Debate: Manchester teams fall in Europe – is the Premier League in decline?

By Sean-Paul Doran

After another bad night in Europe for Manchester, MM asks if the Premier League is losing its magic or if rumours of its death have been exaggerated.

In terms of entertainment and excitement, the 2011/2012 Barclays Premier League campaign is one of the best in recent memory. We have eyebrow-raising results every weekend, goal-fests in games between the top teams and the race for the title is set to go to the wire.

 In an age of rising ticket prices and fans being increasingly priced out of following their favourite team every week, those lucky enough to attend matches are generally rewarded for their commitment with a captivating product on the pitch.

But at what cost to our representatives in European competition?

Chelsea remain the only English team in the UEFA Champion’s League after Arsenal’s gallant failure against Milan, but look unlikely to overturn a 3-1 deficit against a strong Napoli side next week. This would mean there would be no English representation in the quarter finals of the competition this year, an unexpected set of circumstances for a country who have contributed a team to four of the last five tournament finals.

Manchester United and Manchester City, the two teams currently at the summit of the Premier League, are in real danger of exiting the UEFA Europa League at the last 16 stage leaving no remaining English teams in the competition. This time next week could see every English team to have exited Europe before the quarter finals stage of both flagship competitions. Remarkable.

“We were well beaten, they were the better team,” said Sir Alex Ferguson after his side’s 3-2 home defeat to Athletic Bilbao. United struggled to combat Bilbao’s fluent passing style and failed to contain Iker Munian, the latest starlet to roll off Spain’s extensive production line.

An impressive result for a team whose player recruitment is limited to players with Basque heritage, making Athletic a club who are heavily invested in bringing local youth players through their academy.

This is something Manchester United have always prided themselves on too, despite the fact that out of the 14 players to feature for them last night, Jonny Evans and Ryan Giggs are the only players to have started their career with United.

But surely there’s no shame in being beaten by one of the best teams in Spain? Well, Athletic sit fifth in La Liga, 30 points from the top, and don’t feature in the list of the top five teams with the best passing accuracy in the league. They’re not exactly the Barcelona’s or the Real Madrid’s that United fans have been used to watching their team compete with over the years.

Manchester City fared no better in Portugal last night, falling to a 1-0 defeat against a Sporting Lisbon side sitting in fourth position in Liga Sagres. It’s true that City had the toughest group to emerge from in the Champions League, but with the vast talent available to them there shouldn’t be an inferiority complex.

Roberto Mancini is certainly no stranger to failure in Europe though. Regular followers of European football will be aware of the pattern of Mancini’s managerial record; excellent domestic success but with a distinct lack of progress in Europe, something that cost him his job at Inter despite being the club’s most successful manager in 30 years, guiding them to the Serie A in three successive seasons.

Whether it’s a lack of tactical awareness or a failure to understand exactly what is required to succeed in Europe, there is significant doubt whether Mancini is the man to bring the Champions League to the Etihad – the ultimate goal for the club. With the outrageous amount of money poured into the club recently, surely this isn’t what Sheikh Mansour signed up for.

It’s always tempting after a bad night in Europe like last night to announce a time of death for the Barclay’s Premier League. The heavyweight power of the top Spanish clubs and the rapid rise of the Italians are proving to be the yardstick against which the English top flight is measured. We’re constantly hearing of the supposed decline of Manchester United and the frequent predictions of the derailment of the Manchester City express train, but it’s a little premature to make bold statements just yet.

People who have written off United in the past have always ended up with more egg on their face than John Prescott, and it’s surely only a matter of time until City strike the balance between flair and graft.

With the emergence of Tottenham Hotspur as a force to be reckoned with, the hell-bent intent of Abramovich to restore Chelsea to the top table of European football and the fact that Arsenal finally seem willing to spend money to fix the bus-sized holes in their team, the future seems bright for the Premier League.  

Whether or not it will be enough to ensure this season’s failures are a one-off is debatable, but one thing is for sure – it will keep European competitions competitive and unpredictable, and isn’t this what football is all about?

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