England Expects

March 12, 2009 at 3:28 pm (Football) (, , , , , , , , )

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So, another round of Champions League games and another obstacle successfully navigated for all four English teams who began the competition.

Are we surprised by this? Not anymore.

The last four years has seen Premier League teams become the pre-eminent force in Europe’s biggest cup competition, with English teams providing nine of the last sixteen Champions League semi finalists, five of the finalists, and two winners. This year, the four remaining clubs appear to be in a stronger position than ever in terms of a Champions League assault, and in a first knock-out stage in which they all played against traditionally strong sides, they all progressed with few problems.

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Liverpool were most impressive in their 5-0 aggregate win over Real Madrid, a result that would have been unthinkable three years ago, with a solid performance away from home followed by a demolition of the Spanish champions at home that required Raul to publicly apologise to Madrid fans afterwards. Chelsea also looked pretty comfortable against another of European footballs powerhouses, Juventus. They may have faced a nervy few minutes in the away leg when Del Piero’s penalty put them within a goal of going out, but they always looked likely to score again, and Drogba’s goal less than 10 minutes later settled the tie.

Both Liverpool and Chelsea proved that English teams are no longer unduly troubled in playing in high profile games away in some of Europe’s most intimidating atmospheres. Time was when English teams appeared over-awed by a trip to the San Siro or the Bernabeu, and seemed unable to trust their ability in such illustrious stadia. Now however, there is a confidence and calmness about their performances, stemming partly from experience, and partly from the revelation that the intensity and directness that serves so well in the Premiership does not have to be tempered when playing in Europe. Indeed, it could be argued that Chelsea would have more to fear in travelling to Anfield than any ground outside England these days, and the same could be said for Manchester United (Emirates), Liverpool (Old Trafford) and Arsenal (Stamford Bridge).

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Manchester United also showed little fear in their first leg match away at Inter Milan, attacking from the off and ensuring their opponents barely had a meaningful touch of the ball for the majority of the first half. Although they were unable to score away from home, despite a string of chances, and were tested more by the Italians at Old Trafford, they never looked to be in trouble. In fact the only English side who did struggle was Arsenal, and even then, their tie with Roma should have been over after the first leg, with Nicklas Bendtner in particular squandering a hatful of chances. Despite going behind in the away leg, Arsenal still looked the more likely side to grab an aggregate winner, and while poor decision making let them down on the night, Roma looked tired, lacking in ideas, and appeared to be playing for penalties.

With four English teams still left in the competition there remains the possibility of two all English semi -finals and each of the four will believe that they have what it takes to beat any of the four remaining teams over two legs. Bayern’s 12-1 aggregate hammering of Sporting Lisbon was incredible, especially with Toni and Ribery being left out if the 2nd leg, but in truth Sporting were awful and were never mentally in the game for at least three quarters of the tie. Despite the result, doubts remain about whether the Germans are really up to the task of competing with Euope’s best as their current position in the Bundesliga will testify. Porto overcame dark horses Atletico Madrid on away goals, whilst Villarreal snuck past Panathinaikos, but in truth all the English sides will be hoping to draw either team in the quarter finals.

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This just leaves the small matter of Barcelona. Already six points clear at the top of a traditionally tight La Liga, 76 goals scored, home of the best player in the world, and looking at their dangerous best in the Champions League with a 5-2 demolition of perennial dark horses Lyon on the last round. English teams have fared well against the Catalans in recent years, but it has always been close. Manchester United edged past them in last year’s semi-finals, and it was even tighter the year before with Liverpool winning on away goals. Prior to this, Barcalona were involved in a Champions League tit for tat with Chelsea which ended up with the Blues knocking Barca out in 2004, with Barca returning the favour the following year. Arsenal’s most recent meeting with the Spaniards did not end so well, losing 2-1 to Barca in the 2006 final.

So it seems that the biggest threat to further English dominance in Europe (outside of each other) is a trip to the Spanish Champions, and while each of the four may feel they can beat Barca on their day, Lionel Messi may well feel that on his day he can beat any of them single handed.

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