Farewell, then, to Arsenal in this year’s Champions League, and by extension to England’s involvement in the competition. Given the apocalyptic nature of many of the predictions that were proffered for the club’s two-legged tie against Bayern Munich, perhaps emerging from the competition with their heads held high was about as much as the club could hope for. Bayern are clearly an excellent team, amongst the favourites to win this year’s competition and miles clear at the top of the Bundesliga, and after the first leg of the tie at The Emirates Stadium went about as badly for the home side as many – if not most – had expected it to, it was strongly suggested in the build-up to the match that Arsene Wenger was going to rest some of his first choice players in preparation for some critical forthcoming Premier League matches.
As things turned out, however, his team gave a very good account of themselves in Germany last night and came desperately close to achieving what surely would have been the greatest result in the history of the club. If this Arsenal team was able to put in that sort of performance consistently, the large metaphorical cloud with the word “CRISIS!” etched into it which so often seems to be hovering over or near The Emirates Stadium might finally dissipate a little. In some respects, this result might even have been ideal for Arsenal. They face a tooth and nail fight to compete in the Champions League next season, and they will now do so with no other distractions, and with the adrenaline injection that comes with such an impressive result as that which they achieved in Germany last night.
That loss in the first leg, however, proved a little too much to overcome and so it is that, as we have been reminded with wearying regularity over the last twenty-four hours or so – because this all started before last night’s match, really – England will have no representatives in the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 1996. It’s a curious point of view for anybody outside of the media to take, that this could somehow be some sort of disaster. For the fourth estate to take such a viewpoint is understandable. The Champions League remains the biggest cash cow of the domestic season, and the elimination of all English clubs will have an undoubtedly negative effect on viewing figures, click-throughs and newspaper sales over the next couple of months.
There is an understandable vested interest in maintaining audience interest in the latter stages of the competition which is severely diminished by home supporters – that curious few who support the biggest clubs from other countries aside – having less to cheer for. But to argue that English monoliths regularly progressing to the latter stages of the Champions League is somehow “good for football” in this country seems only partly understandable. Yes, yes, yes, UEFA coefficients have their uses (and, who knows, perhaps there are people out there who base their support solely on the UEFA Coefficient Table (in which case, supporters of the San Marino club SS Murata may wish to look away now), but if it is generally accepted that all football clubs are only really out for themselves – and there is precious little evidence to suggest anything to the contrary – then why should anyone other than the supporters of the club involved really care (for reasons other than mere schadenfreude, of course) about how they progress?
None of this, however, detracts from the fact that it is starting to look as if the 2012/13 season seems set to end with the sound of a balloon deflating rather than a bang. Perhaps last season the more casual fans amongst us were spoilt, with Manchester City and Manchester United going head to head for the Premier League title until the last minute of the last match of the league season and Chelsea’s oddly unlikely run to the final of the Champions League and subsequent win in Munich. Ten months on, with snow still on the ground (in this part of the world, at least), the English clubs are all out of Europe, Manchester United are in a position in which they should be able to sleep walk to the Premier League title and even the poor old FA Cup seems likely to hear witness to a walkover in its final, no matter who, out of those left in it, gets there. Of course, we don’t have to scratch much more deeply than that to see that there are still tense times ahead. In the Premier League, the race for third and fourth place remains two from three whilst only the most supremely confident would seek to guess who will be relegated, the Europa League – status for English clubs at the exact time of writing: unknown – whilst in the Football League there are numerous pitched battles for titles, promotion places and to avoid relegation places which seem set to go to the wire.
One of the most notable factors which contributes to the ongoing success of the club football season, however, is its almost instinctive rhythm, and football has, because of a proliferation of media and social media, never been a more shared experience. That rhythm normally builds itself to a crescendo at the end of the season – it’s not difficult to imagine what committed Freudians make of it all – but this season, in England at least, that feeling will be somewhat neutered unless some very surprising events come to pass in the very immediate future. Small wonder that there was such hysteria surrounding Rafael Benitez and Alex Ferguson not shaking hands last Sunday. There’s a void to be filled, and manufactured moral outrage is as good a way to fill it as any. Perhaps Barcelona will be drawn to play Real Madrid and the itch will be partially scratched. On the other hand, though, the very real possibility remains that the end of the 2012/13 season may end up as something of a minority interest in England and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That frisson of excitement is still there. We’ll just have to look a little harder for it than we did last year.
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