By Ewan Roberts
Arsenal’s Champions League exit confirmed that, for the first time in 17 years, there will be no Premier League representation in the quarter-finals of the storied tournament. From being at the very top of the pile, England’s only involvement in the latter stages of this year’s competition will be to host another nation’s party.
As teams from Spain, Germany, Italy, France and Turkey eye an appearance at Wembley on May 25, the country that had lauded it over the rest of Europe for so long is picking through the bones of a humbling continental adventure. The final’s London setting will only serve as a reminder of how far English sides have fallen.
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Chelsea may have won the Champions League last year, but their miraculous, fortune-filled run betrays a general downturn in the exploits of English sides. The Premier League’s influence on the tournament has dropped off, no side possesses the aura of, say, Barcelona, and the best players in the world, the creme de la creme, no longer ply their trade on English shores. Even Pep Guardiola snubbed Britain.
This season, Premier League holders Manchester City crashed out of the Champions League without a win, Chelsea were relegated to the Europa League, Arsenal lost three of their eight matches and Manchester United, beaten twice in the group stages, were defeated by a Real Madrid side that sit 13 points behind the Liga leaders.
But that is not to say that the quality of the Premier League is intrinsically in decline. Rather, while England has stood still, revelling in the glories of the late 2000s, the rest of Europe has caught up.
Back then, Cristiano Ronaldo was a Manchester United player, Jose Mourinho was in charge of Chelsea, Liverpool were still an undisputed member of the so-called 'Big Four' and Arsene Wenger’s Gunners had yet to be dismantled – only two of the XI that played Bayern Munich on Wednesday night, Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott, featured in the 2009 semi-final against United.
"It's a massive disappointment for English football because for many years we have not been used to this," noted Wenger after his side’s exit. "It is a big wake-up call. It means that the rest of European football has caught back up with us and means we need to consider in the Premier League what we have to do to improve."
The lull English sides are experiencing has coincided with the re-emergence of other leagues and teams in Europe, which has exaggerated the Premier League’s decline. Juventus have risen from a match fixing scandal and the depths of Serie B to reclaim their position among Europe’s elite, Borussia Dortmund have gone from bankruptcy to brilliance, and PSG are now the richest club in the world.
Yet the Bundesliga has not produced a winner of the tournament in over a decade, while no Spanish side other than Barcelona has contested a final since 2002, and the last French side to lift the cup was Marseille 20 years ago.
All leagues naturally peak and trough – between 2000 and 2002, no Italian sides featured in the knockout stages of the Champions League, but a year later there was an all-Serie A final between Juventus and AC Milan – and English football’s dominance, at a scale previously unheard of, would have been practically impossible to sustain.
Now many of the Premier League’s top sides find themselves in periods of transition, while the changing face of the top four has also contributed to the slump.
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As the 'Big Four' has been dismantled, new sides have risen. Tottenham had an exhilarating maiden year in the Champions League but, lacking hardened European campaigners, fell apart at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium two years ago displaying a naivety that was rarely evident in the traditional top four.
Likewise, Manchester City have struggled in Europe. Their meteoric rise, triggered by the big spending of Sheikh Mansour, has deprived them of a learning curve and the chance to acclimatise to competing on multiple fronts. As a collective, a team unit, they are still novices in Europe.
The plight of Roberto Mancini’s side hints at the need for context: had City not been drawn in the group of death – alongside Ajax, Dortmund and Madrid – they might have made a greater impact on the tournament. Equally, had Nani not been shown a red card at Old Trafford, there might still be English representation left in the competition.
Rarely are cup competitions won by the best team, nor should they denote the status of particular leagues – we would not, for example, assume that the Turkish Super Lig is now better than the Premier League purely because Galatasaray have progressed further than any English side. Chelsea won the tournament last year, but were not even the best team in England (finishing behind Newcastle), while the same applied to Milan in 2007 (when they finished fourth in Serie A).
Equally, the Premier League must heed this warning. English teams have too often been out-thought and outgunned in Europe and need to reaffirm their position amongst Europe’s elite as quickly as possible. But with a record wave of TV money on the horizon, competitiveness constantly improving and transition cycles nearing their conclusion, the Premier League could be back with a bang next year.
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