The doubtful English challenge

Enjoying each others company... Arsenal’s Gervinho and Lukas Podolski.-AP

Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City may seem like lions in their own league, but seem curiously cut down to size when it comes to European contest, writes Brian Glanville.

The Premier League is awash with money to the millions poured into it by Sky TV are now added to the huge sums contributed by British Telecom; which in turn have obliged Sky to provide still greater sums. Yet to what extent is the competition which I still term the “Greed is good league” reflecting its enormous wealth in the European Champions League competition? Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City may seem like lions in their own league, but seem curiously cut down to size when it comes to European contest.

Chelsea, holders of the Champions League, seem a particular example. In the summer months, they spent huge sums on glittering new attacking talent. Eden Hazard, the Belgian international from France, Oscar, the exciting young midfielder from Brazil. Deprived of that supreme battering ram Didier Drogba in central attack, having failed to offer him the two years contract that he wanted and thus losing him for nothing to Shanghai, they have placed a heavy emphasis on creative, potentially exciting, attacking football. In sharp contrast to the pragmatic methods imposed when Roberto Di Matteo took over an ailing team and propelled it with its resolutely defensive counter-attacking football to an astonishing eventual triumph; even astounding Barcelona in the Nou Camp despite having to play much of the game with ten men, after the bulwark of their defence, John Terry, got himself sent off for a spiteful and gratuitous foul.

But, for all this triumphant success this was never the kind of football which their oligarch Russian owner Roman Abramovich wanted to see and since he who pays the piper calls the tune, Di Matteo was obliged radically to change his style; the emphasis now being on attack. Somewhat significantly, the resolute central midfielder Michael Essien, of Ghana, was allowed to leave on loan to none other a club than Real Madrid snapped up by ‘The Special One’ himself, Jose Mourniho who once, of course, managed him at Chelsea.

But before the English, let alone the European, season had opened, there were warning signs that the new Chelsea might be dicing with death. In Monaco, they were simply taken apart by Athletico Madrid team in the match between the winners of the two European tournaments, with the incisive and elusive Colombian striker Falcao scoring almost at will.

And when in the European Cup they entertained Juventus at Stamford Bridge, they threw away a two goal lead and were held to a draw which so displeased Abramovich that he untypically went down to their Cobham training ground to demand explanations. Subsequently, Chelsea had what seemed on the face of it to be an easy 4-0 win in Norway against a team of modest stature. Yet until the Norwegia side was tired, the Chelsea defence was in plenty of trouble and on more than one occasion had the prowess of their big Czech keeper, Petr Cech, to thank for not conceding goals. A visit to Juventus in Turin is still to come not to mention two fixtures against a Shaktar Donesk team, so well organised by Rumanian Mircea Lucesu.

Abramovich must certainly have been delighted by a largely radical improvement in form from 50 million pound Spanish striker, Fernando Torres, a very different leader indeed from Drogba, and at long last emerging from bizarre mediocrity. But what next?

Arsenal, who find it now so hard to keep their stars, have suffered the debilitating loss to their prolific striker, Holland’s Robin van Persie to Manchester United, who have been strengthened accordingly. As against that, their long serving and much admired manager Arsene Wenger has most successfully converted the Ivory Coast winger Gevinho into a surprisingly successful striker; well abetted by the German international Lukas Podolski, a significant acquisition indeed. Then, tribute once more to Wenger, there is the highly gifted Spanish midfielder Santi Cazorla, who has shone refulgently in the Premiership — a goal against West Ham at Upton Park was a spectacular strike — yet he and other supposed stars were curiously ineffectual when one watched the European qualifier at home to an Olympiakos team which deserved a good deal better than a 3-1 defeat; and whose headed goal was a dire reflection on an Arsenal defence which was meant to have been strengthened by the appointment as coach of the ex-centre back, Steve Bould. Against Chelsea who won at The Emirates, that central defence looked porous. Mind you, in both games they were missing the presence of Germany’s Per Mertesacker now finally in form.

Victory, against a Montpellier team weakened by Arsenal’s capture of their own centre forward, Olivier Giroud, was unconvincing; a dominant display in the first half, a steep falling away in the second, when they were lucky indeed to hang on to a 2-1 lead.

Over the whole tournament, you feel hanging, the giant shadows of Real Madrid and Barcelona, personified by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi surely, as they recently demonstrated with a couple of goals each at Nou Camp in the ‘clasico’.

True, Manchester City, who out-spend even Chelsea with their billionaires’ money from Abu Dhabi, went down only 3-2 at the Bernabeu, but the score hardly tells the real truth. Only the superb goalkeeping of Joe Hart kept them in the game before half-time, even if he might have been at fault with Ronaldo’s winning goal. While when Borussia Dormund came to Manchester and utterly outplayed City, only the brilliance of Hart kept the margin to 1-0, enabling Mario Balotelli, the eternal rebel, to equalise with a breathlessly late dubious penalty.

For all their enormously costly stars — Carlos Tevez, Dzeko, Sergio Aguro and the rest, it is difficult indeed to see City qualifying in their group ahead of Real and Dortmund.

While Roberto Mancini, unjustifiably harsh on poor Hart when, still emotional at the end on Madrid he was allowed to give a somewhat controversial television interview before leaving the pitch, still makes some curious errors in selection. The choice at right back of the newly arrived Brazilian veteran Maicon proved predictably disastrous.

Manchester United, who began uneasily at Old Trafford, against Turkey’s Galatasaray and even with Wayne Rooney back to partner van Persie in attack, still made heavy weather of it in Cluj and inevitably will miss the defensive authority of Vidic, out for many months.

This, though the attack is almost top heavy with talent, while Japan’s highly effective Shinji Kagawa is a threat behind the strikers. Yet remembering last season, things could again go wrong.