Having witnessed the largely expected Champions League eliminations of Arsenal and Manchester City during the week, and with the fates of both Chelsea and Manchester United remaining in the balance, it has become abundantly clear that English clubs have got some catching up to do in Europe. However, there aren’t as many shortcomings as many pundits have led people to believe.
There’s no escaping the fact that the Champions League Last 16 draw was particularly unfavourable for Arsenal and Manchester City, having drawn arguably two of Europe’s top three teams at the moment in the shape of Bayern Munich and Barcelona. However, despite there not being too much pressure on either to progress, neither can claim to have succeeded in the competition this season. Both have enjoyed improved seasons domestically, they are both in the hunt for the Premier League title and Manchester City have already secured the Capital One Cup whilst Arsenal look strong favourites to end their trophy drought with the FA Cup. However, this has not transformed their fortunes in the elite competition. Perhaps this proves that the Champions League in particular is a whole different ball game as some teams seem more suited to its format and demands than their own domestic league.
Rewind back to a few years ago and English clubs were always amongst the main contenders of the Champions League, in fact they had a considerable dominance for a short spell. For three consecutive seasons (2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09), three English clubs made it to the semi-finals. This year, it looks as if only one might reach the Quarter finals (assuming Manchester United don’t pull off a minor miracle against Olympiakos). Undoubtedly, the English clubs are still strong but make no mistake – the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich amongst others – have made significant progress. They probably have the strongest squads in Europe but having said that, English clubs aren’t too far behind.
So what could possibly be separating these elite clubs from English clubs (and the rest)besides an edge on quality? These teams know how to deal with the two-legged business. In Spain, Germany and Italy, there is only one cup competition and these use the two-legged ties format (which is exactly like the Champions League). Obviously in this country we have two cups, one which uses extra-time and penalties to decide the winner in the event of a draw (the Capital One Cup) and the other involves ties going to a “replay” in the event of a draw before extra-time and penalties (the FA Cup).
The two-legged format used in the other European leagues must surely give their teams a better chance in the elite competitions due to their extra experience and knowledge of approaching home and away games against the same opponent. They’ve become used to it. Hence why Barcelona and Bayern Munich had the know-how and ability to go to the Eithad and the Emirates respectively and walk away with 2-0 wins, effectively killing off the ties before they’ve even kicked a ball on their turf. You could argue that both of those first legs had their turning points and that’s certainly true but both visiting teams still maintained a good level of control of the respective games.
It won’t happen but suppose if the Capital One Cup was scrapped and the FA Cup adopted a similar system to its European counterparts, then those clubs competing in Europe would only have three trophies to juggle with in a season. They’d also have less reason to disregard the FA Cup as there would be less opportunities for them to win silverware and this might help to restore some of its magic which has undoubtedly been lost over the last few seasons (except this one as the semi-final line-up looks very intriguing).
Another possible reason behind England’s continental struggles could be that quite simply it’s not England’s turn to be successful. As mentioned above, England’s purple patch in the competition ended about five years ago and now it seems to be the Spanish and German clubs that are leading the way. This is no coincidence as the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich rebuilt dramatically over the past few years with Europe in mind. The four English clubs that are still in or have just gone out of the Champions League this season aren’t in anywhere near as big a mess as those two clubs were when English clubs were asserting their stranglehold on the continent just a few years ago which means that ultimately it may not be long before we see another English winner of club football’s most prestigious prize.