Thursday, March 09, 2006

Arsenal the Only Bloom Amongst a Poor English Crop

On the face of it, the fact that Arsenal are the only English team to reach the quarter finals of the Champions League would seem to open up the floor for a round of Premiership-bashing and general soul-searching within the English game, as each of Everton, Manchester United, Chelsea and now Liverpool exited the tournament as limply as the last. However before leaping gleefully onto that theme a note of caution should be sounded.

Had Chelsea drawn Villareal, say, instead of Barcelona, England would very likely have had two teams in the quarter finals and their competitor league, Spain, would be now bemoaning having only one representative. Indeed, this scenario would probably have occured had Villareal drawn anyone instead of Rangers. As we mentioned yesterday, margins are tight at this stage of the competition, and, for all that Liverpool were poor against Benfica last night, had they taken those early chances they too would more than likely be in tomorrow's quarter final draw.

Now that's out of the way, time for some knee-jerking. It is pretty clear that this is a poor Premiership crop. Barcelona are wonderful and everything, but they've still lost four games in La Liga this season and will meet sterner tests than Chelsea provided in the coming months. That England's best team by some margin were unable to provide that test does not reflect well on Chelsea, or the league they sit atop.

While the Blues have raised the bar in terms of consistency and winning efficiency, the division's other leading lights have never looked so flawed. Manchester United have propelled themselves to second place via the curious tactic of not having a midfield. Liverpool are hot on their heels due to the even more ingenious strategy of foregoing a strike force.

Arsenal are the saving grace this morning, and anyone who saw the breathtaking 90 minutes at Highbury last night will be glad for a moment to purge their memories of the Gunners cowering submissively while being battered about the north of England by Bolton Wanderers. Having offered up their metaphorical lunch money to Sam Allardyce and his ilk, it was a joy to watch Arsenal cavort gaily amongst like-minded individuals last night, and the match with Real had a cherub-faced, carefree innocence, such was the emphasis on all that is good about football.

That said, like Barcelona, to be ultimately successful they will have to face the reality of the Italians and their rather less dainty methods. Arsene Wenger would do well to urge caution amongst his acolytes, but will be cheered by the return of that breezy, Henry-inspired brilliance that is their hallmark.

Liverpool's disappointment will be severe - not just about the manner of their exit and the quality of their conquerors, but also the extra gloom of relinquishing their trophy. The killer for 'Pool was that late goal conceded in Lisbon. They had dominated the game but, rather than killing off the tie in the away leg, had been left needing goals at home against a side who were well organised, if little else. Then came worst case scenario of an away goal and Liverpool were presented with a target they would not have reached had they continued playing all evening.

It was the night when the magic fizzled out for Liverpool, the alchemy of last season, which produced all the comebacks and improbable feats played out in front of emotionally charged crowds, never materialised. Rafa Benitez is left with his patchy squad and a limited chequebook and with whispers of job offers in Madrid and Milan abounding. However, Liverpool have still made progress this season, and if they can provide him with sufficient financial support, will hope that the manager does not want to leave a job half done.

The man who Rafa Benitez succeeded had a rather more pleasant evening. Gerard Houllier has seemingly adopted a 'business as usual' attitude to Paul Le Guen's Lyon side, as they demolished PSV Eindhoven with that sleek style we have become accustomed to seeing at the Stade Louis Gerland in recent seasons. Lyon, Barcelona and Arsenal should provide the purest aesthetic pleasure as the tournament reaches its climax, but with the possibility of three Italian teams in the quarter finals, the fascination should lie in the prospect of irresistible forces meeting immovable objects.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Gooners Fan said...

I would hesitate to describe Everton's exit from the Champions League as 'limp'. Were it not for Collina disallowing a perfectly fair Duncan Ferguson goal, it could all have been so different for them.

4:51 p.m.  
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