As we begin to enter the penultimate period of another exciting yet unpredictable season with teams having to secure the most important points of the year that could be a difference between a successful campaign and a wasted one, fans and pundits alike are already beginning to reflect on the year’s events whilst eagerly anticipating the never-ending speculation and shocking drama the summer will almost certainly bring. At this stage of the season, teams such as Tottenham and Arsenal will be looking to seal the deal and lock down the coveted third and fourth places which guarantee European football next season, whilst teams such as Wigan and Aston Villa are battling it out for survival in the relegation dogfight – no-one can afford to drop valuable points during this decisive period.
However, this significant stage in the season also sees the ongoing battle to become European champions hot up, as last Tuesday evening we saw German champions Bayern Munich ruthlessly destroy a vulnerable Barcelona side at the legendary Allianz Arena, a surprisingly one-sided game quickly followed by a Borussia Dortmund upset against Real Madrid which was led mercilessly by in-form hitman Robert Lewandowski. Nevertheless, with Wembley Stadium hosting an all but certain German final between Bayern and Dortmund this year, ‘top four’ English sides have yet again missed out on the chance to stamp their prestigious names in history and cement their places amongst the footballing gods. Even though English teams such as Arsenal or Chelsea have been struggling to compete with the European giants of football year after year, many in the footballing world still claim the Premier League IS the best and English sides are still dominant not only within Europe, but also the whole world. Unfortunately, statistics are the closest thing there is to the cold, hard truth and the fact that at least one English side has only got to the Champions League semi-finals TWICE in the last four years clearly suggests English football may not be what it once was.
Although Chelsea did win the Champions League against Bayern Munich last season and they still are technically European Champions, it is still equally essential to remember just how they did beat what looks to be the best team in world football today. A valiant and gutsy Chelsea performance which saw them clinch the trophy in dramatic fashion with a winning penalty from Didier Drogba after 120 minutes of football failed to see an established winner, their victory cannot be discredited in any shape or form. On the other hand though, the statistics still tell the story once more. An extremely uneven game which saw Bayern hit seven shots on target out of an amazing 35 compared to Chelsea’s feeble count of three on target out of just 9, and Chelsea stopper Petr Cech pull off six key saves in contrast to Manuel Neuer’s low count of two, an argument implying it was Bayern’s complacency which won Chelsea the most coveted prize in club football wouldn’t be entirely foolish. Another hard-hitting stat which only further embodies Bayern’s incompetence during the night is the fact they had 20 corners whereas Chelsea only had one, yet they also found themselves starved of possession with just 44% in comparison to Bayern’s 56%.
Many in football believe that three points from a hard-earned victory far outweighs the nature in which the game was won, with many using the term “winning ugly” to refer to this. Personally, I agree as a victory must always come first, and a team playing good football to achieve the three points can only be seen as a happy bonus. However, regardless of which two teams find themselves in any final, the winners of whichever competition must always be the most-deserving. In hindsight, looking at the figures recorded from the Champions League final last year, there aren’t many who can declare Chelsea justified champions in full confidence. Although there haven’t always been occasions where English sides have found themselves playing second-fiddle to superior teams from abroad (most notably the 2-0 victory Arsenal have had over Bayern in the last 16 previously this year) the problem lies within how English teams approach these must-win games. Plenty of English teams in the Champions League this season have already found themselves resigned to the possibility of being weaker in possession before the tie has even begun, for example Manchester United had already adopted the same lack of faith the English media had in their midfield months before their first leg against Real Madrid was played in February.
English teams must believe in themselves and their ability as there have been a numerous amount of times where their ever-present heart and determination have not been able to resurface past the self-doubts evident during games, and in the rare occasion teams find themselves capable of a resurgence, they quickly realise they have not given themselves enough time to prove their worth on the pitch as the game has already been killed off. For instance, the lineup Manchester United posted prior to the Real Madrid first-leg in this year’s Champions League included a midfield of Carrick and Jones in the centre of the pitch. With perhaps the biggest game of the round which was tightly contested between the two European powerhouses and United having the chance to draw first blood with a crucial away goal; why did Ferguson feel the need to play two defensively-minded players in positions where United could have used the likes of Tom Cleverley to instigate the counter attack against one of the best teams in Europe. As a result, United found themselves outmatched in possession with just 45% and a thin 13 shots in comparison to Real Madrid’s massive 28. They would also go on to find themselves well and truly beat over two legs, with Real Madrid snatching two away goals at Old Trafford at the expense of a poor decision from the match officials. Had United tried to control possession and therefore dictate the game using their typical wing play with more appropriate players at the centre of the park, they may have found themselves at a bigger advantage heading back home to England.
Sadly, the poor and pessimistic approach to big matches against other European teams isn’t the only problem English sides seem to share, in fact, it almost seems as it is the smallest. Another setback the Premier League is suffering as a whole, is its increasing inability to attract the big players looking for moves to other clubs. For example, Mario Gotze had the option of signing for Arsenal two years ago when he broke onto the German scene as a diamond in the rough, yet chose to renew his contract instead because he believed he would develop more under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp and the rest of the Die Borussen squad. In recent news, shocking reports emerged that Gotze had successfully sealed a move to league rivals Bayern Munich, only strengthening a side already-brimming with class. Even though Gotze will not be the first (and the last) young player to snub the Premier League in a bid to stay in their respective country, the question must be asked as to why the Premier League is having trouble securing the signatures of not only the up and coming players, but also the recognized stars who have had several options to move to England in the past. With Edinson Cavani and Radamel Falcao hot on everyone’s lips this season, they may be some big names to keep in mind-and don’t be astonished to find out they may have opted for a move to the likes of Real Madrid or Bayern instead of Chelsea or Man City.
Whilst teams such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona are putting even more distance between them and the rest of Europe with the signature of key players, there has also been a smaller difference in the quality of the best leagues among Europe. With many in the past and present still believing the Premier League is the best league in the world with its torrid pace, rough treatment and competitive football, lots of people in the footballing world have forgotten how far the weaker leagues in La Liga and the Bundesliga have come. Although Bayern may have won the Bundesliga very early with 20 points to spare, the league victories Dortmund secured in the past 2 years seemed to depict that there was now a change in power on the horizon in German football. Furthermore, although La Liga only ever saw 2 teams battle it out to become crowned champions (Barcelona or Real Madrid for anyone completely oblivious to European football) recent years have shown teams such as Malaga or Atletico Madrid give the big guns a run for their money in individual matches. In fact, the UEFA’s league co-efficient have declared the La Liga to be the strongest league over the past five years, with the Premier League suffering a landslide in recent years. With that being said, I’m not claiming La Liga is the best league in the world, but many fans and pundits alike are clearly in denial over the Premier League’s quick downfall in the modernized era of football.
In conclusion, the Premier League is still the most entertaining and competitive league in the world – but that does not automatically mean the sides participating are necessarily the BEST. Barcelona have probably experienced the most successful wave of European dominance in latest years with the outbreak of Tiki Taka football taking the world by storm, however their 4-0 loss to Bayern earlier this week clearly shows the torch as the world’s greatest is ready to be passed on to the best footballing side Bayern Munich has probably ever had under Jupp Heynckes. The Premier League is still (luckily) attracting some of the biggest names in the world, but future stars of this beautiful sport are seemingly finding other, still-developing leagues more appealing. With these factors mixed in with a meagre approach to European fixtures, English football is a shadow of what it used to be – a broken shell of what it once was, yet although English football may have slightly depleted not only at club level but international level too, one thing that cannot be bought or taught is heart or pride – something English clubs will forever use as an advantage over their counterparts during their precarious quest to regain the elusive title of champions of Europe.