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Is the EPL over-rated?

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Caught out of the comfort zone

Paul Wilson

Sunday February 27, 2005

The Observer

Four teams, three defeats, only the least fancied English side emerging victorious and that quite possibly because of the ordinariness of the opposition. The Champions League has once again delivered its verdict on the standard of Premiership football, and again the finding has failed to justify the hype or the admission prices.

It would be premature at this stage to write off anyone's chances, since Manchester United can always surprise with their tenacity and Chelsea and Arsenal both have away goals with home legs to come, but no one outside Anfield can pretend the week's events went entirely to plan. This time last week, if you recall, Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho were sounding quite bullish about their teams' chances against the cream of Europe, offering in addition the view that the physical nature of Premiership games and an overcrowded fixture list were all that was holding English football back. We should be so lucky.

What happened to Arsenal, Chelsea and United in midweek looked a lot more like the old quality gap reasserting itself. As he watched his side being outplayed at home by the ageing but still excellent Milan, Ferguson will have, one trusts, become painfully aware of his error in having suggested beforehand that Italian football is not what it was and currently lags somewhere behind the standard of the Spanish and English leagues. Yes, the result came down to a goalkeeping error, but not even the most rabid United fan could deny Maldini, Nesta and Cafu were comfortable all night against an unthreatening Old Trafford attack. And how many goalkeeping errors are United going to come up with in Europe before the finger of blame is pointed at the management rather than whichever hapless custodian is taking his turn on duty? It cannot keep on being Roy Carroll's or Tim Howard's fault, or even Jens Lehmann's or Jerzy Dudek's, for that matter. How do English teams seriously expect to win European Cups with goalkeepers who do not enjoy the confidence of their own defenders? Rafael Benitez, as a newcomer, can perhaps be excused for the signings of his predecessors, but how much more time do Ferguson and Arsène Wenger need to find replacements for Peter Schmeichel and David Seaman respectively?

Chelsea are irreproachable on the goalkeeping front, owning the best two in the Premiership, yet in losing two consecutive games for the first time this season Mourinho too has managed to lose his reputation for managerial infallibility. The three subs at half time at Newcastle last week represented an unnecessary gamble with predictable results for anyone versed in Sod's law. Yet just as harmful in its way was Mourinho's reluctance to change anything in the Nou Camp on Wednesday when it became clear that Didier Drogba was another accident waiting to happen. The striker did not pick up his initial booking for a particularly bad foul, he had just been late into every challenge and by the fourth or fifth had exhausted Anders Frisk's patience. With Eidur Gudjohnsen on the bench, and Drogba patently lacking fitness and touch - witness his waste of a rare first-half chance - Mourinho could usefully have made another half-time change. When Drogba clumsily pulled over Carles Puyol early in the second half, a foul Frisk responded to with raised eyebrows rather than raised card, the alarm bells were ringing so loudly that when the inevitable second yellow arrived five minutes later one could only wonder what Mourinho had thought was going to happen. Chelsea at that point were getting away with it. Having talked an expansive gameplan, they came up with an extremely conservative one. They held a lead until the 66th minute despite failing to manage a shot on target. The one thing they could not afford to do was lose their forward outlet and start hanging on for dear life. It was never a viable strategy even before Frank Rijkaard made a shrewd change of his own by sending on the electric Maxi Lopez.

Remarkably, Benitez, the manager with the gravest player shortage and the most hostile local media, emerged from the first knockout round with greatest credit. Whether Dudek's mistake will turn out to be a lifeline for Bayer Leverkusen remains to be seen, but at least Benitez managed to exceed expectations. He managed not to make anything worse, which is more than can be said for all the others. Ferguson was uncharacteristically dismissive of Italian opponents before the game, put too much faith in Ruud van Nistelrooy's powers of recovery and seemed to take off the wrong player when withdrawing Cristiano Ronaldo instead of the labouring Ryan Giggs. Mourinho was not pro-active enough and cannot have helped his team's concentration by arguing with Rijkaard. Wenger has a problem he finds difficult to admit, let alone solve, namely that Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry only seem capable of terrorising Premiership opponents. Wenger has the reputation of rescuing both from sticky periods in Italy. Maybe the Premiership deserves the credit. That may seem harsh, but when you have just watched Barcelona make the runaway Premiership leaders look like Everton - and let's not even think about Barcelona playing Everton next season - it makes you realise how insular our nakedly cosmopolitan competition still is. The question for next time, a couple of weeks maybe, is whether the new insularity is actually any better than the old one.

How bookies rate English chances to qualify for the quarter-finals

Man Utd 3-1 , Milan 1-4

Arsenal 11-4 , Bayern 1-4

Chelsea 5-4 , Barcelona 4-7

Liverpool 2-7 , Leverkusen 11-4

To win the Cup:

10-1 Chelsea

18-1 Manchester Utd

20-1 Liverpool

25-1 Arsenal


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