English teams fall again at the Champions League group stage

Another year and yet again, two English teams have dropped out of the Champions League at the first hurdle.

Last year, Manchester City and Manchester United both slumped to a first round exit. This year, City has repeated the undesirable feat and, barring a miracle, Chelsea, last year’s winners, will be joining them.

The most prestigious prize in European football, the UEFA Champions League. Photo: daniel.richardson0685 (via Flickr)
Does this indicate a decline in the quality of English teams?

Even though Chelsea were victorious last season, the general consensus is that they weren’t the best team in the competition. Chelsea were played off the park against Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

In both games, they had to survive a penalty, Messi in the second leg of the semi-final and Robben in the final during extra time. Plus, Barcelona had a huge amount of chances and were incredibly unlucky to miss out on the final.

It has to be said that Chelsea relied on the break away and set piece goals. Add to that the eventual penalty shoot out victory in the final, Chelsea appeared to have had every bit of luck on their side, prompting Sky Sports to see how many times they could say “written in the stars” in half an hour.

Their imminent exit this year has coincided with a dip in league form, that hasn’t seen them win a Premier League game in four matches, resulting in the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo.

In Chelsea’s defence, they had a difficult group. Juventus recently came off a 49 game unbeaten run, and Shakhtar Donetsk, reigning Ukrainian league and cup holders, currently top their league with only one defeat in 16 league games.

Add to that the improved infrastructure seen in Ukrainian football following Euro 2012, Shakhtar have the daunting facilities to go along with the proverbial discussions of it being a tough away game. Shakhtar have also vastly improved their team to the extent where they can challenge the super powers of European football, just like they did with Chelsea this year, meaning they top Chelsea on the head-to-head record.

Chelsea are undoubtedly in a transitional period, or as some people might refer to it, sitting outside Pep Guardiola’s house waiting for him to return from his sabbatical with a contract starting summer 2013. It’s fair to say that their luck has run out this season and, with a club who won the Champions League by fluke last year, it’s no surprise they have fallen in the early stages this season.

Manchester City, this year’s other early fallers have yet again been stung with the UEFA coefficient ranking. Last year, they were drawn against eventual finalists Bayern Munich, Villarreal and the Cavani-inspired Napoli.

They accumulated 10 points, which would normally be enough to see them through, but a lack of unity and perhaps naivety cost them a place in the knockout rounds. This time, they were again dealt any extremely difficult group; facing the champions of Holland, Ajax, the German champions Dortmund and the best team in the group, Spanish champions Real Madrid.

Any English team in the competition would have found that group difficult but there’s no doubt that Manchester City haven’t helped themselves. Their way of playing is very offensive and that has slightly hindered them against European opposition, who have relied on the counter attack to repeatedly take City apart.

Arsenal bucks the trend as they made the last 16 both times over the last two seasons. They have had considerably easier groups, but Arsenal’s problem arise in the group stage where they simply cannot compete with the top teams.

Manchester United have reassessed their Champions League ambitions this year and have taken the competition far more seriously. Drawn against Galatasaray, Cluj and Braga, United strode through in the first four games, assuring qualification and top spot, making the remaining two games irrelevant.

If you look at the facts, English clubs have had seven teams in the last eight finals, including the final in Moscow, where Chelsea and Manchester United played each other; there doesn’t seem much of a problem. However, looking at the style of play in Spain, the tactics of Italy and the flair of Germany, English clubs are looking as if they are being left behind.

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