Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Premier League's wake-up call as Bayern and Barca crush Champions League dreams

Barcelona's Dani Alves makes it  2-0 against Manchester City at the Etihad
Barcelona's Dani Alves makes it 2-0 against Manchester City at the Etihad

The Premier League in general, and Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini in particular, can rant as long as they like about the inflexible red-card rule which this week so grievously damaged their Champions League ambitions.

Yet, are they doing much more than throwing a smokescreen around the fact that beyond the harsh dismissals of Manchester City's Martin Demichelis and Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny there is maybe a deeper truth?

Certainly we have to consider the possibility that the leading English clubs have been creating something of a false dawn in their intriguing – and hugely entertaining – race for the domestic title.

Amid the general rejoicing that the Premier League may now have four authentic challengers for the top prize at home, there has to be the suspicion that not one of them is yet properly equipped for the demands being made at the peak of the European game.

One of the myths exploded by the brilliant finishing of Bayern's Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller is that the reigning European champions would come ring rusty to the Emirates after their mid-winter break and the disposing of what is increasingly resembling the cannon fodder of the rest of the Bundesliga.

It's true that Arsenal started brightly, and may well have grown before our eyes if Mesut Ozil hadn't followed his brilliant trickery with a penalty attempt so hapless, it was disowned by his recently supportive manager.

It is also right, as Per Mertesacker of Arsenal and Vincent Kompany of City claimed while facing the huge second- leg challenges awaiting them in Munich and Barcelona respectively, that both English clubs are palpably stronger than they were last year.

But stronger enough to bridge the gulf of class that was visible enough before the end of this week's action?

In the vital moments of both games, it was the Premier League clubs who cracked. Natural-born winners like Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben created the moments of breakthrough that panicked Demichelis and Szczesny.

And if Arsenal had reason to bemoan their fate – and join the growing opinion that a penalty is sufficient punishment for a less than outrageous foul in the penalty area – they had also to accept that when destiny lay in their own hands, they missed their opportunity.

For those of us who so recently hailed Ozil as the signing of the season, the man who gave Arsenal back their belief so they could compete at any level, could only be left aghast by his performance against Bayern.

It was a listing monument to failed resolution. Gary Neville's brief career as a leading football analyst has never been marked before by quite the savage criticism that flowed from him as 10-man Arsenal ran to the point of exhaustion. No, as Neville said with increasing exasperation, it wasn't 10-man but nine-man Arsenal, plus Ozil.

This was a development which verged on professional tragedy as the night wore on. Convulsed by his failure on the spot, he became a repository of desperate introspection – which is not exactly what Arsenal anticipated when they handed £42m to Real Madrid.

Now, as Chelsea and Manchester United prepare for their first-leg ties with Galatasaray and Olympiacos, that big question surely comes into focus. It is one which could not have been imagined six years ago in Moscow, when United beat Chelsea in a final that was widely seen as a statement of Premier League power.

As one Spanish observer declared: "Only the English game could produce such football. Such pace and power!"

Yet, in the next three seasons, United were not so much defeated as dismantled by Barcelona in finals in Rome and Wembley. In the last six years the Premier League has boasted of record income and a TV deal the envy of the football world, but in the hard matter of ultimate success on the field, it can point only to the freakish Chelsea triumph two years ago.

This week, the dramas and the suspense of the Premier League might have been happening in a fool's paradise. The idea that Bayern and Barca may have gone stale was made to look like the last word in Premier League optimism when this week's ties had their defining moments.

Barca may have the challenge of resharpening their passing game, but when it mattered most, first Messi and then Dani Alves produced the pressure that broke down City. Wenger accused Robben of diving and, naturally, the Dutchman threw back his head in derision.

Within the laws, he had made a key contribution to Arsenal's defeat. And then we saw the killer touches of Kroos and Muller.

The late, deadly appearance of Muller told its own story of the superior options enjoyed by Pep Guardiola. While Wenger gambled on the promising talent of Yaya Sanogo, Guardiola sent in a proven assassin.

It left the admirably dogged Mertesacker swearing that Arsenal will take to Munich the same kind of resolution which brought them a surprising, but unavailing, 2-0 win last season. And Mertesacker and Wenger argued that Arsenal had become a stronger and more resilient team since then.

The Gunners – after allowing for Ozil's psychological frailty – do appear to be armed with greater resilience and before Kroos and Muller imposed the inevitable, they fought with the most commendable defiance.

But they scarcely banished the idea that in the evolution of European football Arsenal, for all their progress on the domestic front, are still just another major English club attempting to make up lost ground.

Their efforts have been absorbing enough but this week, like City, they were obliged to show they were ready to claim a new status among the elite of international clubs.

It was a pretty, uplifting idea. Right up to the moment Kroos and Muller reminded us of a bigger, colder world.

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