1721: Champions League: Don’t be sur
by : Chris Sherrard
So what are we to make of this week’s Champions League action? Are English clubs as bad as their three defeats, and only Liverpool’s victory over Leverkusen, suggest? Is there a deeper malaise in the British game summed up further by the mere presence of two clubs in the UEFA Cup? Or were defeats inflicted on Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United by their respective European foes simply momentary lapses which will be recompensed for come the return legs in the coming weeks?
I am of the view that English football is undoubtedly the most exciting domestic league in Europe. That is not to say the Premiership is the best technique-wise, or possesses the best players within its midst. But for leap-from-your-seat, cheer-til-you-burst entertainment it is impossible to surpass the game in these parts.
However, when it comes to winning the big games, the big trophies, a touch of savvy is favourable to a rush of blood to the head. Going gung-ho no longer works like it did for the great Real Madrid sides of the distant past and, even, when Manchester United won the Champions League six years back. The game has moved on. Porto’s victory last season and Greece’s Euro 2004 win underline that fact. If you want to be the best, you have to be the toughest to beat. Forget this winning business, not losing is the new triumph.
English football had the most qualifiers through to the Second Round of the Champions League with those four aforementioned clubs. But with only Liverpool winning there is the possibility of Rafa Benitez’s side flying the lone St George in the Quarter-Finals. Over the top? Probably, but it is not out of the question.
I do not think that will eventually become the case, though. Chelsea have got an away goal from Barcelona and were, in my view, unlucky to taste a rare defeat in the Nou Camp. Arsenal, meanwhile, should be dead and buried but their late goal in Munich gives them a sniff of a chance going into the return leg at Highbury. And in their favour must be the notion that Vieira and Henry can not fail to under-perform in quite the same way they did in midweek. You have to think the French duo will be improved next time out, certainly in the case of Henry who seldom strings two innocuous games together. The degree of his projected improvement matters greatly to Arsenal’s chances of over-turning the deficit facing them.
Manchester United were outdone at their own game and it will be tough, although not out of the question, to see them make further progress beyond this stage. Milan made their hosts look like visitors on Wednesday and came out firing right from the start. To succeed in Europe you need a high percentage of your top players to turn it on. United could report Scholes, Giggs, Rooney and their ‘keeper missing in action at Old Trafford and no team gets the better of a side like the Milanese under those circumstances.
And even though it is clear Liverpool’s opponents at this stage of the competition lack plenty of the prestige and complexity of their Premiership colleagues, they gave themselves a very timely boost by beating Bayer Leverkusen – recent finalists in the Champions League. With Mr Liverpool returning from suspension for the second leg the Anfield club will, almost certainly, be celebrating progression in a competition they once called their own.
One of the lessons to be learnt by the English clubs from their respective forays into European football’s elite competition this week is the necessity to convert their chances. Paul Scholes probably knew free shots on a goal normally defended so immaculately by Maldini, Nesta et al are few and far between. When he drove his shot wide from 15-yards on Wednesday you just knew the next real opportunity would be a while in the waiting. That is why Ruud van Nistelrooy’s return to fitness is integral to United’s dwindling hopes in the San Siro for the second leg. The Manchester club have got a pedigree of going into the Italian lions den and taking something. They must do it all over again in less than two weeks time.
There will be plenty who have been forced to take a rethink on the status English clubs really hold in European football after the week just gone. But a reality check points out that Liverpool are sitting pretty, Chelsea just need one goal, Arsenal are well capable of scoring twice at home (Henry hat-trick, anyone?) and Manchester United can only draw on players of the modest quality of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs to drag them out of the whole in which they currently sit. Could be worse, eh?