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Are Premier League clubs falling behind their European counterparts?

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Manchester United narrowly lost to Real Madrid. (©GettyImages)
Manchester United narrowly lost to Real Madrid. (©GettyImages).

Germany and Spain each have two representatives in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, Europe's premier club competition.

For the first time in three years, England has none. But, a more damaging fact is that no English team even made the quarter-finals of this year's competition.

The last time an English side did not make the quarter-finals was way back in the 1995-96 season. However, at the time, the format was such that only the winners of each of Europe's domestic leagues featured in the tournament. 

Blackburn Rovers, by virtue of winning the league the previous season, were England's representatives; but a disappointing campaign saw them finish bottom of their group behind the likes of Spartak Moscow, Rosenborg and Legia Warsaw. Also, there was no Round of 16 back then as there were only 16 teams spread across four groups.

So in its current 32-team format, having no team in the quarter-final of the competition is unprecedented territory for England.

While naysayers will say that it does not really reflect much, and that England has been the most consistent in producing semi-finalists in the last decade, there is no denying the fact that the best of England are no longer a match for the best of Germany, Spain, Italy and a few other countries.

Manchester City and Chelsea exited at the group stage, while Manchester United and Arsenal had tough first round encounters against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively. 

You could argue that City were in the Group of Death, but that is no justification for finishing last behind even Ajax. For a team of City's quality and resources, they were expected to make a fist of it. 

As good as Dortmund and Real were, City were poor and failed to mount a serious challenge against any of their opponents. Chelsea too fell at the first hurdle, in the process suffering the ignominy of being the first defending champions to go out in the group phase. 

After starting brightly, they were outplayed by Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk in key games which eventually spelt the death knell for their European ambitions and then manager Roberto Di Matteo's job for the season.

The sending off of Nani in the second leg encounter at Old Trafford has been mooted as a turning point which swung the tie in favour of Madrid against Manchester United. 

The truth is though, that United failed to grab a multitude of opportunities even before the incident to pocket the tie. In the first leg in Madrid, there were opportunities for Robin van Persie and Ryan Giggs to have accumulated more away goals for United, but they fluffed their chances. 

The second leg saw United once again control the game and frustrate Madrid, but they failed to put away their chances. Nobody needs reminding that football is a game of 90 minutes; 60 minutes of good work does not entitle any team success.

Why didn't Sir Alex Ferguson use his experience to bring on a defender for a forward and try and preserve the lead? Why did he get carried away berating the official instead of perhaps focusing on substitutions? 

Why did he wait until they were 2-1 down to make his substitutions? Sending-offs swing a game, yes, but they are a part of the game and at this level you have to be prepared for that eventuality. Instead of planning out how best to see off the game, United's manager, staff and players seemed more keen on sulking and complaining about the decision and that i believe is what cost them the game and not the Nani's dismissal in itself.

As for Arsenal, they just came up against a supremely talented and confident team in Bayern Munich. The tie was pretty much settled in the first leg where the Germans decimated Arsenal to register a 3-1 win aided by some dodgy team selection and tactics from Arsene Wenger. 

The English Premier League, from top to bottom, is definitely more competitive than its European cousins. This is due to a lot of reasons, but primarily down to the more even collective bargaining agreement that sees TV revenue shared equally. 

The Bundesliga is seeing a revival of sorts again with all the teams playing an attractive brand of football and with clubs being owned by the fans as opposed to conglomerates, ticket prices are very affordable and the stadia and facilities have had a major uplift. 

Borussia Dortmund, once on the verge of bankruptcy and extinction, have made the journey to becoming champions of the Bundesliga twice over with a squad that that cost not more than £20 million to assemble. 

But, the irrefutable fact remains that there has been a gradual decline in the English game showcased by the failings of England's top clubs at the highest level. True, Chelsea did win it last year, but they needed a healthy serving of good fortune along the way.

One primary reason that can be attributed to the relative downfall of English sides is the severe lack of quality in the midfield area. In recent seasons, there has been an over-reliance on the forward line to get the job done. En route to the title last year, Chelsea put up a workmanlike midfield that effectively snuffed out the opposition, including Barcelona, but it was Didier Drogba and his goals that almost single-handedly carried them to the title. 

The season before that United made it to the final, thanks mainly to a somewhat favourable draw and rightly got decimated in the final against Barca. 

United's triumph in the 2006/07 season was also driven by their midfield consisting of Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves who were fantastic in that campaign. 

Their ability to control the midfield allowed the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez to do their bit up front. Darren Fletcher's absence from the final the very next season against Barcelona proved more damaging than expected. Xavi and Andres Iniesta turned Anderson inside out and cantered to a 2-0 victory. 

Talismanic Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso in the middle drove on Liverpool’s championship side that secured that magical victory in Istanbul. This year, United are on the way to a 20th league title, but with an over-reliance on their forwards, Van Persie in particular. Time after time, they have gotten out of jail with the help of their forwards. The reason they have been behind in games so often is again the lack of midfield.

Yaya Toure is arguably one of the best central midfielders in the league. He was one of the prime pillars on which City's success last season was built. He has been a little out of form; you can blame fatigue or just lack of touch for that. And early on, his struggles corroborated a lot with City's struggles and hence they failed to get momentum going. Michael Carrick's return to form for United has been a joy to watch this season. But, he too suffers from a lack of quality sidekicks. Chelsea for all their attacking flair leave huge gaps in the central midfield and rely on workhorses John Obi Mikel and Ramires for solidity. 

They lack a definitive shape and when Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar all go forward, they are left exposed at the back. Tottenham too have relied on the brilliance of Gareth Bale, but have some good options in the form of Scott Parker, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Moussa Dembele. 

Jack Wilshere is the true outstanding talent currently playing in the English league and when he plays, Arsenal look a totally different side. Mikel Arteta also comes into his own in the company of the young Englishman. But, for Arsenal, the loss of Alex Song was a big blow. He lent them that steel in midfield and he was very good with his distribution, a combo that has been tough to replace. 

Now compare that with the four teams that have made it to the semi-finals. Barcelona, lest we mention have the trio of Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta who boss the midfield. Bayern Munich have got Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and Toni Kroos who boss the midfield. Borussia Dortmund play Ilkay Gundogan, Sven Bender and Mario Gotze who do the same for the Black and Yellow. 

And Real Madrid have got the tireless Sami Khedira working with master passer Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ozil who pretty much impose their authority in that area of the pitch. 

Paul Pogba mentioned in a recent interview that the main reason for his departure from Old Trafford was Ferguson's stubborn refusal to play the youngster choosing to plump for veterans such as Ryan Giggs and Scholes instead. 

This when it was so blatantly clear that United needed legs and energy alongside the passing ability of Michael Carrick. You can understand why the Frenchman was peeved at the lack of opportunities and hence decided to ply his trade elsewhere. 

So, until this problem is solved, the well documented struggles of English sides against the best of Europe is going to continue. The Italian league is on a bit of a rebuilding phase as even the traditional big boys such as AC Milan and Juve struggle financially. 

So, the Premier League may not fall behind them, but the drop in quality overall has been obvious. A continued decadence and England could fall behind Italy and surrender that fourth Champions League spot to another nation as Italy found out when usurped by Germany.


DISCLAIMER: This article has been written by a member of the GiveMeFootball Writing Academy and does not represent the views of GiveMeFootball.com or SportsNewMedia. The views and opinions expressed are solely that of the author credited at the top of this article. GiveMeFootball.com and SportsNewMedia do not take any responsibility for the content of its contributors.

Topics:
European News
Football
Premier League
UEFA Champions League
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