England falls from grace in Champions League
Arsenal’s elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League means this is the first season since 1995-96 in which no English teams have reached the quarter-finals.
After an ignominious group phase, when Manchester City finished bottom of their pool and Chelsea became the first defending champions to fall at the first hurdle, the English challenge vanished amid the first flowerings of the European spring.
Both Manchester United and Arsenal acquitted themselves commendably in their respective losses to Real Madrid and Bayern in the last 16, but the English teams no longer dominate the tournament as they once did.
“It’s a massive disappointment for English football. It is a massive wake-up call for us,” said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
“If you think of the teams who have gone out, like Manchester United, City, Chelsea and now us, it is a long time since that happened and it shows that the rest of European football has caught up with us.”
Last season, despite Chelsea’s improbable triumph, the warning signs were already present in the group-stage exits of the two Manchester clubs and Arsenal’s 4-0 thrashing by AC Milan at San Siro.
It appears to represent a startling fall from grace for a country that has produced finalists in seven of the last eight seasons, and which supplied three of the semi-finalists in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Since then, only two teams have reached the last four – United, in 2011, and Chelsea, last year.
The change in fortunes has coincided with a marked shift in the English game towards more risky, attacking football.
The number of goals per game in the Premier League has risen year on year since 2008, soaring from 2.48 in the 2008-09 season to 2.85 in the current campaign.
United conceded only 22 goals en route to the English title in 2008. This season, they had let in as many by the second week in December.
In the uncompromising arena of the Champions League, that defensive generosity has been ruthlessly exploited.
The country best placed to profit from England’s woes is Germany, which has supplied two quarter-finalists for the first time since 2002.
Bayern are driven by the pain of the loss to Chelsea last year’s final, while Borussia Dortmund finished above Madrid, City and Ajax in Group D before crushing highly regarded Shakhtar Donetsk 5-2 on aggregate in the last 16.
“Bayern have always had capable and confident teams. Last year they should have won the final and have added to their squad this year with Javi Martinez and Mario Mandzukic up front,” says United manager Alex Ferguson.
“They are going to have a chance. But the dark horse is definitely Dortmund.
“I don’t think they are paying too much attention to the league. Their concentration is on the European Cup and their European form has been very good.”
Allied to the robust financial health of the German game, and with Pep Guardiola having shunned Chelsea’s overtures to take over as Bayern coach at the end of the season, it points to a potential power shift in European football.
However, despite the apparent realignment of the continent’s tectonic plates, not everyone is prepared to entertain talk of a sea change.
Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, for one, feels it is too soon to write off the giants of the English game.
“English football is English football,” he said ahead of his side’s victory over United.
“If the Spanish teams are out of the Champions League ... it doesn’t mean Spanish football is collapsing.
“Manchester City were out because the draw gave them a difficult group. Chelsea were also in a difficult group.
“That is football. The results sometimes don’t reflect the situation.”
Premier League superstars like Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard can only hope Mourinho is right, as they adjust to the unwelcome novelty of watching the tournament’s decisive matches from the discomfort of their living rooms.