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Saturday, April 10, 2010

PREMIER REPORT

English clubs fail to inspire in CL this season


LONDON — And then there were none.

Christopher Davies

English clubs bowed out of the Champions League this week, which means for the first time since 2003 England has no representative in the semifinals, while there has been at least one English side in every final since 2004.

Arsenal was blown away by the genius of Lionel Messi, and then the inexperience of Manchester United's teenage right-back Rafael handed the initiative to Bayern Munich which took full advantage of its numerical superiority.

In Munich, an unnecessary handball by Gary Neville and a mistake by Patrice Evra allowed Franck Ribery and Ivica Olic to cancel out Wayne Rooney's goal to give Bayern a 2-1 advantage.

On Wednesday, Michael Carrick and Edwin van der Sar should have done better when Olic scored just before halftime to give Bayern, trailing 3-0 a lifeline.

Rafael had stupidly kicked out at Mark van Bommel in the first half, and in the 49th minute the Brazilian, the best player on the park until then, pulled back Franck Ribery. It was soccer suicide and a clear second yellow card.

So who did Sir Alex Ferguson blame for his player's dismissal?

Rafael?

No.

He blamed Bayern and referee Nicola Rizzoli. "Typical Germans," said Ferguson. "They got him sent off. Everyone sprinted over to the ref who wasn't going to do anything but they forced him to get his card out."

In fact, it was typical Ferguson to pass the buck like this. The weakness in his argument is that as soon as the Italian official whistled for Rafael's foul his right hand was in his pocket to reach for the yellow card. He was not influenced by any Bayern protests. Rizzoli's mind was made up the moment Rafael halted Ribery's forward progress.

Also, the "typical Germans" in question were Ribery (French) and Mark van Bommel (Dutch), while for good measure Bayern coach Louis van Gaal is also Dutch.

United players are not exactly shy retiring roses when it comes to giving their views to referees.

Despite popular belief generated by bitter, whinging, losing managers, referees are very rarely influenced by players.

A yellow or red card is an immediate gut reaction determined by what the official has seen, but Ferguson is becoming a serial critic of referees and it was sad if not surprising that he put up an argument with no credibility for United's European knockout.

Whether this is a blip or the start of English demise in Europe remains to be seen, but there has been a dumbing down in the Premier League this season. While this has made for more a more exciting, open competition with three teams challenging for the title for the first time in 30 years and four teams battling for fourth place, standards have dropped.

The big three of Chelsea, United and Arsenal have lost more Premier League games than usual, while in the Champions League they have simply not been good enough.

Liverpool disappeared after the group stage with barely a whimper, while Chelsea played in a tactical straitjacket having been out-thought by its former manager Jose Mourinho and his disciplined Inter Milan side.

Arsenal was blown away by a stunning Barcelona, whose ball retention, passing and finishing was a joy to behold. Arsene Wenger's excellent side was made to look ordinary by the Catalans' football art and he acknowledged Barca's superiority.

With some new faces, notably a goalkeeper, plus a fit Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, Arsenal can rise again next season.

United has only once reached the standard it would expect in Europe this season. The 4-0 thrashing of AC Milan at Old Trafford apart, United has disappointed and was overcome by the first decent side it faced.

It conceded 12 goals compared to eight when it reached last season's final and its defensive frailties cost it dearly against Bayern.

United led the Bundesliga leader 3-0 after 41 minutes but failed to complete the job.

The gamble of playing Wayne Rooney a day after Ferguson said he had "no chance" has split opinion. Those who felt it was a worthwhile risk point out that Rooney played his part in setting up United's first two goals, but the England striker was hobbling after 20 minutes and was eventually replaced after 55 minutes.

A gamble is judged by the outcome or result, so as Rooney aggravated the injury and United went out of the competition, it failed.

Rooney will miss Sunday's must-win league game at Blackburn, who will be buoyed by the fact United has lost five of its previous nine post-Champions League games this season.

The good news for United is that a fit Rooney is as good a center-forward as there is in world football.

Also, wingers Nani and Antonio Valencia have made progress this season, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic remain a solid central defensive force, and when Rafael learns from his mistakes he will be an outstanding prospect.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.


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