Thursday, February 24, 2011

Something is Rotten in the state of European Football

There has been talk of the current Barcelona team ranking with the all-time greats of European football. But before we all get too excited, we should really look at the strength in depth of European football, or lack thereof.

Italian football is in a wretched state. The two Milan teams and Roma have all lost their opening knock-out round games, all at home. None of these defeats were to particularly formidable opposition.

Inter's victory in the competition last season seems an aberration, the result of Mourinho's abilities rather than any sign of revival in the Italian game.

You would be very, very surprised if the eventual winners this year are not one of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea or Manchester United. Arsenal can of course count themselves as contenders if they pull off the admirable feat of knocking Barcelona out.

Of those teams, Chelsea have been pretty dreadful, by their own lofty standards, for most of the season. Manchester United went to Marseilles, a very ordinary side, lastnight, and barely showed any attacking intent. With their home record as impressive as it is, a 0-0 draw is fine, but anyone interested in footballing aesthetics must sometimes question Alex Ferguson's commitment to attacking football, something that the great man constantly trumpets. Didier Deschamps realised that United would sit back and try and score on the break, relying on the front three of Rooney, Berbatov and Nani to create something. Marseilles thus played conservative themselves, denying United any real openings for a counter attack, and the result was one of the most rotten stalemates you'll ever have the misfortune to sit through.

United's midfield was made up of Gibson, Fletcher and Carrick: disturbingly bad. United fans now complain that they cannot splash the cash to replace Scholes and Giggs but replacing Scholes and Giggs has been on the agenda for quite a while and the quest has so far been one of Ferguson's few failures. A fearful amount was spent on Anderson, the highly rated Brazilian, who has been either mismanaged, played out of position, or just wasn't worth the money in the first place. A further 30million or so was shelled out on Berbatov, a player United arguably never needed. He's been more impressive this season but looks unlikely to ever live up to that price tag.

While Arsenal have Fabregas, Wilshere, Nasri, and Ramsey, and Spurs took advantage of bargain prices to bring in Modric and Van der Vaart, with the exception of the aging Scholes United still lack an inventive presence in the middle of the park. Assuming they can knock Arsenal out Barcelona will be faced with the threat of three teams who will only really look to stifle them- Mourinho's Madrid will hardly adopt any other tactic, with the memory of that 5-0 battering at the Nou Camp still fresh in their minds.

Only Arsenal, Barcelona, and Spurs are really flying the flag for attacking football with any distinction. There is a lot of dullness elsewhere, although Bayern Munich were well worth their 1-0 win at the San Siro against Inter and Arjen Robben continues to make them halfway watchable.

It has been suggested by many that a change to an all knock-out format would revive the stale Champions League, but this is a lazy assumption. It would not solve the jarring inequality in the game. Big teams might have the chance to face off earlier but the net result would probably be even less competitive games at the end of the tournament. A more multicultural FA Cup, perhaps.

The good thing about the current format is that it allows the cream to rise to the top. The problem is that there is so little cream. A change in format won't change that.

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