Everton went away to Arsenal last week and drew 0-0. Both teams went into the match with aspirations towards finishing fourth in the Premier League, which – by the deeds and words of managers, players and fans alike – seems to be more important and illustrious than winning any cup in Europe or at home.
Both teams played abysmally. Everton set out their stall, fighting and scrapping for every ball, while Arsenal looked bereft of even a single idea in breaching a defence that had leaked three at home in its recent FA Cup quarter final tie. To Wigan.
Everton’s tactics were particularly ‘un-European’ - David Moyes going so far as to presage Everton’s claims to earthy Northernness when he cited tackling as something they do up there.
Arsene Wenger tried to pretend his side were not phased by the attempts to physically unsettle if not assault them, saying it is a fair part of the game while intimating in his subtext that it was all Everton could actually do against a footballing side like his that nonetheless couldn’t score against the toilers and the grafters of working-class Merseyside, be they honest or not.
A point apiece served neither side particularly well in their goal of qualifying for the third qualifying phase of the Champions’ League come mid August, and the preoccupation amongst the pundits about what that left the ladder looking like filled the football news and features columns the next day.
But the overwhelming question that dares to disturb the universe wasn’t raised: Does England even deserve a fourth representative at European football’s high table on the evidence of the football served at the Emirates that night?
There are other arguments against. Italy and Germany, with teams such as Milan, Juventus, Napoli, Inter, Roma and Lazio as well as Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen, are only afforded three, while two is the norm in the leagues of Holland and Portugal. Only Spain also has four teams from its league enter the Champions’ League, with all four qualifying through to the quarter finals of this year’s edition – representing no less than an astonishing half of the eight teams at that late stage in the competition.
In truth, the fourth place is a legacy of the great strength of English clubs on the European scene dating back over the past few seasons but that, arguably, has diminished as the likes of German and Spanish football have ascended. Even with Chelsea winning the European Cup last season and Manchester United appearing in three of the last five finals, there is a strong case that English dominance in the competition petered out around five years ago when Ronaldo left the English game for the allure of the Spanish capital, exchanging away matches over Christmas in Birmingham for road trips to Malaga and Seville.
It will take time for the UEFA co-efficient systems to address this and to potentially afford Germany the fourth spot at the expense of the Premiership, but it would not be hard to argue that Borussia Dortmund, Napoli or Malaga would have little difficulty in despatching Arsene Wenger’s or David Moyes’ team should they meet in next season’s edition of the most glamorous competition in club football.