A wake-up call for EPL

English teams have been unable to match their rivals in Europes premier club competition
Last Updated 16 March 2013, 16:29 IST

England’s national stadium, Wembley, will stage the Champions League final for the second time in three seasons in May. But not only will there be no English team on that field, there will not even be one of the high-financed British clubs among the quarterfinalists of the elite competition.

''It is a massive disappointment,'' admits Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger. ''It is a massive wake-up call to have Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal out at this stage. It means the rest of European football has caught up with us – and we have to take that into consideration when we think about the future of the Premier League.''

Wenger’s regret might have got compounded when he viewed the draw. Wenger could have worked in Spain, which has three of the final eight clubs, at any time he wanted. He was wooed, once, to coach Bayern Munich, the side that eliminated his team this week. And when he looks at the teams that are still in it – teams that include Galatasaray and Malaga, no disrespect intended – his homage about the failure of the Premier League will bite him hard.

Galatasaray, of Istanbul, is not an impoverished club by any means. It has millions of followers around the world. It is, to borrow a word from Wenger, a massive, multisport club in the heart of a city and a country that is prepared to spend billions to gain recognition through soccer and the Olympics, which it is bidding for.

And in January, Gala recruited two former Champions League winners, Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder, to lend their experience to the young Turks and the assorted imports on their side. As the spring goes on, Drogba and Sneijder can only get fitter, and be a better fit inside the team of their choice.

Malaga, by comparison, is retreating from the heavy spending of its Qatari owner, Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani, whose financial investment in the Spanish club began drying up before the start of this season. Forced to offload players and facing exclusion from the Champions League next season for overdue payments, Malaga and its remarkable coach, Manuel Pellegrini, soldier on regardless.

Even as the walls crumbled around him, even as the owner sold off some of the players as the season got under way, Pellegrini stuck to his belief in soccer played the right way. His style is as close as it gets to Barcelona without Lionel Messi or the academy; and his match winners last Wednesday, when Malaga put Porto out of the Champions League, were intriguing.

The first goal in a 2-0 home victory came from a sumptuous shot from outside the penalty area by the young player Francisco Alarcon, better known simply as Isco. He was a child of Valencia, sold to Malaga when he was a teenager to ease Valencia’s appalling debt. Considered the playmaker of the next generation in Spain, Isco, still only 20, accepts that he may well be sold again at the end of this season.

He looks and plays as if he is perfectly balanced in body and mind. If he must be moved on, he must. Twenty is a tender age at which to be an enforced mercenary in the sport, but that is the game he was born into. Commerce is the reason why the Champions League final is back at Wembley Stadium, its most profitable playground, so soon after Barcelona beat Manchester United there in 2011.

And high commerce was the reason that English clubs (albeit largely with foreign players, and often with financing from abroad) threatened to make the tournament their own. No longer. Arsenal could not hold onto star players like Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Ashley Cole and others when other clubs tempted them with better prospects of winning a title or bigger paydays.

And, though Arsenal won, 2-0, in Munich on Wednesday, that was a pyrrhic victory for a side on its way out. Bayern Munich, strangely for a team previously unbeaten in 23 games, appeared complicit in its own defeat.

The Germans lacked the motivation to put Arsenal to sleep. Bayern had won, 3-1, at Arsenal’s stadium in London last month, and it did lack the energy of the injured Bastian Schweinsteiger and the sorcerer Franck Ribery.

Even so, its capitulation to goals from Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny, without any riposte, was a wretched way to entertain 66,000 Muncheners in their own home. The apologists said that Arsenal was a wounded animal, playing for pride; and they said Bayern had no compelling incentive other than to do enough to reach the next round.
If the second is true, then sports, per se, is the loser. There must surely be greater pride in performance, greater reward for spectators on a cold Bavarian night, than this? Bayern players finished the contest falling over to feign injuries and running the ball to the corner flags to wind down the clock. Everybody does it in the name of professionalism.

The best answer to such nonsense is called Barca. What did Messi and company do in the final moments of their match Tuesday against an already beaten Milan? They turned defence into attack, they went for, and scored, one more glorious goal for the joy of it.
And when the draw is done Friday, surely the neutrals who just love the game will make their own decisions on which team – which philosophy – to follow.

Right now, in many people’s mind, this is building up to be a German versus Spanish Champions League season. Bayern would be in the top three, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid.

But then there is Borussia Dortmund, with its impressive team spirit. There is Juventus, resourceful in defence. There is Paris Saint-Germain, which is building, or buying, individuals capable of upsetting any opponent that either drops its work ethic or presumes, as Bayern might have done, that its superiority was unshakable.
Malaga and Galatasaray are in it to see how far they can go, and to bring new names among the elite.

(Published 16 March 2013, 16:29 IST)

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