Euro Bite Review No.4: A Crisis of Confidence
Ten teams have gone through to the knock-out stage of the Champions and Europa Leagues after four of the six group matches – but none of them are British. Kate Partridge asks if a lack of confidence is a factor in their results.
Of course, there are still two group matches to go in the Champions and Europa Leagues and, mathematically at least, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Everton and Celtic can all go through. But the fact remains that so far they haven’t, which is a bit embarrassing, given that the Premier League boasts it’s the best in the world.
In the Champions League, the English quartet fared thus: domestic champions City down to nine men and downed by last season’s best in Russia; front runners Chelsea scrape a draw against Slovenia’s finest; Arsenal collapse at home to perennial almost-rans Anderlecht; Liverpool’s reserves overcome by the holders.
In the Europa League, it was a rosier tale. England newbie Harry Kane netted his ninth goal in all competitions as Tottenham won at Greek side Asteras, Everton cruised past Lille, though Celtic were clipped by an Astra.
Chelsea, Arsenal and Celtic were all on course to go through before a raft of errors halted their progress. Or, put more simply, they choked. Eden Hazard’s uncharacteristically sloppy penalty; complacent defending that reduced the Gunners’ three-goal lead to a three-all draw; and Scotland’s champions failing to hold the lead then overcome the ten men of Romania’s runners-up.
Jose Mourinho will bridle at two draws from four group matches. Such a form is not indicative of prospective European champions. But there is still time and depth of squad to ensure improvement. It’s also hard to imagine Mourinho actually losing.
The same can’t be said for Arsenal, despite their unbroken history of qualifying for the knock-out stage. Injuries, the lack of a defensive midfielder, and the failure to replace sold centre-back Thomas Vermaelen means the Gunners’ weakened defence and especially their subsequently nervous psyche can be breached three times by teams such as Anderlecht, who have not won in Europe for two years.
Manchester City’s plight – and apparently self-belief – is worse. After squandering a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with CSKA Moscow at an all-but empty Khimki Arena, England’s rich champions lost their structure, discipline, talismanic midfielder and finally the match in the return fixture.
The daunting prospect of having to beat the undefeated Bayern Munich as well as Roma to progress leaves City probably looking at a humiliating group stage exit for the third time in four years.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini admitted he was baffled by his side’s “crisis of confidence.” Such a public display of head scratching swiftly prompted speculation that Pep Guardiola was being lined up as his replacement. The Chilean had shot his own coaching credentials in the foot with his bemused candour.
Though few displays of apparent defeatism could match Brendan Rodgers’ team selection at Real Madrid, however well or tactically intended.
UEFA’s rules are clear. The duties of the participating clubs include: “to field their strongest team throughout the competition.” Liverpool did not. Captain Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling were on the bench among seven first-team changes. There was more Champions League experience among the substitutes than on the pitch.
The selection was not penalised by UEFA. Yet it was hardly in keeping of a blue riband fixture at the Bernabeu between the ten- and five-time champions. It was also harsh on players such as Gerrard, an inspiring one-club skipper who had retired from England duty to concentrate on such games and might never play there again. Worse, it smacked of a white flag appearing from the dugout before a ball was kicked.
Rodgers defended his choices rather negatively. He implied some players had been out of form and could have lost 5-0 at Real. It was a chance for others to stake a claim. He also said the Reds had seven games in 21 days – or, in other words, unbeaten leaders Chelsea up next on Saturday at Anfield.
Some recalled players did impress, particularly those who had been lambasted before. Kolo Toure was a pillar in defence. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet singlehandedly kept the scoreline down. But 1-0 it finished, leaving the question hanging: “Could the A Team have grabbed a result?” The second-bottom Reds must now win both their remaining games to have a chance of joining Real in the Last 16.
Some of the queries over Rodgers’ big selection gamble may fade if Liverpool do beat Chelsea. But that’s a big if.
The issue seems to be, as Pellegrini says, one of confidence. Harry Kane currently has it. Jose Mourinho always has it. Ronaldo, Guardiola, Ancelotti and Blanc also seem to have it. Everton show flashes of it. And, given the vast resources that have gone into constructing an ambitious team like City, it appears to be the vital, missing, ingredient among some of Britain’s footballing elite.
Talent is essential but a given at the highest level. So it’s time the British clubs found ways to boost their self-esteem, focus on winning, and start believing in their own publicity. If they want to flourish in Europe, there’s no time to waste.
Read more from Kate Partridge here!
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