So it has come to pass. For the first time in seven years, there will be no English clubs in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The manner of the defeats of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United were from three different chapters of the book, “How To Get Eliminated From A Two-Legged Cup Tie”. Chelsea were edged out by Internazionale over two legs during which they seldom looked a considerably inferior team. Arsenal were thrashed – fortunate to find a way back into the first leg against Barcelona, they were hopelessly outplayed by one single player in the return match. Manchester United can, at least count themselves slightly unlucky – beaten on away goals after two very tight matches.
At full-time, however, the ITV commentator Peter Drury seemed to mistake “Manchester United” for “England”. It is difficult to exactly quantify this, but it has started to feel, over the last ten years or so, as if English football supporters (except, obviously, supporters of the clubs involved) have stopped supporting “other” English teams in European competitions. Have we grown bored with the predictable precision of England’s four biggest clubs to the latter stages of the competition? Are we jealous of the seemingly perpetual success of these four clubs? Are we just that much more hostile to other clubs than our own? Something has changed.
Turning our attention to this evening’s match, there were points to consider concerning Manchester United’s performance against Bayern Munich. Firstly, was it wise for Alex Ferguson to start Wayne Rooney when he clearly wasn’t fully fit, and what does this decision say about Manchester United’s over-dependence? Secondly, is Dimitar Berbatov really that much of a flop, or is this merely an optical illusion brought about by this gait? How uncharacteristic was it for Manchester United to start with such a swagger, build up a lead that would have seen them through to the next round and then have the match completely turned on its head?
While all of these questions matter massively to Manchester United supporters, the issue of the elimination of Manchester United (as well as Chelsea, Arsenal and, indeed, Liverpool) certainly matters to ITV. It would seem likely that their audience (and the associated advertising and sponsorship revenues that are affected by it) will fall off greatly for the remaining matches in the tournament with four non-English semi-finallists competing. Perhaps it was this that was the instinctive reaction of Peter Drury when he claimed that the whole of England had been knocked out of the Champions League this evening. For all the gnashing and wailing on ITV over their defeat, at least a degree of the sympathy held towards Manchester United will have evaporated with Alex Ferguson’s post-match comment:
“They got him sent off. Everyone sprinted towards the referee. Typical Germans… they’re like that”.
Possibly he needs to restrain himself from giving post-match views at all if he is going to get himself so worked up about losing he starts making comments like that. It doesn’t do his reputation any good – and it’s not just a bit of “banter”, not in the way that he said it or the context of how he said it – to make such grossly boneheaded comments as that. He should apologise for having said it. Yet even Sir Alex won’t be the most seriously affected by it – the football club will also lose money for not getting further in the competition. They will, of course, lose out on prize money (€500,000, had they been knocked out in the semi-finals, €1.5m had they reached the final and €4.5m had they win the trophy) and, even more significantly, a significant slice of the “market pool” – the television money that is at least partly dependent upon the size of the television audience that they attract. It’s absolutely not a calamity, but every little helps in these straitened times, especially with those interest payments to settle later this year.
It is also somewhat pleasing to see three clubs that represent alternatives to the Premier League’s flawed financial model. Bayern Munich and Barcelona are both member-owned clubs, while Lyon have gone from a base of sound financial planning to becoming one of the greatest club sides in the history of French club football. Also, while it is almost certain that television audience figures for the competition will dip in Britain, the presence of representatives from four different nations will certainly boost audience figures in Germany, France, Spain and Italy. There might well be glum faces in certain quarters of the British media this evening, but advertisers and television companies across Europe may be rubbing their hands with glee.
The Premier League will be back next year. The days of unbridled success and a sense of entitlement may be coming to an end, or this season may just prove to be a blip. The lop-sidedness of European football means that getting through the group stages again next year will likely prove to be as much of a procession that it has done in recent years. In the long term, however, there may be a subtle shift of the tectonic plates back in favour of some of the other traditional powers in European football and, while that may be bad news for Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, it just be good news for the Champions League in a more general sense.