If Chelsea get knocked out of the Champions League by Napoli tomorrow, and there is a good chance that they will, then it will be the first time since 1996 that the Premier League has not had a team in the quarter-finals of the tournament. This shortfall has caused a dramatic reaction, suggesting that this spells an end to English dominance of the competition and in turn a general weakening of the Premier League.
After all, we have had four Champions League finalists since 2008, and in the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons provided three of the four semi-finalists. To go from those halcyon days to the nadir of this season is quite a fall.
But to dismiss English clubs after one, admittedly very poor season, would be churlish. Manchester United, runners up in last season’s competition, were eliminated in this year’s group stage with a largely similar set of players. Has this team suddenly become a bad one? Absolutely not.
Manchester City were making their debut in the competition and were given a particularly tough draw for their first assignment. Unfortunately for them, their form only picked up when their fate was out of their hands.
Arsenal were caught horribly short by AC Milan when they lost 4-0 in the San Siro, but showed what they were truly capable of with the 3-0 return leg victory. Chelsea, for all their woes this season and a managerial change since their first encounter, will go through if they beat Napoli 2-0 or better.
These fine margins of elimination, no matter how early they have come in the competition, suggest that this season is merely an aberration. But for a David De Gea brain explosion or a Carlos Tevez labour strike, both Manchester clubs could be fighting in the Champions League and not battling for Europa League survival.
As for the travails of our teams in the secondary competition, we should ask why we are so surprised? Have we grown into such snobs that we think that our English heavyweights will steamroller any less glamorous opposition put in front of them? Anyone who thinks that Athletic Bilbao were going to be anything less than competitive needs to watch more football than just the Premier League. Their 3-2 victory over United at Old Trafford displayed what a fine side they are.
It is too easy to look at La Liga and dismiss it as a competition merely between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The league table may show them streaks ahead, but the teams from third to ninth are separated by just eight points, with Bilbao sitting seventh. The Barca/Madrid axis has skewed the look of the league so much with its dominance that the next level of teams is dismissed.
Fans of the Premier League are guilty of confusing quality with competiveness. And while we may be treated to better games, more entertainment and a shock result seemingly every week, that doesn’t mean that the football being played is better. The brilliant dominance of the axis in Spain suggests that the rest of the league is poor, when in truth they are just not capable of matching the top two. We must realise that a league is not just a reflection of the top two, but a sum of all its parts.
Does all this mean that Premier League is in decline? Of course it doesn’t. By the seasons end, Chelsea might lift the Champions League and one the Manchester clubs the Europa League. But if that doesn’t happen, we can afford write off one poor season against the over-achievement of the past half a decade. What this campaign should tell us, however, is that even though the Premier League might be the most entertaining league in the world, others are hardly short on quality.