Considering the buildup and general comment that Premier League clubs had a favourable draw in the Champions League, the treble whammy of defeat gave a rude awakening. All three of Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United were going into their games as favourites, even with City facing tougher opposition in Juventus than Dinamo Zagreb and PSV Eindhoven.
But, Chelsea’s 4-0 win over Maccabi Tel Aviv aside, English clubs were left embarrassed. The Manchester clubs felt even worse, as despite taking the lead, they left the pitch empty-handed.
Juventus are of course a huge name on the European stage, but this was not the Bianconeri at their very strongest; they had lost to Udinese and Roma, only claiming a point against Chievo too in their Serie A campaign heading to Manchester.
The Italians had managed to make the Champions Final last year, but their influential trio of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez had all left for pastures new; this was a team still finding their feet, and their leaders.
But they clearly still knew how to get a result, even after falling behind. Taking advantage of City’s errors, they struck with the ruthlessness that their hosts just do not seem to possess on the continental stage.
City themselves are an interesting case of English football in the European arena right now. The almost bottomless funds and resources available to them have brought them managers and players their fans would have dreamed of, but this hasn’t made a difference.
They finally cracked their group stage problem last year, only to lose to eventual winners Barcelona. Exiting to Barca isn’t shameful, but the way City set up in both legs with two strikers was borderline crazy.
Perhaps that is the greatest difference between English teams and their foreign opposition: tactics. The Premier League is billed as the most exciting, with end-to-end football, but often the games are like that because of a lack of organisation.
The influx of not just foreign players, but managers and backroom staff, helped the English newly-branded top flight in its embryonic life back in the nineties drag itself out of the dark 1980s off the pitch, but why is the Premier League being left behind by Spain and Germany, despite their relative smaller finances?
For me, the Premier League needs to recognise where they are outside of their comfortable domestic bubble. The wealth has grown the league, but it has led to complacency.
Barring the dominant duo of Barcelona and Real Madrid, La Liga clubs do not possess the deep pockets that many of their Premier League equivalents have, but that hasn’t shown on their travels.
Take Sevilla for example. A financial problem in summer 2013 forced them to sell stars like Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas, ironically to Manchester City, but managed to finish four places higher than 2012/13 in fifth and won the 2014 Europa League final, recording a £40m transfer profit to boot.
After that 2014 triumph, the vultures circled again: Young left back Alberto Moreno left for Liverpool and Ivan Rakitic, the undoubted star of the team, left for Barcelona.
But clever rebuilding, such as Grzegorz Krychowiak for £3.85m who could easily fetch that fee six times over now, meant the Andalusians could repeat the trick again: a fifth placed finish and triumph in the Europa League final.
Yet Europe’s second competition is not embraced by the English clubs; instead of being another route into the much-vaunted Champions League, it is seen as a distraction.
The likes of Liverpool and Tottenham may think it is easier to qualify through the league, but surely fighting with similar sized teams over less games is easier than taking on the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City over 38 games?
The money has also washed away most of the identity of those clubs, too. The clubs at the very top of the English pyramid should be bringing through top quality young players, but often that simply isn’t the case.
Rather than taking the time and having the patience to develop a player who represents their own values, English clubs would often rather buy a ready made player, or even worse buy a youngster from abroad!
It could be argued that the three other English clubs could look at how Chelsea operate in Europe. The fact that Jose Mourinho will often forego attacking football in the Champions League is criticised, yet his record arguably makes it worthwhile, and the Blues are the only English club to have won Ol’ Big Ears in the past decade.
Even Barcelona and Bayern Munich when they have triumphed on the European stage have looked to play more of a counter-attacking way, but made sure they kept their shape as strong as possible in doing so.
English clubs need to be far smarter in Europe, and treat their opponent with the respect they deserve. Do that, and the amount of money spent by them won’t look so foolish.
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