Friday, March 14, 2014

England & Italy victims of Europe's New Wave

The second round of the UEFA Champions League is only a quarter done but once again it looks like it will be glory to the Germans and Spanish.

Atletico Madrid and Barcelona are already in the last eight, with Real Madrid sure to join them. Borussia Dortmund should join Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain, leaving Chelsea or Galatasaray (1:1 from the first leg) and Manchester United or Olympiakos (0:2) to scrap for the final two places.

The top two nations in FIFA's World Rankings are also dominating their continent's top club competition.
Reigning champions Bayern Munich cruised past Arsenal 3-1 on aggregate with a superiority so embarrassing it made for painful viewing in England.

For a coach so number-crunching as Arsene Wenger, the raw statistics of the 1-1 tie at the Allianz Arena must have felt like daggers to his heart:

Starting two goals down from the first leg at Ashburton Grove, in the second leg, Arsenal made 433 passes to Bayern's 791, with a completion rate of 67% against the Germans' 81%.

The Gunners' most prolific passer was Bacary Sagna, with 36, yet Bayern's top translator was Thiago Alcantara with 89. Arsenal struggled to leave their half or string passes together in the face of Bayern's ferocious 'gegenpressing', a Germanic take on Barcelona's closing-down.

With Pep Guardiola cutting a sartorial dash on the touchline and Thiago buzzing, it was as if the blaugrana had upped sticks to Bavaria.

The only Gunner who came away with credit was goalkeeper Lukas Fabianski, who saved a penalty from Thomas Muller, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose mazy runs provided some threat and have surely stamped his England ticket to Brazil.

Barça themselves comfortably sank another English warship the following night, defeating moneybags Manchester City 4-1 over two legs. This leaves Chelsea, who drew 1-1 away to Galatasaray, and Manchester United, who lost 2-0 at Olimpiakos in their first legs, clutching the battered Premier League flag amid the German-Spanish cavalcade.

Man United are still suffering from the inevitable post-Fergie hangover, yet one should not underestimate any side under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho.

Anyone still absurdly crowing about how good the Premier League is can at least cry on the shoulders of Italians, who have also been wailing and blaming after the ageing legs of Milan, their last CL representative, surrendered 5-1 on aggregate to the ebullient Atletico Madrid, conceding four at the Vicente Calderon.

In this match, the stats interestingly favoured the thrashed: Milan won 56% of possession and made 507 successful passes against Atletico's 391, yet lost 4-1.

11 Milanese shots, 5 of which were on target, versus Atletico's 7 accurate shots out of 13 do not portray such a one-sided scoreline, and nor does the fact Milan made more runs in the attacking third and into the box.

Roy Hodgson was perhaps right when he said he did not hold much stock in the stats but concentrated on who creates the more goalscoring chances.

Yet the figures comparing Mario Balotelli and Diego Costa are consistent with their performances. The Brazilian-born Costa, who made his debut for his adoptive Spain last week, ran ten kilometres against Balotelli's eight, made 35 passes against 22, combined seven times with teammates versus Balotelli's none and shot three times against Balotelli's once.

Costa was full of energy and explosive, leaping to connect with the end of his shoe to open the scoring before he added another goal; Balotelli on the other hand had one of his stinkers, trudging around moodily and unmotivated.

In their make-or-break clash, Milan started only one goal behind but Kaka apart, were never at the races. Their lethargic and error-strewn midfield trio of Michael Essien, Nigel de Jong and Andrea Poli were eclipsed by the mobile and fiery Mario Suarez, Gabi and Koke.

"We are sad and disappointed," manager Clarence Seedorf indeed confirmed.

The post-mortems have switched to the general malaise in Italian football on and off the field - the bent owners and officials, the hooligans and the now shabby-looking stadia, which in Italia '90 had dazzled the world.

Unthinkable as it might have been a few years back, Italians are worried that Portugal will overtake them in the UEFA coefficients and they will receive fewer European places in future.

Serie A's death has long been exaggerated it must be said, despite the latest bad news. Italian clubs might have missed out on the Champions League quarter-finals four times in the 21st Century but in the same spell have also won the cup three times, as many times as England and more than Germany. The Azzurri also won the 2006 World Cup.

The municipally-owned stadia are a problem however, and compare unfavourably with those in Germany and England. Even the relatively new Juventus arena rakes in half the money the similarly-sized Stamford Bridge does. The persistence of hundreds of militaristic and often racist ultras in the 'curva' does not help win sponsors either.

Big name players tend to pick Spain, England or Bayern Munich now instead of Serie A having first bite at the cherry. And ambitious owners favour higher-profile leagues than Italy's.

The international clamour to control Premier League clubs shows no signs of abating, and top English teams, on the back of the latest bumper TV deal, can, unlike Serie A, look forward to more huge cash injections for the foreseeable future.

This financial advantage means there are five English clubs and only two Italian in Deloitte's latest top ten list of wealthy teams. Even Inter have slipped to twelfth.

While Germany and Spain dominate on the field for now, English teams will be splashing the cash to fight back to their perch a decade or so ago when three out of the four semi-finalists were from the Premier League (2005) or both of the finalists (2008).

For Italian clubs however, a return to their glory days still looks far away.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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