It’s been a rather shameful week for English clubs in the UEFA Champions League. Three of the four Premiership sides - Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United - lost their final matches at the group stages, whilst Chelsea, the defending champions, crashed out of the competition despite winning 6-1.
While the traditional powerhouses of the English Premier League progressed to the knock-out phase of Europe’s most prestigious club competition a fortnight ago, nouveau riche Chelsea and City were either fighting for or avoiding a place in the Europa League.
A victory against Borussia Dortmund would’ve secured the champions of England at least Europa League football on Thursday nights. However, the Citizens now hold the distinction of being the only Premiership title-holders in history who have failed to win a single game at the group stages. There’s no shame in losing to Dortmund or Real Madrid, but Ajax do not belong in the same weight-class. City’s grand total of three points is abysmal. To add insult to injury, Roberto Mancini’s side finished their Champions League adventure at the bottom of Group D and will not even play in the second-tier Europa League.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
The competition City could’ve qualified for is exactly the tournament Chelsea were trying to avoid. The reigning Kings of Europe have already forfeited their throne - just six months after they conquered the continent. That, too, is a first in Champions League history. Furthermore, the Blues could be crowned the only European side in history that wins the FIFA Club World Cup without being in the competition that made them eligible for the tournament in the first place.
Chelsea could very well compete in the Europa League with the FIFA Club World Cup winners badge on their shirts. Whether this serves as an extra incentive or further humiliation is anyone’s guess at this point.
Apparently not even a King’s ransom can guarantee a safe passage in Europe.
It takes more than just massive outlays to conquer the old continent. However, some of the problems that have prevented Chelsea and Manchester City from progressing to the knockout phase of the Champions League are homemade.
Chelsea’s problem, first and foremost, is the lack of a clear philosophy and continuity. Furthermore, for a side that is supposedly built around Fernando Torres, the Blues signed the wrong personnel to complement the Spaniard. El Niño needs the ball in front of him to flourish. However, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar are more possession-oriented than the ex-Atletico Madrid hitman is accustomed to. It’s evident that Torres is just not suited to this style of play, the most recent European Championship can attest to that. Spain have more or less dispensed with his services. Sure, he was named the top marksman at the tournament, but his goals all came in dead-rubber ties, or when Spain was already winning. He hasn’t scored truly crucial goals in a long time.
None of the Chelsea managers has played for wanted him, yet are stuck with him. Even worse, they are measured by the performance they can extract from El Niño.
The ill-advised transfer of the Spaniard has not proven to be a solution but the source of a myriad of problems. He’s too expensive to sit on the bench, too ineffectual to lead the line. Sometimes the rational of investing to cut losses doesn’t apply.
In 10 years of Roman Abramovich ownership the Blues are yet to yield a return on investment from the youth academy. FC Barcelona’s financial woes are well documented; the proud Catalan club even has a shirt sponsor these days. Nevertheless, necessity is the mother of invention. Unlike the Blues, Barcelona cannot rely on the generosity of a billionaire to maintain and improve a squad. Sure, the Blaugrana have also been guilty of overspending on certified flops, however, their La Masia academy has continuously produced first-teamers for the last two decades. At Chelsea the most recent graduate to make the grade is probably Ryan Bertrand, the other one is John Terry.
A cohesive long-term strategy would go a long way in avoiding an overreliance on Roman Abramovich’s bank account. AC Milan serves as the perfect example of dependency and the neglect of proper youth development. Once Silvio Berlusconi ceded investments in an ageing squad is the reason the Italian giant fell apart. Buying Oscar and Eden Hazard last summer made sense; together with Juan Mata and David Luiz they can form the new nucleus of Chelsea FC.
But with Financial Fair Play on the horizon, what about the rest? Chelsea’s revenue stream is still no match for FC Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich which makes a massive spending spree in the future unlikely. A self-sustaining Chelsea that can constantly compete for the highest honors - let’s just say Financial Fair Play will make it extremely hard to accomplish this goal. Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole must be adequately replaced. The question is “How much will it cost?” or “At what cost?”
The other Sugar Daddy club that has embarrassed themselves, Manchester City, is facing similar problems, though the Citizens premature exit from the Champions League can probably be attributed to Roberto Mancini’s ineptitude as a manager. Nevertheless, off the pitch the Sheik Mansour-backed club is taking the necessary steps to ensure the long-term future of the Sky Blues.
The hiring of both ex-Barcelona executives Ferran Soriano as CEO and Txiki Begiristain as Director of Football suggests that City is following the Blaugrana blueprint. The Manchester club has announced the construction of a state of the art youth academy in order to find and nurture future generations of Citizens, akin to Barcelona’s successful La Masia model.
Though Chelsea has already won the UEFA Champions League City appear to be better prepared for the long-term. Unlike Roman Abramovich, the City hierarchy at least gives the impression that they’re not overly infatuated with immediate success the UEFA Champions League.
At any rate, these two English Sugar Daddy clubs have already left their marks on the record books for one reason or the other. Luckily football matches are won the pitch and not the by the size of the bank account.