The English Premier League had a genuine case to be regarded as the best league in the world five years ago. Sadly, that claim is no longer true.
A league’s representatives’ performances on the continent are the true measure of that league when comparing it with others. And back in 2008, the EPL was well on top, head and shoulders above any other league bar La Liga.
That season, two English clubs – Manchester United and Chelsea – met in the Champions League final, the first time since 2003 when Italy’s Juventus and Milan contested the final.
And the 2008 final produced high-quality football that cemented the English top-flight as an elite championship.
These days, no championship comes close to the EPL in terms of edge-of-your-seat excitement. But that doesn’t make it the best league in the world.
While it’s a bit knee-jerk to write off the league on the basis of one or two European performances, recent results on the continent have been damning.
Rather than being a one-off, accidental poor showing, Arsenal’s utter destruction by Monaco is symptomatic of English football’s decline in Europe.
Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Monaco, champions Manchester City were lucky to lose only 2-1 at home to Barcelona, while league leaders Chelsea were relieved to get a draw at PSG after being outplayed.
So no wins for English clubs in three round of 16 matches. In contrast, Spain’s three representatives won two of their three away games; Germany won one home game, drew one away and lost the other one.
Also instructively, of the four English representatives in the Champions League group phase,
only Chelsea won their group. Arsenal and City finished second; Liverpool got dumped out from a group containing Basel and Bulgarian lightweights Ludogorets. The same Liverpool that almost won the Premier League title last season.
Now after the first leg, round of 16 results, City and Arsenal are close to the exit. Liverpool already got kicked out and door shut firmly in their faces before that stage.
English clubs’ retrogression in Europe is a bit like a peak condition Tokunbo car losing form and function after being dealt with by Nigerian mechanics and pothole-ridden roads.
But the English game was once a peak condition Tokunbo car.
Between 2005 and 2012, Premier League teams either won the Champions League or reached the final.
Liverpool won it in 2005 and reached the final in 2007; Arsenal lost to Barcelona in the 2006 final. The peak was 2008 when Manchester United defeated Chelsea on penalties in Moscow.
Manchester United again reached the final in 2009 and 2011, although thoroughly taken about by Barcelona on both occasions. Chelsea then defied the odds to win it in 2012.
On the whole, English clubs contested seven of eight finals between 2005 and 2012, winning three. Those were the days they scored straight A’s in Europe; now it’s mostly E’s and F’s.
Also during that flush period, English clubs were regularly facing each other in the quarter-finals and semifinals, because usually more than one of them reached those stages.
But since 2012 only Chelsea have reached one semi-final, where they couldn’t live with Atletico Madrid last season. Arsenal, since 2009 when they lost to Manchester United in the semi-finals, have consistently been eliminated in the round of 16.
In 2013, only Manchester United and Arsenal reached the round of 16 where they were both dumped out. Chelsea and Manchester City were eliminated in the group stages, although the former went on to win the second-tier Europa League.
This season, following round of 16 first leg results, it is not impossible for all English representatives to be out before the quarter-finals, an unthinkable prospect when the draw was announced.
While Manchester City and Arsenal still have a shot – a long one to be honest – Chelsea, who represent England’s best hope, are also not home and dry yet against a dangerous PSG.
The irony is that English clubs are struggling in Europe during a period when they have more money than ever to compete at the top level. Even Arsenal, who used to be a selling club relying mostly on youth and cheap imports, now buy very expensive players from giants Real Madrid and Barcelona (around 70million pounds for Mesut Ozil from Real and Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona).
Now English teams have to find what worked for them during those consistent seasons and go back to it.
If they don’t, the rapid descent from the penthouse to the ground floor will continue apace.
The Winter World Cup Conundrum
The year 2022 is still seven years away but it is already generating a great deal of heat.
Ever since the World Cup for that year was awarded to Qatar in 2012, the event has been lurching from one controversy to another.
FIFA has been accused of taking bribes before awarding the rights to the oil-rich Middle East country; Qatar has been accused of building stadiums with slave labour; and the stifling heat in the Gulf summer has been a burning issue.
While FIFA has vehemently rejected the bribery claims and Qatar has promised to look into its labour situation, the heat issue has stood out like a sore thumb. Even the promise of airconditioned stadia didn’t placate the anti-Qatar brigade.
Now, a solution seems to have been found with the proposal of a winter World Cup, to be held in November and December instead of the traditional June and July. But that has also thrown up more problems.
The European season will be in full swing in November/December and a World Cup around that time would cause chaos in planning.
The truth is no matter what FIFA comes up with, a Qatar World Cup would not be perfect. But when has a major event like the World Cup ever been perfect?
There was opposition to South Africa 2010, but see how it turned out.
FIFA and Qatar have seven years to get this right. They should be given the chance to do it.