Out of their league
FOR ALL its TV zillions, superstar managers and the fascination its six-way title scrap brings, the English Premier League looks to be no nearer to getting the hang of Europe.
With just one Champions League group game remaining, the EPL quartet has already been reduced to three with none remotely threatening to get their hands on Old Big Ears.
Disappointing, yes, but it does not mean the most-hyped league in the world is all mouth and no trousers. It is simply a season too soon as most of the new bosses are still getting the measure of their sides and the current pacesetters didn’t even qualify. Next year a Fab Four could be strutting their stuff in custommade Armani.
It says a lot that the EPL’s lone shining light was the least fancied. Five-thousand to one champions Leicester City have belied their domestic struggles to take to the competition in the manner born. Dominating an admittedly weak group, the Foxes will qualify for the knock-out phase in top spot and thereby avoid some of the continent’s big beasts in the spring.
All credit to them – they are rookies after all – but the contrast with their league form is stark, and suspicions that certain players have saved themselves for this shop window to the continent are not without foundation. But their fans have loved it and their counter-attacking style was already tailor-made for the competition.
The biggest disappointment has been Spurs. Having almost chased the slinking leaders down last season before their late collapse, more was expected of a young and supposedly hungry side making a rare foray into elite company.
But greed got the better of chairman Daniel Levy who couldn’t resist the lure of Wembley’s extra gate money for home games and the team paid the price. They drew an extra 50,000 fans to the 30,000 plus White Hart Lane would have been restricted to, but lost both games and will miss out on the cash bonanza of the knockout stages.
There can be no sympathy for the hardnosed Levy who has always put pounds before points in an often penny-wise tenure of underachievement. Even with a crowd of 85,000, the team didn’t feel at home on the national stadium’s broad acres, their opponents didn’t feel intimidated and the advantage was tossed away.
Because of this the players want to play their Europa League games at the Lane but Levy better hope they get used to Wembley soon – they’ll be playing all their Premier League home games there next season as White Hart Lane sees a new stadium rise.
Excuses? Harry Kane’s injury is the most valid but a club with such ambitions cannot be dependent on one man. The truth is that Mauricio Pochettino didn’t buy brilliantly last summer. Just three main additions of whom only Victor Wanyama looks anywhere near good enough. Vincent Janssen and Moussa Sissoko don’t.
If the previous season is not to appear a false dawn and Spurs are to avoid the curse of the new home, Levy must grant Pochettino the funds to bolster his inadequate squad. When Arsene Wenger has spent £100 million, this is no time to be Scrooge or Spurs will once again be left trailing.
They still haven’t lost in the EPL but they Harry Kane (left), Mauricio Pochettino (centre) and Hugo Lloris dejected after their elemination from the Champions League on Tuesday have only one league win since they beat City. After that, this column’s headline was “Spurs mean business”. They did, but sadly, with Levy it’s always the stuff off the field that comes first.
As every football stat man knows, Arsenal have made a habit of coming second and bowing out in the first knockout round. And second looks a safe bet once again after a disappointing home draw against PSG. So much for the added steel and resilience – the French side could have had five or six but for the profligacy of Edinson Cavani.
Well, £35m’s worth of resilience in Granit Xhaka didn’t even start and Arsenal only scored through a dodgy penalty and a flukey own goal. But the man they really missed was Santi Cazorla – as they did for a chunk of last season – and he’s out till Xmas.
So it could be Barcelona again next up. Or Real Madrid. Or Juventus. At least they’ll avoid Bayern or it really would have felt like curtains for the Gunners yet again. Wenger now looks as if he’s got to win the league to avoid the fans getting on his back for the umpteenth time.
Finally, moneybags Manchester City, with the most hyped manager of them all, made it through unconvincingly against modest Borussia Monchengladbach. So far, City have produced one brilliant half in Europe – against Barcelona – and they don’t yet look equipped for a serious challenge this time.
For all their possession, they seldom looked like scoring while a flakiness persists at the back. With Vincent Kompany now looking like his career might be over, another centreback is desperately needed.
Once again John Stones’ lack of solidity let the opponents through and better teams will punish them more severely. On nights like this, his first name should be pumice.
Up front and in midfield they looked lightweight but in the knockout phase, they’ll have Yaya Toure and Gabriel Jesus, fresh from Brazil. To become European champions, you feel they need more still but a couple more transfer windows and Pep coaching later, they could be thereabouts.
On what we’ve seen in the domestic season, both Chelsea and Liverpool could become forces in Europe too. So for all the mediocrity on show this time, the richest league in the world just needs time before it can claim to be the best.
MANCHESTER UNITED attempted to sign 31-year-old Arsenal and France defender Mathieu Debuchy in the summer.