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EPL giants tumble in Europe

EPL giants tumble in Europe
The Premier League can attract mega riches from global broadcasters but first Manchester City and now Arsenal have proved to be poor ambassadors for the self-proclaimed best league in the world in the Champions League earlier this week.

Richard Scudamore, the league’s chief executive, complained the loudest when plans for a winter World Cup in Qatar in 2022 were announced on Tuesday, claiming the “integrity” of his competition would be harmed by a mid-season break.

But City and Arsenal jointly combined to undermine his claims of grandeur with damaging defeats in the first leg of the knockout stage of the competition. After Manchester City capitulated for the second successive season to Barcelona by losing 2-1 at home on Tuesday, Arsenal were exposed as ‘naive’, according to manager Arsene Wenger, against a superbly-organised but far from spectacular A S Monaco who won 3-1 in north London.

Both could yet turn their ties around but on the evidence of their first leg performances, that is highly unlikely. No team in UEFA’s elite competition has overturned a two-goal first leg home defeat and progressed since Ajax Amsterdam did that against Benfica after winning a play-off in 1969. Chelsea, the last English team to win the Champions League in 2012, have the best chance of progressing to the quarter-final after securing a 1-1 draw at Paris St Germain with the second leg at Stamford Bridge to be played on March 11.

TRUE MERITS

The defeats not only raised questions about the true merits of the Premier League’s top level but also re-ignited the argument about the future of manager Wenger, who seemed at a loss to explain one of the worst performances by an Arsenal team at home in Europe in his nearly 19 years as boss.

Arsenal were widely expected to see off the French club and advance to the quarter-final. But instead they are on the verge of a fifth consecutive last 16 exit. Geoffrey Kondogbia’s first half strike was followed by a cool finish from former Tottenham forward Dimitar Berbatov and, although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got one back for Arsenal in the 90th minute, there was time for Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco to score Monaco’s third and leave the Gunners needing a herculean effort in the second leg on March 17.

“It looks like we lost our nerves and our rationality. The heart took over the head and at this level that doesn’t work. Mentally we weren’t sharp enough to get into this game and we paid for it. I hope we weren’t complacent, but it looks when you have no sharpness that anything is possible,” he said.

Yet it doesn’t feel like so long ago that three out of the four Champions League semifinalists were English, it was 2008, to be clear. That was the summit of an eight-year period, from 2005 to 2012, during which at least one English team reached the final in seven of those seasons. It was
reminiscent of the late 1970s and early 80s, when an English club won the old European Cup six years in a row and seven times out of eight.

Frank McLintock, who captained Arsenal to their first FA Cup and League Double in 1971, questioned whether Germany midfielder Mesut Ozil, who had a poor match, was suited to the English game, he was critical of their commitment and questioned the mental toughness which Wenger continually praises his team for.

“When we play against somebody who is at least as good as us or above us in the League, that’s very often when we crumble and that is not a good sign. As soon as we play someone who is better
than us, we seem to lose it all again,” he said.

One thing looks certain for the second leg in Monaco on March 17, the home side’s defence will not crumble. Monaco have only let in four goals in their last 12 matches, and only two in seven Champions League matches this season. Unless there is a complete turnaround, Arsenal will be eliminated at the last 16 stage for the fifth successive season, and City will again fail in their attempt to make the last eight for the first time.

Liverpool, Tottenham bite the dust

Premier League sides poor show wasn’t restricted to Champions League only as even in Europa League, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur were knocked out in the Round of 32. Tolgay Arslan was the hero as Turkish side Besiktas stunned Liverpool via penalties while veteran German forward Mario Gomez and Mohamed Salah scored as Fiorentina beat Tottenham 2-0 to progress 3-1 on aggregate.

With an estimated 70,000 Besiktas fans creating a cauldron-like atmosphere, Liverpool knew they faced a tough task on a balmy February evening at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, taking a slim 1-0 lead from the Anfield home leg in the round of 32. Besiktas levelled on aggregate in the 72nd minute with a stunning strike from Tolgay Arslan, assisted by a deft back heel from Senegalese striker Demba Ba, sending the match into extra time and then a penalty shoot out.

With penalties level at 4-4 and all the takers holding their nerve, Arslan skillfully slotted in. Dejan Lovren stepped up for Liverpool but his effort went high, leaving the player unconsolable and Besiktas fans running onto the pitch in joy. The stadium had special memories for Reds fans as the scene of the 2005 UEFA Champions League final where the team famously pulled back a three goal deficit to defeat AC Milan on penalties. But Liverpool were this time without talismanic leader Steven Gerrard, who starred on that famous night in Istanbul but is still nursing an injury in his last season for the club.

Liverpool wanted to give Gerrard a fairytale send off with a glorious run in a European competition but the famously fanatical black-clad fans of the Eagles worked hard to raise the roof, with deafening whistles every time a Liverpool player touched the ball and dozens of flares burning in the Istanbul night sky. Banners raised on the stands included ‘welcome to hell!’, a favourite slogan from Turkish fans for visiting foreign teams. In Florence, Gomez scored the opener against Spurs on 54 minutes when he pounced upon a lost ball from the defender Fazio on the half-way line. Gifted possession, he burst toward the Tottenham goal at full pelt, outsprinting the desperately back-tracking Fazio and Jan Vertonghen. As goalkeeper Hugo Lloris came off his line to meet him, the German chose his moment with perfect calm and his powerful shot left the Frenchman no chance.

Tottenham handler Mauricio Pochettino made a double substitution at 1-0 down with striker Harry Kane and speed king Andros Townsend on for winger Nacer Chadli and Nabil Bentaleb. But Fiorentina were to then strike a second time with questions left to be asked about Spurs’ defence. Recently signed from Chelsea, Salah exposed first Fazio and then Vertonghen with his pace when a sudden burst of speed saw him run into the box in the 70th minute and firing a shot into the top corner.

With a League Cup final against Chelsea at Wembley on Sunday, Pochettino had made seven changes to the team that started against West Ham last Sunday. Tottenham’s substitute striker Roberto Soldado, who started instead of the on form Kane, with 13 goals from his last 17 games, blew the chance of the match after half an hour when he horribly under-hit a simple pass to Chadli when two-on-one against goalkeeper Neto with the scores still at 0-0. With Soldado running free onto a lovely through ball from Erik Lamela, a goal looked a certainty until the Spaniard fluffed his pass to the onrushing winger. Neto could hardly believe his luck as he bent to scoop up the ball, Chadli slapping the post in frustration and Soldado hanging his head in shame.

Unbeaten in ten games, Vincenzo Montella’s Fiorentina, who are fifth in Italy, always looked at ease in their Stadio Artemio Franchi. They survived a couple of early scares as Christian Eriksen appealed for a penalty that was ignored and Lamela forced a fine save from Neto. Kane side-footed the ball past Neto on 76 minutes but even he knew he was off-side as he did so. Tottenham then go to Wembley wondering what might have been while Fiorentina go into the hat for the last-16 of the Europa League, the winner of which gets access to a place in the Champions League next season.

Testing Time

English teams simply have bigger challenges ahead on the weekend than they will have in midweek European ties, meaning that English sides will put in weakened sides during their mid-week matches. The teams feel there is more to gain domestically than there is from Europe, which is why those matches tend to have lower priority, even from Champions League sides. But the real issue here is the crowded fixture list for Premier League clubs.

The way the 38 games are crammed together, plus two domestic cups, does not bode well for any side having to add in a minimum of six European group stage fixtures into their program. Even with the prize for winning the Europa League now being a Champions League birth the following season, English clubs are still prioritising the league path to success. And for clubs a competition higher, if they are handed a difficult draw, they end up being completely outclassed and left to search for the same answers they looked for the season prior. It’s a no-win situation.

For English clubs to succeed in Europe, they need to be given the incentive to succeed. So far, the only teams who have that are teams whose Premier League campaigns have been derailed, or whose Premier League aspirations are the second priority; which rarely is the case. For clubs around in Europe, they view European competition as a privilege. In England, it seems to be  viewed as a mountain too difficult to climb.
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