Competing in the Champions League is arguably the pinnacle for any club who wishes to put themselves up against the very best teams across Europe. Playing against famous clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich is what every club in the Premier League should strive for, particularly the leading lights who have the quality to compete.
However, there is a growing concern that not only has the England national team been overtaken by a number of nations in terms of the quality of players available for selection and their style of football, but also the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal are not the dominant forces in Europe that they once were.
This season’s results and performances in the Champions League paint a worrying picture, as every one of England’s four representatives have struggled to assert themselves in their respective groups and have plenty of work to do at the half-way point of the group stage.
It could be argued that the quality of teams across Europe continues to improve through ever-increasing amounts of money that allows managers to strengthen their squad on a more frequent basis, but it does not excuse the number of disappointing performances shown by all four Premier League teams in Europe’s most prestigious competition. Bookmakers will still fancy Arsenal, Chelsea or one of the Manchester clubs to advance to the latter stages of the Champions League, but although at least one of them should make it out of their group, there is still a growing feeling that it will be a while before a team from England graces the Final again.
Qualifying for the Champions League for the 18th consecutive season under Arsene Wenger was rightly heralded as a wonderful achievement, and it brought renewed optimism that the Gunners would fare well with the quality at their disposal.
However, starting the group stage with defeats against Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos practically threw away all the hard work that went into fighting for a top three finish in the Premier League. Although the fantastic, yet unexpected and perhaps fortunate, 2-0 victory against Bayern Munich at the Emirates has provided a much-needed lifeline, their daunting upcoming trip to the Allianz Arena could be where Arsenal’s Champions League hopes end in a group that many would have expected them to qualify from alongside the German champions.
Arsenal may be in the most danger of being knocked out early doors, but the other three still have a lot to do before they can start looking forward to the knock-out phases. Manchester City are still trying to find their feet and identity in the Champions League, but despite being outplayed at the Etihad against Sevilla, Kevin De Bruyne’s late winner could be crucial.
Manuel Pellegrini’s team have never really shown the swashbuckling style of football that saw them win their first seven Premier League fixtures with ominous ease and conviction; it may click eventually, but losing at home to Juventus and being put under huge pressure by Borussia Monchengladbach and Sevilla is not exactly what many would expect from an oil-rich club.
The same expectation applies with local neighbours Manchester United who, although have a much richer pedigree in Europe than City, have found their return to Champions League football more difficult than they had imagined. Losing to PSV in the manner that they did was a surprise, but although Louis Van Gaal’s side came from behind to beat Wolfsburg at Old Trafford, the 1-1 draw at CSKA Moscow has left Manchester United in the same position.
Chelsea also find themselves in the same predicament with the same number of points in their group, but picking up one point from a possible six against Porto and Dynamo Kiev is an indication of their struggles this season.
It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that Jose Mourinho’s side have not set Europe alight, but failing to perform on the big stage is a problem that all four English clubs share. Teams from Spain, Germany and Italy, along with developing countries such as Ukraine and Portugal, have all stepped up to another level, and until the Premier League top four find a way to do likewise, then they could find the Champions League a tough nut to crack.