Friday Football Feature: Chelsea last man standing as English clubs suffer in Europe

By James Dickenson

On Wednesday night Chelsea achieved a quite remarkable comeback against Italian opponents Napoli, progressing to the Champions League quarter-finals after an enthralling extra-time victory at Stamford Bridge.

New manager Roberto Di Matteo’s side now face Benfica, with the prospect of Barcelona or A.C. Milan a tangible possibility in the semi’s of Europe’s premier club competition.

However the Blues have been far from their best this term, more scraping than gliding through to this stage, with owner Roman Abramovich having sacked previous boss Andre Villas-Boas because of a poor run of form after a 1-0 beating by mid-table West Brom.

Chelsea are the last English team standing in continental competition, as the seven other Premier League teams to partake in Europe this season have now all been eliminated. Is it time to accept that this country’s proud first division is off the pace abroad?

English clubs have felt more heartbreak than heroic success away from the UK in 2011/2012. First United and City were both dumped out of the Champions League at the group stage, a staggering failure for the Premier League’s two strongest sides.

Tottenham, Fulham and Birmingham also failed to make it out of the Europa League groups, with only Stoke going through in second place in their group. United and City dropped down to join the Potters in this competition, who departed at the hands of Valencia.

This week Sporting Lisbon and Athletic Bilbao knocked out the Premier League’s title challengers, as the two Iberian sides, hardly heavyweights themselves, were indeed worthy winners.

United were comfortably defeated by a brilliant Bilbao side, who swept aside the English champions over two legs 5-3 with remarkable ease. City were a victim of their own complacency against Sporting Lisbon, conceding two early goals which prohibited a late comeback, going out on away goals with a 3-3 aggregate scoreline in the tie.

Arsenal were outclassed by AC Milan in Italy in the Champions League round of 16 last month, succumbing to a 4-0 first leg beating. A spirited fightback at the Emirates was not enough to complete the comeback, as the Gunners went out 4-3. Chelsea now remain England’s only hope against a strong field of European competitors.

Until recently the Premier League sides that took to task against their continental challengers were considered equal, if not better in most cases than their rivals from La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga.

2008 saw the tournament’s first ever all-England final, when United overcame foes Chelsea on penalties. That year three English sides made the semi’s and composed half of the quarter-finalists. Just four years on we only have one representative in the business end of the competition.

Now who would argue that any of Chelsea, City, United or Arsenal were on the same level as German giants Bayern Munich or Spanish superpowers Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Real Madrid are yet to lose a game in the Champions League this year, Barcelona  battered Leverkusen 7-1 and Bayern dispatched Basel 7-0 last round.

Chelsea offer the Premier League and English football’s last hope of achieving success in Europe, as it seems teams have begun to prioritise domestic domination ahead of continental challenge.

It is a sad state of affairs that needs to be rectified next season. Only one of United or City can win the league come May, the other will be looking at a campaign of failure. Arsenal are desperate just to stay in the top four Champions League spots, while Spurs were never totally committed to the Europa League.

The nation should unite behind the Chelsea cause as they hope to mix it with the European big boys in the latter stages of the Champions League, but when the dust settles on this season managers and players at the top end of the Premier League will be wondering what is needed to return English football to the pinnacle of Europe.


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