Better shape up

We may remain some distance from the balmy spring evenings, in which key encounters kick off in fading light, but we are now approaching the business end of the UEFA Champions League. Excusing a derogatory generalisation, trips to the unknown depths of Eastern Europe have been negotiated, bar of course the impressive Shakhtar Donetsk. Intoxicating thoughts have now turned to the bright and captivating lights of the San Siro and the Santiago Bernabeu.

Over the coming months the most impressive stadia on the continent will be engulfed with some of the greatest players on our planet. Passionate fans will flock to some of the most culturally profound cities Europe has to offer, in the hope of seeing their team progress towards another Wembley final on May 25th.

The first round knockout stage has thrown up compelling encounters, including Barcelona clashing with AC Milan and Shakhtar facing up a real Rolls Royce Borussia Dortmund outfit. However, the most enthralling match ups involve the remaining British sides, Arsenal, Celtic and Manchester United.

Despite this progression of the aforementioned, the 2012/2013 campaign has been a far from vintage year for the British contingent. Holders Chelsea succumbed in a tough group, costing Roberto Di Matteo his job, whilst Premier League champions Manchester City again limped out at the first hurdle. Gone are the days in which our ‘big four’ would consistently cruise into the semi finals year upon year. The Premier League’s best are apparently no longer able to routinely exert dominance on the continent.

Various experts have also alluded to the decision of Guardiola to turn down a job in England as vilification that our national game is in decline. The Spaniard apparently chose to turn down an opportunity to take the healm at Stamford Bridge in favour of a more sustainable stint with Bayern Munich. Abramovich’s quick fix ideology was ultimately a world away from Pep’s desire to manipulate a long term blueprint upon another European giant.

Many would also point to the newfound inability of United, Chelsea and Arsenal’s to defend efficiently, with top of the table clashes now routinely characterised by goal gluts and highly ineffective defending. Furthermore, although scrooge like on home soil, Manchester City have regularly been carved open against numerous European opponents over the last 18 months.

Notwithstanding this apparent frailty of British football, the Premier League and SPL have mustered 3 competitors to take their place in the last 16. It is Arsenal, Celtic and Manchester United that came through tests of varying difficulties to cement a place in the knockout stages. Each one of our three representatives will have to overcome fairly brutal tasks if they are to reach the quarter finals.

Alex Ferguson and his team have reacted impressively to the gauntlet thrown down by their noisy neighbours last May, United have amassed 56 points and scored a league best 57 goals to generate a 5 point cushion over Manchester City. The Red Devils also made light work of a mediocre Champions’ League group, securing qualification with 2 matches to spare. The arrival of van Persie has undoubtedly aided United, with the Dutchman’s flux of goals a contributing factor in a 12 league game unbeaten run. The return of club captain Nemanja Vidic is likely to be of equal importance, as Ferguson seeks to overcome one of his favoured advisories.  

In the tie that many seemed to crave, it is Real Madrid that stand in United’s path. Mourinho’s side have failed spectacularly in defending the La Liga crown, trailing Barcelona by 15 points and rivals Athletico by 7 at the half way stage. Despite the continued excellence of Ronaldo, they’ve particularly struggled on the road winning just 5 of 11.

The outfit from the capital have suffered both internal and external issues this term, namely a public admission of unhappiness from Ronaldo and the axing of club stalwart Iker Casillas. Any thoughts of an immediate departure from Mourinho have however been laid to rest and the Spanish champions disposed of Valencia 5-0 last weekend.

This matchup is the hardest to call of the 8 knock out ties. In spite of domestic problems, the Spanish outfit qualified with relative ease from the groups and host an abundance of quality players. Ferguson’s side have shown unerring attacking capabilities in important away games this season, winning at Liverpool, Chelsea and City. Another brave display in the first leg, coupled with finding a way to nullify Ronaldo, could pave the way for United to reach the quarters.

Arsenal have again been riddled with inconsistency, desperate autumnal defeats at Norwich and Manchester United have been matched by woeful first half showings in recent games against City and Chelsea. They did however string together some form in the immediate build up to Christmas, culminating in a 7-3 drubbing of a beleaguered Newcastle. Despite their obvious deficiencies Wenger’s side remain in the mix for a top four spot, a feat that now deems a season successful to the Frenchman. A superior goal difference to rivals Tottenham is indicative of the fact they’ve showed flashes of free flowing football, largely instigated by new arrival Carzola and the return of midfielder Wilshere.  

In direct contrast to the Gunners, Bayern Munich have utilised immense levels of consistency to more than match the domestic challenge of Borussia Dortmund. Just after the halfway stage, Bayern have established a 9 point lead and leaked just a meagre 7 goals in 18 league matches. They’ve also netted 5+ goals on 3 occasions whilst pulling away from all challengers.

This encounter represents an extremely tough task for Wenger’s youthful outfit. They’ll have to deal with the numerous attacking threats that the Bavarians have to offer, namely Croat front man Mario Mandzukic, who has plundered 11 goals since arriving from Wolfsburg. Nevertheless, victory is far from unthinkable for the Gunners, who will hope to utilise pace and precise passing in order to see off their opponents.

Celtic appeared lost in the aftermath Rangers demise, missing both their historic rivals and only domestic challengers. Lennon’s side suffered early season defeats to Kilmarnock and Inverness. However, the Glasgow outfit have seemingly re-adjusted and won 8 out of their last 9 league matches to take an expected comfortable perch at the top of the SPL.

It was going to be nigh impossible for Juventus to match their achievements of last term, in which they went an entire league season unbeaten. Nonetheless the Turin outfit again find themselves at the top of Serie A, with a healthy 5 point cushion over Napoli. Spearheaded by the imperious Andrea Pirlo, Juve have seemingly established themselves back amongst Europe’s elite.

In reality, Celtic face another mammoth task if they are to advance to the quarter final stage. Juventus saw off the tournament holders Chelsea whilst advancing comfortably from the group stages. However, Lennon’s team did the unthinkable in beating Barcelona in November and Celtic Park remains one of the most volatile atmospheres in Europe. The fact they seem intent on the prolific Gary Hooper can only aid their slim chances of going through.

Our remaining flag bearers face undoubtedly acid tests from continental powerhouses over the coming weeks, as they set about negotiating a passage towards the most coveted showcase in football. However, in the case of United and Arsenal, a failure to overcome these hurdles will in no way represent demise in the Premier League’s international popularity.

Largely unconceivable in the latter stages of the previous decade, it would now be of little surprise if we are encountered with no British representatives in the quarter finals of Europe’s major competition for the first time since 1996. Despite this desolating thought, one wouldn’t envisage any overly damaging effects upon our domestic game.

Alongside the continuous and copious flow of money from Sky, the Premier League is benefiting from vast sources of foreign income. In October 2012 Richard Scudamore, the league’s Chief Executive, sourced billion pound deals with both American and Chinese media corporations for the right to broadcast live matches. The eyes of the globe appear to be progressively seduced by the ‘thrills and spills’ that the Premier League serves up on a weekly basis.  

When considering both technique and tactical awareness, the top tier of our domestic game may well be in a period of descent, neatly marked in the demise of our clubs continental progress. However, inspite of these widely discussed flaws, the global audience continues to remain entranced with the breathtaking and enchanting plots entwined within the Barclays Premier League.

Michael Dobson