A Final reminder for English game
Next Saturday night’s Champions League Final in Berlin will be a fabulous occasion and a great tactical battle.
You’ll have the flair of Barcelona and the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi set against the tactical awareness and defending excellence of Juventus.
Juve are the first Italian team to play in the Final since 2010, but for football fans in these islands, the game will lack the ‘edge’ that comes with having an English team in action.
We were spoiled back between 2005 and 2012 when there was only one Champions League Final (2010) without an English team.
Indeed, in 2008 Manchester United beat Chelsea in the decider and that after Chelsea had put Liverpool out in the semi-final. That was the highpoint for English football.
But since Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in their own stadium in 2012, it has all fallen apart for English clubs at the elite European level.
In both 2013 and again this year, no Premier League team even got as far as the quarter-final – and that is a massive comedown.
Why did it happen? For me there were and are three reasons.
The first and most obvious one is that the quality of player in England is not now what it was back in the glory days.
No Cristiano Ronaldo, no Thierry Henry, no Michael Ballack, no Arjen Robben, top men all who each left English football clubs to go elsewhere in Europe.
Indeed, with Gareth Bale heading for Real Madrid, it is now not just the international ones leaving Britain’s shores, but the home-bred stars too.
English clubs have to turn that movement around and start getting the best talent into their ranks. It will cost money, but it has to be done.
Is there any English club out there now that you would fancy to take on Barca or Real Madrid over two legs? No, there isn’t.
The second factor was the retirement of Alex Ferguson (below) as Manchester United manager. Can one man make such a difference? In his case, yes.
Everyone knew what a great job Fergie was doing as United boss while he was in place.
But perhaps he wasn’t appreciated as much as he is now, when United have clearly fallen back without him.
The Red Devils couldn’t carry on being as successful, without missing a beat, when he left.
However, few people expected them to miss out on European action last season and to only be in a Champions League play-off for next August.
United will have to be on their guard come that two-legged match when they could be playing Lazio or Valencia.
Would they be guaranteed to beat those teams? Not at all!
The third reason for English clubs’ difficulties is their unwillingness, in the helter-skelter of the mega-rich Premier League, to try out new tactical systems so that they will be familiar with them when they need to use them on big European nights.
As we’ve argued here so often, every English club game is a battle. If you take the other side for granted you will lose.
Not so in Spain, Italy or Germany, where the top clubs will only lose to the bottom ones once in a blue moon.
The top managers around the Continental game now, men like Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti, have no problem asking their players to try out something completely different in a league match.
Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque famously put out his team at Euro 2012 without a striker at all, believing that his fabulous array of midfielders could win games on their own – and they did.
In fact, they won the tournament.
Can you imagine an English team doing that in a big game? No, I can’t. When Scottish boss Craig Levein did it in a qualifier match years ago, he was pilloried.
Yes, the Premier League’s coaches have work to do in that regard – and I don’t even excuse Ferguson from my criticism. I remember watching the 2011 Champions League
Final at Wembley when Barcelona destroyed United.
The Catalans did it using exactly the same tactics they had employed in the 2009 showdown between the sides in Rome, which was to overwhelm United in midfield – and
I’m sitting there thinking ‘This happened two years ago, it shouldn’t be happening again’.
So English football will be looking enviously in from the outside next Saturday.
Take it from me, there is work to do to get back to the lofty heights of the Final in Milan next May.