English football may be about to plunge into one of its regular periods of introspection now that Leicester City are left as the only standard-bearers for the Premier League in the Champions League quarter-finals, though the rest of Europe will not find anything too surprising in this week’s developments.
Leicester are the English champions, after all. Why should they not be the team to progress furthest? And though Manchester City might have hoped Pep Guardiola would bring a touch of Barcelona flair to his new project in England, there is clearly a difference in what the two sides perceive as all-out attack. In Barcelona’s case it means the ability to overhaul a 4-0 first-leg deficit, in City’s it means not having a shot on target for more than an hour. Anyone who saw the first leg at the Etihad would know Monaco are a sprightly side capable of causing City problems; all the second leg proved is that the same is true even without Radamel Falcao. The first leg is what came back to haunt Guardiola’s team at the Stade Louis II, for no side conceding six goals in two games can have a reasonable expectation of progress.
That Monaco could pull off the trick was largely due to conceding only one at home, set next to City’s three. Entertaining as both legs were, the bottom line is that City went further in Europe last season under Manuel Pellegrini, and although they never looked capable of displacing Real Madrid in the semi-final at least they kept things tight enough to go out to only a single goal. It is glaringly obvious at the moment that Guardiola needs a major defensive overhaul to have any chance of improving on this season’s results.
Leicester beginning the fightback against Spanish sides in Europe apart, the story here is a familiar one. The Premier League’s influence in Europe is declining, and has been for some time. There is no immediate need to worry about being overtaken in the coefficient ranking by Italy or France, a Uefa rule change guarantees four qualification places to each of the four biggest leagues from 2018 and England is presently third, though a survey of Champions League quarter-finalists over the past five years makes depressing reading.
From 40 places, Spain has had 15 representatives, Germany nine and England just four. Even France, with six, has done better. Can it really be less than a decade since two English teams were fighting it out in the final and Uefa was becoming uneasy about Premier League domination of their competition?
Those teams were Manchester United and Chelsea, of course, and it is not without significance that neither made it to this season’s event. Take out your two most successful and experienced Champions League campaigners – and Chelsea certainly deserve that billing for their achievements this century – and your overall performance is bound to suffer. Tottenham and City could both pin the blame for early exits on inexperience, or at least that is what their managers kept saying. Arsenal’s inability to progress beyond a certain stage is harder to explain. They do not lack experience or quality, and while continually being drawn against Bayern Munich does not help, the 10-2 aggregate scoreline this season would suggest the gulf is growing.
Yet Arsenal, though their record of Champions League qualification is exemplary, are often worried about finishing in the top four in a way that Bayern are not. They are usually champions and missing out on the Champions League altogether is unthinkable, because that is the way German football is structured. A few other leagues are the same, whereas in England we have a situation where teams of the pedigree of Chelsea and United can miss out. Even though there are only a couple of months of this season left, it is currently impossible to predict which two sides from an ultra-competitive group of five below Chelsea will finish outside the top four.
While the idea that English performances in Europe are suffering because the Premier League is becoming more demanding may be an oversimplification, overseas observers would point out straight away that we make life more difficult for ourselves by not having a winter break.
English football seems to take pride in making its festive fixture list as gruelling as possible, which is probably not the best preparation for the resumption of the Champions League in February. Then again, it is fair to mention that Spurs went out before Christmas this season, and the Premier League cannot be all that competitive if erstwhile relegation candidates Leicester were able to win it last year.
Against all expectations, the fairytale headlines made a reappearance this week, with everybody’s favourite underdog putting in a spirited performance and a little underhand skulduggery to see off Sevilla. Claudio Ranieri might be history, but the impossible dream goes on. Leicester will probably be disappointed that Manchester City are no longer around, because based on Premier League form that might have been a quarter-final draw they could have won.
There are no easy sides left now, although naturally all the other seven quarter-finalists will be hoping to be paired with Leicester. One would have to say further progress appears unlikely, yet just about everything Leicester have done over the past three years has been unlikely. While they might not be able to beat Barcelona, it would be fun to watch them try, if only to see Jamie Vardy on the same pitch as Luis Suárez. As Sir Alex Ferguson always used to say in advance of such situations, “You’ll need a strong referee for that one.”
The Guardian Sport