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England failing European tests

Published: Tuesday 9 November 2004, 11.00CET
Paul Simpson asks why English clubs are struggling in the UEFA Champions League.

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Published: Tuesday 9 November 2004, 11.00CET

England failing European tests

Paul Simpson asks why English clubs are struggling in the UEFA Champions League.
By Paul Simpson

In England they have started to call it "the Arsenal stadium mystery" after the British crime movie of the 1930s. Only this time the mystery is Arsenal FC's failure to play as fluently, ruthlessly and successfully in Europe as in the Premiership. But the real mystery is not what's wrong with Arsenal but what's wrong with English clubs in general?

Sole winner
England have won the European Champion Clubs' Cup nine times but won the UEFA Champions League only once: Manchester United FC in 1999. That United side have one other distinction - they are the only English side to reach a Champions League final.

European exile
Ten years ago, even seven years ago, English fans, coaches and pundits could suggest that the five-year ban on English clubs after the tragedy in the Heysel stadium had left the English game playing catch up. True, English football has never needed much of an excuse to go all parochial and when the likes of George Graham's Arsenal returned to the European fray in the early 1990s they looked as conspicuously obsolete as a Teddy Boy at a hip hop gig.

Foreign flavour
But since then, an influx of foreign players and coaches has enriched the gene pool of the English club game. A little refreshing of a country's footballing genes is usually all to the good. Clubs from the most cosmopolitan and flexible league in Europe, the Primera División, have won the Champions League three times in the last ten years and twice finished runners-up. Yet a Premiership side has still not managed to reach the final, or even the semi-finals, with any degree of consistency. Do any of this year's contenders look likely to end England's five-year absence from the final?

Classy Chelsea
Chelsea FC, sitting snugly at the top of their group, coached by last year's winner, José Mourinho, blessed with talent and funded by Roman Abramovich, look the most convincing. In playing Damien Duff and Arjen Robben, the Chelsea coach's tactical flexibility has made his side much more of a threat upfront. One note of caution: Chelsea have not yet had to come from behind against a defence as miserly and efficient as Juventus FC's or AC Milan's.

Manchester midfield mystery
United have been on fire in the Champions League but lacking spark at home. Even with the arrival of Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooij remains the talisman. In his absence, United's attack has looked wasteful and ineffectual. While pundits still suspect United of defensive frailty, fans are more worried about a lack of range and quality in passing in midfield.

Striking shortage
Still, United's striking troubles pale compared to Liverpool FC's. Coach Rafael Benítez knows that he needs to replenish his side in the January transfer window if the Reds are to reach the latter stages.

Great expectations
Which brings us back to Arsenal, whose record of holding on to a lead just once in four games says a lot about why they have not yet qualified. In part, Arsène Wenger's team are victim of the expectations they aroused not just in the record breaking nature of their unbeaten Premiership run but the style with which they outclassed the opposition. The miracle is not that Arsenal are showing signs of stuttering but that they didn't stutter before. No team has the right to play football which, at its most fluent, justified comparisons with Brazil in 1970 for more than a season.

Winning ugly
The fact that every faux pas, every unconvincing performance, is now televised has tended to obscure the fact that, in football, even great teams never win every game and play impossibly stylish football all the time. Arsenal might, just, relieve the pressure on themselves if they realised that even the greatest teams sometimes win ugly.

Paul Simpson is the editor of Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League. Click here to subscribe.

Last updated: 09/11/04 9.55CET

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