English plight in Europe is no fluke

March 13, 2012

Anyone who might have assumed the deteriorating form of English clubs in Europe since Manchester United won the 2008 Champions League resulted from a convergence of misfortunate circumstances such as tough draws or mounting injuries to key players has been emphatically refuted.

Come Thursday, the Premier League might be left without a single club to represent it in either the Champions League or the less fancied Europa League, where Manchester rivals City and United were not just beaten but also played off the park last week by rivals many of their fans will have considered second-class opposition.

Especially unimpressive were Manchester United, who can consider themselves lucky to be taking only a 3-2 deficit to their return leg clash at Spanish side Athletic Bilbao, whose fans did all the singing at Old Trafford as the Basque outfit outplayed the English champions on their own turf like no other team in recent history.

“We were well beaten and they were the better team,” said United manager Alex Ferguson after their Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea produced a stellar performance to give his team a glimmer of hope they can overturn the tie in the cauldron of Bilbao’s San Mames stadium.

I can’t remember Ferguson heaping so much praise on any European opposition that visited Old Trafford in the last two decades, including the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Bayern Munich.

Like United, stuttering Chelsea and their caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo also face a daunting task of overturning a 3-1 first leg deficit in their Champions League last-16 clash with Napoli, who geared up for the trip to Stamford  Bridge with a 6-3 rout of Italian Serie A rivals Cagliari on Friday.

Premier League leaders Manchester City are in the best position of the three to progress as they have only a 1-0 deficit against Sporting Lisbon to overcome at their stadium. But an away goal for the visitors – who are fourth in the Portuguese first division with only a theoretical chance of winning the title - could mean more European disappointment for City, whose Champions League debut ended in a group stage exit at the hands of Bayern and Napoli.

Has the opposition improved so dramatically in the last few years or have the Premier League’s top clubs hit a downward spiral?

Six of one, half a dozen of the other is probably the case. The immense strength of Real Madrid and Barcelona has overshadowed the quality and talent of other Spanish teams, displayed to such devastating effect by Bilbao as well as Valencia and Atletico Madrid, who are also in a commanding position to reach the Europa League’s last eight.

For all their ability to keep grinding out titles in the Premier League, United’s poor form in Europe this season shows they are a far cry from the side that beat Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semis before they went on to win the competition with a penalty shootout victory over Chelsea in Moscow.

City, on the other hand, are still a work in progress as their methodical manager Roberto Mancini readily admitted after their Champions League elimination.

As my colleague Martyn Herman pointed out, anyone who jumps into the Chelsea hot seat will need a sledgehammer to start a long and painstaking rebuilding process, a task already underway at Arsenal where Arsene Wenger and his troops are still getting used to life without the likes of Theirry Henry, Patrick Vieira and more recently Cesc Fabregas.

In the worst case scenario, the Gunners’ valiant effort to erase a 4-0 first-leg deficit against AC Milan – winning 3-0 - may be the closest that English clubs have come to surviving in Europe this season.

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