By Wayne Veysey
How the mighty have fallen.
Back in late May, when Chelsea were crowned kings of Europe and strains of Aguer-oooo could still be heard around the streets of Manchester, it would have been hard to envisage it coming to this.
Especially when Didier Drogba's swansong was swiftly followed by a stampede of arrivals who had one thing in common: youth, stellar reputations and hefty price tags.
Manchester City were less adventurous in the market but, like their fellow big spenders, they would have felt they ended the summer in stronger shape than they started it.
Not judging by the events of six-match campaigns which ended with a new manager in the Chelsea dugout and a severe dent in the reputation of his City counterpart.
Not judging by a last 16 roster which includes the names of financial lightweights Celtic, Malaga and Galatasaray.
And not judging by the minimal yields from the lavish sums invested by billionaire owners who have stopped at little in the pursuit of placing their club at the top of the global tree.
The Premier League is the most exciting, watchable and watched league in the world. While folk from Bangalore to Bangkok can name the entire Norwich City back four, its claim to be the best league in the world is on shaky ground when two of its big four fail to navigate the group stages for the second consecutive year.
For the two Manchester clubs last season, now read Chelsea and City this. When does a blip become a trend? When can a league no longer shrug off half of its representatives falling at the first hurdle as a one-off disappointment? And, how curious is it that Arsenal, the home of such unrest and anxiety, continue to do relatively easily what their domestic superiors cannot?
Roman Abramovich and those in his inner court will regard it as an embarrassment that Chelsea held on to the trophy won so memorably in Munich for a mere 200 days and will begin the new year plotting the Continental b-roads around Europe.
On a listless evening at Stamford Bridge, a 6-1 massacre of Danish opponents assembled for the same cost as Fernando Torres takes home in two months felt like the hollowest of victories.
The Chelsea support radiated pessimism and indifference from the start. Even the now customary jeers directed at Rafa Benitez when he emerged from the tunnel before kick-off felt less poisonous than of late.
|DISAPPOINTMENT ONCE MORE FOR PL CLUBS
Minds were as much on events 1,700 miles away as Rafa baiting. Once an own goal had put Juventus 1-0 up early in the second half at the Donbass Arena, leaving Shakhtar Donetsk requiring two goals to eliminate the Italians and send Chelsea through, the west London natives accepted their fate.
A tannoy announcement about Tube delays prompted thousands of locals to spill out of the stadium five minutes before the end, despite the rare sight of Torres looking like he could score at any moment.
While this victory gave Benitez his first win in four attempts and at least took some pressure off his spearhead, few will be getting giddy at Torres scoring such inconsequential goals.
Roberto Di Matteo paid with his job when he failed to live up to his owner's expectations. Another Roberto is more secure in Manchester, with credit in the bank from the triumph of last season's domestic marathon.
City's Abu Dhabi high-command are barely more talkative than silent assassin Roman Abramovich but they will feel badly let down by Mancini and his team.
Three points and fourth out of four was a miserable return, even though City could at least point to the excuse of being pitted in the toughest group, against the champions of Germany, Spain and Holland.
There is a growing sense that Mancini will need to lead City to a second consecutive title to be certain of being given the chance to improve his disastrous personal Champions League record.
Moreover, the Italian's pleas for major squad refurbishment in January may fall on deaf ears when there is not even the requirement to manage the squad on fortnightly Thursdays and Sundays.
It all adds up to a significant setback for the top English clubs.
By contrast, Spain have four representatives in the knockout rounds and the Bundesliga can count three, including Borussia Dortmund, who can lay claim to having been the outstanding team in the group stages.
Dortmund so comprehensively outplayed and outthought City home and away that talk of Mancini's side being part of a feared European elite seemed utterly preposterous.
Manchester United and Arsenal supporters have the right to feel a little smug this morning.
That said, United had the feeblest of group opponents - not for the first time - while Arsene Wenger's team look vulnerable against all their potential last 16 opponents.
With the monster new broadcasting deal to start next season, which guarantees each Premier League club around £60 million (€74 million) per season, there is unlikely to be too much navel gazing from the English elite in the months ahead.
Cash registers will continue to ring and marquee players will eagerly jump aboard the Premier League gravy train. Yet the thumping sound of Champions League failure deserves to resonate for some time.