Jim White

A nightmare week in Europe, but English football isn’t dead yet

Jim White

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Four ties, three at home, no wins and no goals: it was not the most elevated of European weeks for Premier League clubs. Tottenham aside (reversing a 1-0 away defeat in Ukraine should be well within their capabilities) it is hard to make an argument of further advance. For Manchester City, Arsenal and Swansea this looks like the end of the line. For them the European adventure is over.

But I’m not sure we should be writing the epitaphs for Premier League competitiveness just yet. Given their opponents next week, there is every chance that the two other English clubs in the Champions League will progress. Looked at from here, the quarter-finalists are likely to be made up of three Spanish, two German, two English and one French team. A statistic which does not suggest that the Premier League is punching below its weight.

Rather what we have seen this week is the problems that a club can bring upon itself by not winning its qualification group. Arsenal, City and Swansea have all suffered the consequence of horribly tough draws, compounded by being obliged to play their home leg first.

City and Arsenal may have been well beaten but they were playing unquestionably the two top teams on the continent right now. And if you ask anyone from Barca or Bayern they will not claim their victories were easily won.

Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger may have come up short, but they were not embarrassed. Their likely eviction from the competition has more to do with the severity of the draw than their own inadequacies. Indeed, it was a measure of the strength in depth of the Premier League that Swansea, sitting in 10th position in the table, really should have beaten a Napoli side lying third in Serie A, managed by a serial European winner and boasting a striker who cost more than the Welsh club’s entire squad.

Of course the Premier League has issues. The lack of a winter break is beginning to tell on some of its better performers (step forward – if you still have the energy – Mesut Ozil). The pace at which players become used to conducting the domestic game, and the speed with which they can generally recover the ball once they lose it, means teams can come unstuck against opponents more careful in possession.

City in particular have much to learn about the peculiar demands of the Champions League. Whatever the talk preceding it about pursuing a quadruple, it was City’s first time in the knock out: the Champions League was realistically always beyond them. It took their neighbours a whole series of chastening experiences before they could transfer domestic form into Europe. Tuesday night was but the first step on a very steep learning curve. But that doesn’t mean City won’t eventually get there.

In general what we saw this week – Tottenham apart – was more to do with the quality of the opposition than the deficiencies of the domestic set-up. Given that most of the players involved were not British, the standard hand-wringing about lack of British technique would be entirely inappropriate.

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Next week, when Chelsea and Manchester United are up against representatives of two of the more peripheral European footballing powers, normal service is more likely to be restored.

Mind, if we are looking to David Moyes’s Manchester United to further the Premier League’s ambitions in Europe, it might well be the very definition of optimism. Watching Bayern and Barca eviscerate Arsenal and City you shudder to think what perils lie ahead for Moyes, even if he were to negotiate his way successfully around Olympiacos.

Yet, the United manager desperately needs a good run in Europe. Indeed, it could be argued, the only way he is going to rescue this awful first season of his is by winning the competition.

One thing we can be sure of right now is that he is not going to qualify for it next year via the Premier League. There is no way he can sustain a domestic run sufficient to overtake Spurs and Liverpool for that fourth place. Even Everton look beyond his reach. So he will have to qualify by the most direct route left to him: win the thing.

Because make no mistake, Moyes has to be in the Champions League next season. Not just to maintain the prestige of the club he now leads, not just to satisfy the growing demands of its commercial department, but more pressingly in order to attract the type of player he needs to bring in to rebuild his squad.

His problem can be summed up in two words: Toni Kroos. Watching the Bayern midfielder in action at the Emirates, there could not have been a United fan on the planet who would disagree with the notion that he is exactly the kind of player Moyes requires. Strong, athletic, technically astute: he is rather more than a German Tom Cleverley.

Apparently he is dissatisfied with the contract extension he has been offered by his club and may well be open to a move. But one thing we can be sure of: Kroos will only go to a club that is involved in the Champions League. However much money Moyes can flash in his direction, he will only choose a home where he can continue to dine at the top footballing table.

In short, if Moyes wants to attract the best, he better win the thing. Which, given the performances we saw this week on English soil by two of the sides he would need to overcome to do so, would rank as the grandest achievement of the sporting decade. And frankly, the most improbable.

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