Both of the Manchester clubs came unstuck in Europe last night. The Champions League campaigns of both Manchester City and Manchester United was certainly been amongst the biggest curios of the start of this season. Imperious and already pulling clear of the pack in the league, they have been broadly misfiring in their midweek matches, and last night they stumbled again against opposition that they might have expected to beat comfortably in previous seasons.
At Old Trafford, the gift to Benfica of Phil Jones’ early own goal in front of the Stretford End wasn’t enough secure the Portuguese side all three points, but it was enough to send Alex Ferguson – whose feathers were ruffled to a sufficient extent for him to call early time on a post-match press conference last night – home with something to think about. The good news for Manchester United is that their destiny remains in their own hands, and the task for their final match – to travel to Switzerland and avoid defeat in their final group match against Basel – should be comfortably achievable. There can, however, be no accounting for nerves and the tension of an occasion such as this, and Basel may be able to raise themselves to a performance of the calibre that will be required to beat opponents of the pedigree of Manchester United.
Their sky blue rivals find themselves in an even tighter corner. It is difficult that Napoli didn’t deserve their win against Manchester City in Naples last night, and this was a result that takes destiny out of the hands Roberto Mancini’s team. City now have to beat Bayern Munich in their final group match – and the thoroughness of their defeat at the Allianz Arena in their previous encounter would be enough to suggest that this will be enough test in itself – and even in this event will be depending on Villareal, who have thus far lost five out of five of their group matches, are already out of Europe for this season and could be forgiven for not treating this match with the utmost seriousness, can pick up something from their final match against what we can reasonably assume will be a highly motivated Napoli team. They may have to settle for a Europa League place from their debut Champions League adventure.
It was Alex Ferguson’s reaction to a question asked by the BBC’s Matt Slater which provoked the ire of the Manchester United. The excellent Slater may have had a red devil of his own sitting on his shoulder as he asked his question over whether the two Manchester clubs are struggling in Europe this season because the Premier League is not as strong as some may believe. There is a possibility that this question had a hint of being rhetorical about it, but it is one that is north asking, if not necessarily for the reasons that many might expect. The last decade had been a fertile one for English clubs in the Champions League, with Manchester United and Liverpool winning the competition, Arsenal reaching the final in 2006 and regular places in the latter stages of the competition coming to be the minimum expectation of English clubs entering it.
This sense of expectation – which could even be interpreted as a sense of entitlement – comes at a cost, though. The pressure heaped upon Chelsea managers that have failed to win the competition, for example, has come to reach almost comedic levels whilst, in a more general sense, the belief that English clubs should be making up four of the quarter-final places in the competition reeks of of a parochialism which seems incapable of understanding that the Champions League fields the very best clubs from the length and breadth of an entire continent. To expect success in this competition would seem to be a fools errand, regardless if the gap between the biggest and the rest in modern football.
That Manchester City and Manchester United have made heavier weather of getting through the group stages of this years Champions League than most would have expected is no disaster for English football. The group stages of the competition offer protection to the biggest clubs in comparison with a straight knock-out format and, if anything, the group stages this season have been made more interesting by opposing teams not rolling over and making matches more competitive, even if supporters of Manchester City and Manchester United may care to disagree at this point in time. If anything, this years results have provide, if anything, that European club football is in ruder health than it has been for some time. In addition to this, the debates over the strength of the Premier League and, say, Serie A, the Bundesliga or La Liga is, ultimately, an utterly irrelevant one.
None of this is to say that all is rosy at this level of the game. Real Madrid and Barcelona continue to steamroller most before them and will be the teams to beat in the latter stages of the competition – European football is far from a level playing field. In addition to this, the financial imperatives for clubs to be successful in the Champions League are, with UEFA Financial Fair Play looming on the horizon, as clear as day, and are largely dependent on getting through this group stage. Manchester United – who can expect to be largely unaffected BY FPP – can still decide for themselves how easy or difficult getting through this group stage ends up being. Manchester City, on the other hand, may end the year as favourites to win the Europa League instead. Whether the scenarios thrown up by last night’s result constitute a crisis, though, is a different matter altogether.
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