It was hardly the most edifying of sights. The two leading lights of English football, Manchester United and Manchester City, both of whom will battle it out this weekend for the right to be named Premier League champions, were dumped out of the Champions League at the group stages this season.
Both were forced to face up to the taunts of ‘Thursday nights, Channel Five’ by opposing fans as they dropped down into the Europa League – but their association with the ugly sister of European football was even more fleeting as Athletic Bilbao and Sporting Lisbon sent them spiraling out at the last 16 stage.
Both are the luckiest teams in the land, at least according to a comprehensive study of over 27,000 games and 71,000 goals that revealed teams are up to ‘42 per cent less likely’ to pick up points in the Premier League having played on the continent with two days between games.
Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen, who works with the Armenian national team and has had spells with Chelsea, Manchester City and Wales, compiled the extensive study which began during the 2001/02 season and believes the impact on team’s league performances by their exertions in mid-week competitions is huge.
"It doesn't have to do with playing in Europe in general," Verheijen told the Independent, "it has to do with two days' rest because of European football. As long as you have three days' rest, you can play European football every week. Normally it takes 48 hours to recover from a game."
So what were the findings of his study? It showed that a team with just two days' rest against one with three or more days is 39 per cent less likely to win at home and 42 per cent less likely away, while in ties between two teams with two days' rest, the percentage of away wins drops from 26.8 per cent – its usual figure – to 19.8 per cent.
While it is hardly ground-breaking to say that an match, especially an away game, has an impact on the outcome of a game played soon afterwards, the study does shed new light on two Premier League teams exertions in particular.
Stoke kicked their season off in June with a Europa League qualifying match against Hajduk Split and Tony Pulis’ men have undoubtedly paid the price of not only a long European fixture list which came to an end with defeat against Valencia in February, but the fact they had to play away games following their Europa League exploits.
The Potters have played a remarkable eight away games following their jaunts on the continent this season, surely a contributing factor to their early season slump in form and the fact they look on course for their joint lowest finish since they were promoted to the Premier League in 2008.
“I think there has to be a change somewhere along the line where you actually sit down before the fixtures come out,” Pulis said earlier this season.
"We know the dates that are given by UEFA early enough, so is there any chance we can work to a system where we are not playing eight away games?"
Another team that have felt the effects of playing games in quick succession is Chelsea, who recently saw their hopes of a top four finish go up in smoke with a 2-0 defeat against Newcastle - which came three days after their Premier League win over QPR.
Their most recent league loss, a 4-1 defeat against Liverpool in which boss Roberto di Matteo made sweeping changes to ward off fatigue, came three days after their FA Cup success against the Reds.
Chelsea were keen for assistance after the fixture list conspired against them at a crucial part of the season with games two games in the Champions League, a FA Cup semi-final and league games in quick succession – the Blues have not had a full week of recovery between weekend fixtures since February.
However the FA decided against helping Chelsea out by moving their semi-final date against Tottenham, and Verheijen believes they must support English clubs more or see them struggle in Europe.
“For the sake of English football it would be great if the English FA would change this, because you have a 100 per cent guarantee that English teams will do better in the Champions League next year," he explained.
Of course, English clubs have been particularly successful in Europe recently, with six of the last seven Champions League finals containing an English side while the 2008 final was an all English affair – and in the two years Manchester United made the final (2008, 2011) they claimed the Premier League title.
Some were quick to suggest that English dominance on the continent was over after City and United’s exit but Chelsea will take part in this year’s final so surely that flies in the face of the argument that English teams are suffering from competing on two or more fronts?
The deciding factor, it would seem, is the strength in depth of the squads involved in Europe. While the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United have larger squads to participate in numerous competitions and rotate their first XI, teams like Stoke have no such luxury and pay the price of their ambitions.
This was Stoke’s first season in the Europa League. In one of the biggest games in their history, the second leg tie against Valencia in the knockout stages with the aggregate score standing at 1-0 to the Spanish outfit, Pulis opted to leave numerous key squad members at home - because of fatigue - for the trip to the Mestalla and were promptly knocked out.
Verheijen believes the European governing bodies must implement a rule that allows for a minimum three days rest between fixtures.
"The people who are responsible for solving this are Fifa and Uefa," he said. "They should implement an international rule that every team will always get a minimum of three days' rest between games."
Neither the Premier League or the FA are willing to shift their fixtures in order to accommodate teams who have recently played in Europe – both are unwilling to bow to the demands of another competition and lessen theirs.
Managers often complain about the congested fixture list and the effect it has, but it seems that if you have enough money to counteract the problem, then fighting on two fronts is not an issue.
But for the likes of Stoke, who having established themselves as a Premier League team are now looking to move to the next level, the chips are stacked against them with little help or incentive on offer for their ambitions.
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