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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
For the first time since 2003, the Champions League will enter the semi-final stage without English involvement. Lyon, bane of Liverpool, will play Manchester United’s conquerors, Bayern Munich, while Barcelona will bound on from their mauling of Arsenal by taking on Inter Milan, the club who out-thought and out-fought Chelsea. So often the dominant force in this competition, the English elite are now merely the scalps in someone else’s belt. There have been suggestions that this four-way failure represents some kind of ‘end of days’ scenario for the Premier League, but that’s probably a little wide of the mark. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the unrivalled power of the nation’s teams has been diminished.

For two of the four, the reasons for this setback are all too clear. Manchester United and Liverpool are crippled by an enormous and entirely pointless debt mountain. For all of Sir Alex Ferguson’s protestations, it’s no coincidence that the unspent GBP60m chunk of Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer fee is almost exactly the same as their annual interest repayments. Before the arrival of the Glazers, United were profitable and in the black. Now they are forced to turn to the willing, but less spectacular talents of Antonio Valencia. Liverpool’s plight is even more parlous. The debt may be smaller, but so is the income. With no sign of a new stadium in sight and future Champions League involvement looking more doubtful with every passing game, the situation will get worse before it gets better.

Chelsea have no debt, but have made their own problems with their chronic instability. With five managers in three years, the playing staff have been allowed to age, young talent has corroded in the reserves and no-one has been able to recreate the authority of Jose Mourinho in the dressing room. Arsenal are the best placed of the four, with the debts of a new stadium being paid off with the help of a frugal transfer policy, but that reluctance to spend has left the squad vulnerable to injury crises.

Attracting reinforcements will not be easy. The new 50% super tax rate in the UK has already begun to take effect. The two biggest foreign imports of the summer were Thomas Vermaelen and Yuri Zhrikov, fine players but hardly household names. On the off chance that United have the available funds for Franck Ribery, how will they be able to offer wages that compete with the other European powers? A Spanish side can offer GBP100k a week, knowing that Ribery will take home GBP77k. For the Frenchman to earn the same in England, his gross weekly wage will have to be GBP154k.

So, English teams can no longer spend their way to success, but that’s no reason to fear for the future. Arsenal were not eliminated because of endemic problems in the game. They lost the better half of their team to injury and then came up against the best side in the world. Sir Alex Ferguson may have disgraced himself by ranting about ‘typical Germans’, but his initial point was correct. United would not have been eliminated with eleven men on the field. Chelsea were beaten, not because of a weak squad, but because a tactical masterstroke from the manager they were too keen to remove in 2007. Only Liverpool consistently failed to perform at the required level, but even they were slain by last minute goals in both their clashes with Lyon, matches they had to play without Fernando Torres.

Ill fortune has been more of a contributory factor to English disappointment than any shift in the scales of power, but that’s no reason not to treat this week as a warning shot across the bows. Character and organisation have always been just as important as money and talent. Bayern Munich have twice fought back to squeeze through on away goals. Lyon’s tactical cohesion and work-rate helped them past Real Madrid and Bordeaux. Inter Milan are a methodical machine, shutting down their opponents and then picking them off at leisure. Barcelona? Well, they’re just Barcelona.

There is no crisis here now, but there might be in the future if certain issues aren’t resolved. Liverpool and Manchester United cannot hope to rule the continent while tens of millions of pounds drain away on interest every year. Chelsea will never win the Champions League if they keep changing their manager every season and Arsenal need to add two or three players to their squad in order to safeguard against the ravages of injuries. In the boardrooms of the Premier League, there will be much to consider this summer.