They say history is written by the winners, but what they don’t always tell you is that records and statistics can also come to the rescue of the less successful.
Both Arsène Wenger and Pep Guardiola have been on the defensive over the past few days, pointing out that their clubs are relative ingenues in Europe and not to be compared with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United. “It is not like Arsenal won the European Cup five times before I arrived,” Wenger said, appealing for a measure of perspective after the disappointing 5-1 defeat at Bayern Munich.
Guardiola, who has never been knocked out of the Champions League as manager at a stage earlier than the semi-finals, appeared to be getting his excuses in early when making a similar point ahead of the Monaco game. “Our recent history is quite good, but over the long history Manchester City have not been here for a long time,” the City manager said. Kevin De Bruyne backed him up. “You cannot compare us to Liverpool or Manchester United and the history they have,” the midfielder said. “They have been there for multiple years and we have only had five or six.”
All true, but so what? Liverpool are not even in Europe this season and have not enjoyed a vintage Champions League campaign for almost a decade. Manchester City reached the semi-final as recently as last year. Arsenal have famously qualified for the Champions League every single year since they first won the double under Wenger in 1998, and though they have still never won it, consistency of that sort makes Liverpool and Manchester United’s recent record of reaching the top four look spotty.
Both Arsenal and Manchester City are ideally placed for European success, the first by virtue of their experience, regularity of qualification and the knowledge and acumen of their manager, the second because of their untold wealth and consequent ability to buy top players and bring in a manager of unquestioned Champions League pedigree. In one sense the two can be seen as opposites: Arsenal’s upward mobility was self-funded, as was their new stadium, and Wenger surely deserves a share of the credit for both. City’s elevation has been less organic, the money was already in place when designs on European domination were hatched, and one sometimes feels that should Guardiola fail – and the manager has mentioned this possibility a few times – the club would simply replace him with someone else deemed capable of winning the Champions League.
What both clubs have in common is a perceived lack of growth on the pitch. City are still recognizably City, stubbornly incapable of turning into fearsome European hotshots. Likeable and urbane as Wenger is, it does not take a great deal of imagination to understand the frustration of supporters fed up at exiting Europe at the same stage each season, often to the same opponents. Wenger can say what he likes about the past, but he is much too smart not to know that the important thing is the future, and how he uses the challenge of Europe to develop his team into something bigger and better. That is what happened at Liverpool in the 70s and 80s and at Manchester United – eventually – in the 90s, and that is precisely what is not happening at Arsenal. It is easy to forget now how perplexed Sir Alex Ferguson used to be at how his side could win the English title four seasons out of five in the mid-90s yet still be dumped out of Europe by comparatively unsung sides such as Borussia Dortmund (even if they did go on to win the Champions League that year) and Monaco. Yet persistence finally paid off in 1999, and when United in the knockout stage were faced with distinctly daunting opponents in Internazionale, Juventus and Bayern Munich en route to the European leg of their treble, they found they had the resources and mental toughness to cope. They had grown, become stronger, and that is the necessary progression that Wenger is struggling to deliver.
City have more time, in that they are in only their sixth Champions League campaign, and before anyone points out that United won it in five, Ferguson’s side had established a beachhead in Europe – they beat Barcelona to win the Cup Winners Cup in 1991 – before the Champions League came into being. City are doing it from scratch, but with the big money comes greater pressure and a demand for instant success. Reaching last year’s semi-final did not secure Manuel Pellegrini a contract extension, and nor did he expect it to. City played like nervous debutants against Barcelona anyway. They have improved in that regard this season, and now look bold enough to give anyone a game, though Guardiola still fretted about being “killed’” by the critics if his side failed against Monaco. In the event they did not fail, they gave the Etihad a night to remember and left themselves a fighting chance of surviving the second leg. There are definitely more streetwise teams around, but a side that can score eight goals in two matches against Barcelona and Monaco is probably making progress.
If City are not quite the finished article, they are moving in the right direction. The last team to be generously sponsored to rise from mediocrity and head towards European success was Chelsea, and they only won the Champions League at their 10th attempt, so there is time for City yet.
Yet that does not tell the whole story. Chelsea are in fact the elephant in the room in this discussion, since they run counter to the general assumption that Champions League arrivistes cannot quickly break into the big club cartel. The side that José Mourinho built with Roman Abramovich’s money almost reached their first final in 2005, when only Luis García’s phantom goal separated the sides in the semi-final at Anfield. The side that Guus Hiddink inherited via Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari would almost certainly have reached the final in 2009 but for the antics of the Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo, and not only that they would have stood a more than decent chance of beating Manchester United in Rome. The team that finally won the Champions League in 2012 were on their sixth manager in five years since Mourinho, yet still playing in a recognisable and highly effective way, rather giving the lie to the theory that you need an experienced and steady hand at the tiller to have any chance in Europe.
In all, Chelsea have competed in 14 Champions League campaigns, during which time they have become the first London club to win the trophy, lost a final on penalties, and reached the semi-finals on no fewer than seven occasions. What that means is that in the Champions League era they have been almost as good as Manchester United, and the possibility exists that but for John Terry’s slip in the penalty shootout in Moscow in 2008 their record might be even better.
Compared with Liverpool, in the Champions League era as opposed to the old European Cup, their consistency is greatly superior. And when Chelsea went to the Europa League final four years ago, they won it.
So how come they never get a mention when people want to make a point about history? They have one all right, and they have shown what can be achieved in a relatively short time if the financial backing is in place. Maybe that is not as romantic as some people would like, but they still deserve credit. Even Liverpool supporters have retired that song about Chelsea having no history, and for very good reason. In the Champions League, in the new millennium, Chelsea have set new standards.