast to the restorative month of siestas enjoyed on the continent.
Yet the faintest hint of a winter break is enough to send the media into uproar, raging about the tradition of festive football (a tradition which, coincidentally, keeps the media machine rolling on and selling papers). To winter break or not to winter break? Either way: cue media hysteria.