No contenders please, we’re English. James Dutton looks at a Champions League quarter-final lineup harking back to its halcyon days…
The bell tolls. Last orders gents.
There has been something of an overreaction to the lack of English teams remaining in this season’s Champions League. Of course this is the first time since 1995-6 that there has been no English representation at this stage. Blackburn Rovers were the sole flag bearer then and endured a miserable experience. Until Manchester City’s woeful performance this season, it was the worst English campaign in Champions League history.
Though it is significant that this is the first time since the expansion of 1999-2000 that any number of English entrants have failed to progress beyond the Last 16, that ship sailed long ago for the other top European leagues. La Liga in 2005, Serie A in 2001, 2002 and 2009 and the Bundesliga in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
Many have been ready and willing to proclaim the respective deaths of Italian and German football since the turn of the millennium but neither prediction has come to pass. Boom and bust is part and parcel of the sport. English football is certainly not as strong as it was in its recent heyday, and there are a whole manner of statistics that can be used to support that argument.
But this is not the time to discuss the death of English football, for its time will surely come again.
Instead of bemoaning the lack of English representation in the Last Eight of the Champions League, there should be a celebration of the continental feast that we are due to savour.
Malaga aside, this season’s premier European cup competition has witnessed the renaissance of some of the biggest and proudest clubs across the continent.
Real Madrid. Barcelona. Paris Saint Germain. Juventus. Bayern Munich. Galatasaray. Borussia Dortmund.
It feels as if the competition has transported itself back in time to the late 1990s. Perhaps because the intrigue and mystery is not diluted by the presence of an ‘Arsenal’ or a ‘Chelsea’, the Champions League feels genuinely cosmopolitan for the first time in almost a generation.
In fact the competition, and the nature of the ties that the quarter final draw has produced, is the fiercest it has been since the 2002-3 season; ten years ago. Joining traditional powerhouses Real Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan, Internazionale, Manchester United and Barcelona at the quarter-final stage were Ajax and Valencia, both domestic champions.
Ajax sides of recent past have struggled to reflect the reputation of those from yore; but the 2003 vintage of Christian Chivu, Wesley Sneijder, Steven Pienaar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Rafael van der Vaart stood toe to toe with AC Milan’s illustrious squad of a decade ago.
Valencia, under the stewardship of Rafael Benitez, had become one of the most attractive outfits in Europe following their break up of the Madrid-Barcelona duopoly in La Liga. With a spine of Roberto Ayala, Pablo Aimar, Ruben Baraja and David Albelda, Los Che were eliminated on away goals by Hector Cuper’s formidable Inter Milan side.
Since the re-structuring of the competition in 2004 abandoned the two-fold group stage the quarter-final line ups have often flattered to deceive. Two group stages acted to filter out the chaff, but lent an unnecessarily elongated feel to proceedings. Few would argue against the present set-up, though it has at times presented uninspiring draws as the climx approaches.
Consequently the last eight of the competition has produced a number of lightweight quarter-finalists; Roma and PSV Eindhoven were pulverised in 2007 (3-8 and 0-4), whilst numerous others have never threatened to gatecrash the establishment – Fenerbache, FC Porto (2004 aside, though that year was an anomaly in itself), Villarreal, CSKA Moscow, Schalke, Benfica and Bordeaux.
Last season saw APOEL Nicosia become the first Cypriot club to reach the stage, but they were duly hammered 8-2 over two legs by Real Madrid. Bayern Munich strolled past a lacklustre Marseille, whilst Chelsea and Barcelona were too strong for Benfica and AC Milan respectively.
The 2011 draw was even more disheartening; Tottenham Hotspur were dismantled 5-0 by Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk 6-1 by Barcelona, whilst Schalke pulled of an implausible 7-3 victory over Inter Milan.
This year feels different, and the draw could not have been more perfect – either from a neutral’s perspective, or from UEFA’s own avaricious gaze:
Bayern Munich v Juventus
Both enjoy handsome reputations and currently enjoy handsome leads at the top of their domestic leagues. For two clubs with such illustrious traditions and histories their rivalry is almost non-existent. Schweinsteiger and Pirlo are set to re-acquaint following their Euro 2012 semi-final duel.
PSG v Barcelona
Domestic interest perseveres as David Beckham’s PSG (as it is contractually obliged to refer to the Qatari-Parisians in the British media) face the behemoths of Catalonia. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has never won a Champions League and if there’s one club he’d love to beat, it is Barcelona.
Malaga v Borussia Dortmund
Malaga have been something of a surprise package considering their off-field problems, whilst Dortmund have cemented their position as everyone’s second team. Football hipsters will be salivating at the tantalizing prospect of Isco sharing a field with Mario Gotze and Marco Reus.
Real Madrid v Galatasary
Jose Mourinho comes face-to-face with two architects of some of his greatest moments in football management; Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder. But in their dramatic victory over Schalke, the Turkish champions showed that they are much more than their two stellar imports.
Atavism and sub-plots reign supreme. Don’t bemoan English absentia, revel in it.