Champions League

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European failure worry for England?

GRAVE BRITAIN
Alex Ferguson, Rafa Benitez, Roberto Mancini and Arsene Wenge; LEANDER SCHAERLAECKENS
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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There are eight teams left standing in the UEFA Champions League.

Three of them hail from Spain, two from Germany and one each from France, Italy and Turkey.

Zero are from England.

This is the first time in 17 years – since the 1995/96 season, when Blackburn Rovers were stranded in the group stage – that no English team has reached the quarterfinals. Just last year, an English team, Chelsea, won. The year before that, another English team, Manchester United, stood in the final. And in each of the 2006/07, 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons, three of the four semifinalists were English.

Not this year.

English champions Manchester City flamed out spectacularly in the deathly Group D, taking just three points from their six games. Defending champions Chelsea didn’t make it out of Group E, ending even on 10 points with Shakhtar Donetsk but missing out because the Ukrainians had the better head-to-head record. Manchester United were beached in the round of 16, blaming their ouster at the hands of Real Madrid on a controversial red card for Nani in the wake of which they crumbled. And Arsenal were so poor in their first leg 3-1 loss at home against Bayern Munich that even a surprising 2-0 away win couldn’t undo all that damage.

DOWN TO EIGHT

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In their stead stand the aforementioned Real Madrid, eager to win their tenth Champions League and their first since 2002 as controversial manager Jose Mourinho looks to be heading for the exit. Also still alive are Bayern Munich, who looked like favorites until their fetid performance against Arsenal on Wednesday; nouveaux riche Paris Saint-Germain, who have figured out how to win in Europe in a hurry; scrappy Malaga, overcoming financial hardships; dazzling Borussia Dortmund, whose flowing attacks are as much symphony as soccer; Juventus, the old giants resurgent; Galatasaray, the Turkish upstarts, newly armed with Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder; and, last but never least, Barcelona, who rousingly rose from their slumber by demolishing AC Milan on Tuesday.

But their achievement is overshadowed, to a large extent, by the failure of the English, who dominate the narrative in their all too conspicuous absence.

There seem to be three possible explanations.

One: This is some sort of aberration. A few teams got unlucky or had bad performances at bad times and all is really good and well with the Premier League. This blip is not at all symptomatic of a systemic issue of a league wherein teams depend too heavily on hired foreign guns and run into trouble when they don’t perform.

Two: The Premier League has dropped off. Its teams just haven’t been as good lately. The Barcelona-Real Madrid arms race has left the English clubs in their wake, coinciding with a downturn of their sporting fortunes. There haven’t been any vintage, or even memorable, English sides of late, as a five-team oligopoly dominates the game. This trend was first signaled by the 2012 FIFA World XI, which, to the consternation of the British press, didn’t include a single Premier League player. The counter-argument, of course, would be that Chelsea won the tournament last season. But then many would argue that they were far from the best team when they did, relying on all-out defending and a handful of fortuitous late goals.

Three: The Premier League hasn’t deteriorated, but the competition within it has grown so fierce that little energy remains to compete in Europe after the endless weekend battles on the domestic front. Three different teams have won the Premier League over the last three seasons, a surprisingly rare occurrence at England’s highest level in recent years – the only other time it’s happened during the Premier League era was 2003-05. The traditional Big Three of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have been joined by Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, who are all viable title candidates now.

Rich investors prop up the smaller clubs, giving them the means to compete for quality players. The top end has gotten bigger while the gap with those below has narrowed. That makes for an exhausting schedule for the clubs playing in the Champions League as well. It’s a challenge clubs in top-heavy leagues, like Barca and Real in Spain, PSG in France, or Galatasaray in Turkey, don’t have to contend with. The Premier League may, in other words, have gotten so competitive that it’s devoured its own chances on the continental front.

The answer probably lies in a combination of all three options, albeit leaning more heavily towards the latter two. With all that competition for talent, exacerbated by the rise of newly rich clubs in Paris, Russia and Ukraine, building the depth to compete on two fronts has become much tougher for Premier League teams. Thinner squads are having to play harder games.

The economic edge England’s biggest clubs long held by virtue of playing in the world’s most popular and expensively televised league has eroded at the hands of dilution. And if they’re going to dominate Europe anew, they’re going to have to devise fresh ways of doing so.

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