Man City & Arsenal Must Realise 'Heroism' Alone Isn't Enough
They say that fortune favours the brave but, if that were true, surely the English would be forever at the pinnacle of European football. For, if there is one common denominator in English clubs' performances in the Champions League, year after cursed year, it is bravery.
Or so we're told.
Take Arsenal, for example. Beaten by three goals to one over two legs by a team yet to reach their peak. Yes, this is Bayern Munich, the reigning European champions, that we're talking about but, still, 3-1 is hardly a scoreline to be proud of and does not flatter the Germans in the least.
Gunners will point bitterly to Mesut Özil's penalty miss in the first leg and howl at the injustice they endured at the hands of the nasty referee who saw fit to dismiss their goalkeeper for committing a mere trifle of a foul, but such excuses deserve to be dismissed as just that: excuses.
Arsenal's performance over the two legs was half-decent in patches. Yet they lost to a far superior team who should have scored even more. Still, they were hailed as 'brave' and 'heroic.'
Presumably, should they fail to win the FA Cup and slide into a top-four dog-fight, this will also be acceptable, provided they display the requisite fighting-spirit along the way.
Then there is Manchester City, who also bravely went crashing out of the Champions League at the hands of a Barcelona team that is struggling, by their own impeccable standards, for domestic form. Nevertheless, they could conceivably have won this tie by at least double the eventual margin.
Again, a pesky referee tripped up the English club along the way, dismissing Martìn Demichelis from the Etihad pitch for a perfectly acceptable crazed lunge on a player who would otherwise have been clean-through on goal. Granted, it could be legitimately argued that the foul should not have resulted in a penalty but, even so, Barcelona had been battering on City's door like a posse of bailiffs determined to get their bounty.
As for the second leg, at the Camp Nou, those harping on about bravery and valiant effort appear to have ignored the first half entirely, when the Catalans were denied a perfectly legitimate goal and should have had a penalty, the visitors regularly resorting to thuggishness in their vain attempt to break up Barcelona's play.
For all of City's second half heroism, when they briefly had the home side rattled, it is ludicrous to suggest they deserved any more than they got from the tie.
This narrative, that so many English fans cling to when their team is defeated on the European stage, is simply a transparent attempt to console themselves as they seek out someone or something to blame, other than the inadequacies of their own manager or players. I suppose it is, in some ways, understandable, but this does not make it any less irritating.
Manchester United fans may have been feeling smug in the face of all this, proud of their horrified response to their team's pathetic capitulation in Athens a couple of weeks back, when the words 'bravery' and 'heroism' never passed their lips, but it was at this stage last season that many lambasted the Turkish referee who flourished a red card in Nani's direction, after his highly irresponsible challenge in a wholly unthreatening area of the Old Trafford pitch.
Still, at least United fans were willing to accept that Sir Alex Ferguson's panicky response to this setback was as much to blame for the current English champions' downfall as anything else.
Likewise, on the two occasions United were swatted aside by Barcelona in recent Champions League finals, most of their fans held their hands up and accepted they had been beaten by the better team.
Still, we will never know if the outcome of any of these matches would have been different, had the English sides shown more boldness from the start, instead of so-called bravery when it was all too late.
Success in European football demands cool heads and the ability to respond quickly and effectively to adversity; characteristics that English sides, and their managers, have rarely displayed in recent times.
It also demands quality on the pitch, in terms of tactical nous, belief in your own footballing philosophy and players skilful and talented enough to carry that philosophy out.
Alas, English teams tend to approach ties against the big European guns with little more than trepidation and bagfuls of respect for their opposition, setting themselves up in anticipation of a mauling, damage limitation and the hope that they can 'nick a goal' the sum total of their tactical prowess.
Heroism and bravery would, I suppose, be admirable qualities for football teams to possess. It's just that blustering about a football pitch, chasing shadows and throwing in a few reckless challenges for good measure, while conceding more goals than your opposition, hardly constitutes either.