Things are starting to change in Europe, particularly the Champions League. No longer are the English teams conquering on all fronts, but the ‘lesser known’ teams are beginning to spark off a revolution in the competition which is so very popular with football fans.
We are so accustomed to watching sides from the Premier League dominate their groups and usually proceed to the knock-out rounds. But recently, in the last five years or so, the dynamics have begun to change. The English are now not necessarily the superior teams, but others are rapidly developing and are catching up.
The most recent cases have occurred in this season’s Champions League. In Group B, Arsenal were defeated 2-0 last Wednesday night by Shalke of Germany. In Group D, reigning Premier League champions Manchester City perhaps as expected lost to Real Madrid, scraped a draw at home to Borussia Dortmund and most notably were played off the park by Ajax of Holland, whose whole team cost just a mere £2.5m.
In Group E, Chelsea were left helpless against Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine on Tuesday evening and failed to earn all three points against Italians Juventus on matchday one. And finally, in Group H, Manchester United made hard work of beating Galatasaray in the opening round, were unconvincing in their away victory at Cluj of Romania and just in midweek were 2-0 down at home to Portugal’s Braga – who finished 3rd in their domestic league last term – only to pull back three goals and win.
And this is just three rounds into this season’s edition. The Premier League teams have been throuroughly unconvincing. Perhaps there are elements of complaceny and arrogance starting to creep in; clubs and managers foolishly unederestimating the capablilites of their opponents.
Outfits from the likes of Germany (Schalke, Dortmund), Portugal (Braga), Romania (Cluj), Turkey (Galatasary), Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk), Holland (Ajax) and Italy (Juventus) have all made giant strides. English teams must stop being so oblivious to the quality of the Champions League and the teams that they face from the smaller countries, who originate from weaker domestic backgrounds.
I watched Chelsea’s match at the Donbass Arena and although on paper Roberto di Matteo’s troops were significantly ahead in terms of defensive steel and attacking prowess – Shakhtar still were miles better. The crowd were right behind them (as so often is the case in Eastern Europe), they played without fear and worked fantastically well as a team. They used their key players such as William on the left flank and Fernandinho in the middle and it worked as Chelsea just couldn’t muster up any sort of threat.
Granted, Shakhtar are acclimatized to winning; they have a winning mentality as they dominate their domestic league with the aid of Dynamo Kyiv (who are also participating in this year’s event). However, Chelsea are the same. The margins are becoming smaller, and perhaps with this it begs the question: is the Premier League really the best league in the world?
If one was to analyse City’s defeat to Ajax in midweek a little deeper then only the same can be said. Ajax, on paper, are much weaker yet walked all off City coming back from 1-0 down to cap off a confident performance. Ajax’s ethos on youth paid off, City’s splash-the-cash method backfired. It was the Eredivise versus the Premier League. And who came out on top? The former. And comfortably.
Sure, all teams have off days but this appears to be a repetitive situation in where teams of the Premier League are being physically matched by sides from lesser quality domestic divisions. It seems whilst the rest of Europe are improving, the Premier League is stunting in growth. On too many occasions are United, Chelsea, Arsenal – teams so used to putting the sword over their opposition in the Champions League – failing to come out on top.
The tide is turning; the evidence is compelling. The standard of other European leagues are rising, and the Premier League is struggling to cope.