For the second successive season the Champions representing the English Premier League – the self-styled and much-bragged “World’s Greatest, Highest Quality & Most Competitive” domestic football competition – have found themselves humiliated on the European Champions League stage, falling embarrassingly at the very first hurdle that is the ECL Group Stage.
Last season saw an arrogant and complacent Man Utd fail to emerge from their customary hand-picked group; their only victories coming against group minnows Otelul Galati as they amassed a measly total of just 3pts from their four encounters with Benfica and FC Basel. Their mega-bucks ‘noisy neighbours’ Man City also fell at the first stage of their debut ECL campaign, although they did have to contend with a group containing eventual Finalists FC Bayern, a resurgent Napoli and the wily Spaniards Villareal.
But this season Man City managed to achieve what many thought an impossible task, namely surpassing their previous levels of ineptness in Europe’s premier club competition?! Despite their lofty status as newly-crowned EPL Champions, City’s anonymous European record compromised their all-important co-efficient and saw them somewhat unfortunately drawn alongside Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax in the so-called ‘Group of Champions’….being that all four clubs were champions of their respective domestic leagues. No-one could deny that City had been dealt a brutal hand by the Gods, but to collect an appalling total of just 3pts from their six fixtures without a solitary victory is simply unacceptable for a club boasting City’s ambitions and, more importantly, their financial muscle!
Some City sympathisers and EPL apologies have highlighted the struggles of Sir Alex Ferguson and Man Utd during their early forays into the ECL, and Sir Alex has regularly admitted his frustration and disappointment that Man Utd have won just two European Cups during his quarter of a century stewardship. It is an undeniably poor return for Man Utd’s status as a European powerhouse, their resources and the fact that a relaxing of the qualification rules has seen them regularly participate in the competition. Many observers would perhaps mischievously suggest that of Utd’s four appearances in the ECL Final they have probably only deservedly won the trophy on one occasion, and I’m quite sure that Chelsea fans would argue that they had the better of that encounter in Moscow. FC Bayern’s nightmares will still be dominated by haunting images of Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, having comprehensively outplayed Sir Alex’s team in 1999 while nobody would deny the gulf in class during their two maulings at the hands of FC Barcelona.
Yes, Man Utd took a little while to acclimatise to the dizzy heights of European competition, but for me the argument of a club having to gradually feel their way into the ECL is invalid when it comes to Man City. I’m not going to claim Man Utd spent no money at all in establishing themselves as an EPL force and a fairly regular participant in the latter rounds of the ECL, but the sheer speed and weight of investment that has been lavished on Man City makes Chelsea’s record a much more relevant comparison in my opinion.
Man City’s two consecutive ECL campaigns have resulted in a failure to qualify from the initial group stage on both occasions; in their disastrous second attempt they failed to secure even a solitary win! Admittedly Chelsea had intermittently flirted with the ECL before Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2003 but, with the Russian oligarch’s bottomless wallet beginning to blindly fund their cause, Claudio Ranieri guided the Blues to semi-final defeat to unfancied AS Monaco in the 2003/04 ECL. Enter Jose Mourinho and, armed with the £24M acquisition of Didier Drogba, £12M Arjen Robben and his ECL-winning duo from FC Porto Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira for a combined £35M, the Portuguese ‘Special One’ led Chelsea to their second-successive semi-final and defeat to the controversial Luis Garcia ‘ghost goal’ at Anfield. A splurge of £100M+ on securing the talents of Michael Essien (£24M), Andrei Shevchenko (£30M), Shaun Wright-Phillips (£21M), John Obi Mikel (£16M) and the shrewd free signing of the dynamic Michael Ballack followed, as did defeat by eventual winners FC Barcelona and elimination at the last-16 phase in 2005/06 before a heartbreaking second semi-final exit at the hands of Liverpool in 2006/07. A, some might chortle, hilarious John Terry penalty slip ‘n’ miss saw Man Utd steal the European Cup from Avram Grant’s Blues in 2008 and the infamous semi-final encounter with FC Barcelona and referee Tom Henning Ovrebo in 2009 saw Chelsea slain by the Catalan Carousel. Jose Mourinho returned with Inter to dispose of the Blues at the last-16 stage on the Nerazzurri’s triumphant march in 2010 and Sir Alex and Man Utd were once again cast as Chelsea’s nemesis in 2011, ending the Blues’ ECL campaign in the quarter-final as the Red Devils reached their fourth ECL Final. But finally, in 2012 Didier Drogba and Co. rose from the ashes of a desperate domestic season of discontent to triumph against all the odds to win their first ECL!
So, to put Chelsea’s record post-Abramovich into context, his investment has secured two Final appearances including the 2012 victory, four semi-final appearances, a quarter-final defeat and elimination twice at the last-16 stage. Okay, their current pathetic attempt to defend their crown may end in the abject humiliation of being the first holders to fall at the group stage….but for now their record has been reasonably consistent.
Man City can boast four ECL Champions in their ranks, namely £30M Carlos Tevez, £24M Yaya Toure, £22M Mario Balotelli and Maicon! Among Man City’s other riches are World Cup and European Championship winner David Silva (£25M) and Europa League winner Sergio Aguero (£38M)! I doubt Sheikh Mansour and City Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak had an excruciatingly impotent second consecutive ECL group stage humiliation in mind when they invested £500M+ on the blue side of Manchester! The City line-up as selected by Roberto Mancini for their last-ditch attempt to secure the consolation prize of Europa League participation against a Dortmund side resting several of their first-choice XI having already confirmed their progress as group winners was conservatively reported to have cost an eye-watering £320M to assemble?!? When you support your manager – who presumably is expected to have some idea what is going on – with staggering cheques to bring the likes of Joleon Lescott (£24M), Edin Dzeko (£24M), James Milner (£24M), Samir Nasri (£27M), Javi Garcia (£16M), Matija Nastasic (£18M), Gareth Barry (£18M), Alexander Kolarov (£18M) plus many more, I would think the board were expecting a slightly grander outcome than the indignity of replacing Blackburn Rovers under the hapless Ray Harford as the worst performing English ECL representatives EVER?!?
So what has gone so pitifully wrong? The excuse of being ECL novices just doesn’t wash and the obscenely rewarded players need to step up and take responsibility for their unacceptable failings. After all, debutants Spurs managed a hugely creditable run to the quarter-finals during their, so far, only ECL campaign to date, escaping from a group containing then-ECL holders Inter and beating AC Milan en-route to defeat to Real Madrid! City’s group draw was horrendous, especially when you consider they are EPL Champions, but group rivals Ajax out-performed them on a fraction of City’s wealth?! Other clubs to have outscored City with a tiny fraction of their resources are Olympiakos, Anderlecht, Zenit St Petersburg, Dinamo Kiev, Bate Borisov, Galatasaray, FC Cluj and Celtic, while fellow sugar-daddy benefactors PSG and Malaga – in their debut campaign -have both qualified as group winners ahead of ECL veterans FC Porto and AC Milan respectively!
Although unbeaten in their EPL defence City have stuttered and stumbled thus far this season, finding themselves 3pts behind Man Utd ahead of their derby meeting this weekend. They appear to be still suffering a hangover from last year’s injury-time heroics to secure the title and I would point the finger to a large extent at the leadership of Roberto Mancini! Mancini has ripped up the dominant title-winning central defensive pairing of captain Vincent Kompany and his reliable sidekick Joleon Lescott to accommodate Nastasic and has randomly rotated his traditional 4-4-2 formation into a three-man defensive unit. That uncertainty has seen Kompany’s form drop through the floor, from being arguably the best defender in the EPL last season to a quivering wreck this year, and the usually unflappable Joe Hart make a succession of uncharacteristic and costly errors. The purchase of Maicon, who has never recovered from his roasting at the hands of Gareth Bale, was a strange addition to a squad which, in Micah Richards and Pablo Zabaleta, appeared to be sufficiently staffed in that position. That Maicon has elevated himself to start ahead of both Richards – albeit currently injured – and one of the most underrated players in the EPL Zabaleta speaks volumes for Mancini’s confused selection process.
David Silva’s niggling injuries has undoubtedly affected City’s attacking prowess but Mancini’s insistence on rotating his striking options has caused a lack of fluidity and understanding between Tevez, Aguero, Dzeko and Balotelli. His consistent tinkering, adjustment and alteration of his tactics, selection and strategy has directly resulted in the uncertainty and doubt that has spread throughout the squad. But, in my opinion, the final name I mentioned is one of, if not the biggest problem at Man City. Mancini’s indulgence of Mario Balotelli’s petulant attitude and antics simply has to have had a negative effect on other squad members! If Balotelli was Diego Maradona or if he had the on-pitch impact of Lionel Messi then perhaps, just perhaps, Mancini could somehow justify his lenience and tolerance towards his fellow Italian. But Balotelli’s 25mins ‘performance’ as a substitute against Dortmund showcased a spoilt brat whose misbehaviour and ill-discipline can no longer be allowed to fester its stench at the club!
Mancini’s patience and his turning a blind eye to Balotelli’s many faults, both on and off the pitch, has shown him to be a weak manager! Perhaps some of City’s other highly-paid stars are beginning to take Balotelli’s lead and can no longer motivate themselves to perform under Mancini? Is Mancini’s position untenable? He must be congratulated for guiding City to the EPL title but there is little doubt that his ECL performance will have deeply disappointed his Middle-East paymasters. Is the ECL beyond his capabilities? Certainly he had ample opportunity to stamp his authority on the competition while at Inter but failed to progress beyond the quarter-final with a team that Jose Mourinho led to ECL glory in his solitary season having succeeded Mancini at the San Siro. And with the spectre of Mourinho already stalking Mancini – the Portuguese almost certain to leave Real Madrid in the summer – might his time be already up at City? I doubt Sheikh Mansour will act with the immediate ruthlessness of Roman Abramovich, but if City were to lose this weekend’s home derby against Man Utd, don’t be surprised to see the vultures circling Eastlands and a ‘Special Ego’ re-entering the EPL circus come next summer….