Monday, April 7, 2008

Peculiar Premies...

Prizz's reference to the characteristically close EPL title race has put me in a football mood. In thinking about the 4 perennial powerhouses that dominate England's top flight (ManU, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool) I am struck by numerous noteworthy things: the fact that these clubs have lost a mere combined 2 home matches all season; the argument (which could certainly be made) that Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, and Rafa Benitez are the 3 best managers in all the world; and the possibility that Liverpool, a now-perennial Champions League threat, lay in danger of falling outside the coveted "Top 4" echelon, with Everton nipping heatedly at their heels.

It's this last point that piques my interest, because it brings to light a peculiar puzzle surrounding the EPL's superclubs: between league play and UEFA competition, they are often wildly and confusingly inconsistent.

Starting from the top...

Manchester United
Sir Alex Ferguson's men are perhaps the most consistent of the 4 Premies in terms of EPL-UEFA equality. Over the past 3 CL campaigns, the Red Devils have been booted from knockout stages twice by eventual Finals entrants AC Milan; in the 2005-2006 campaign, however, United failed to advance past the group stage, trailing both up-and-comers Villareal and Portuguese side Benfica in total points earned.

Perhaps United's best chance to carry UEFA gold came in the 2003-2004 campaign, when they were narrowly defeated in the first knockout stage by a plucky FC Porto side--which, oddly enough, was led by future Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, and went on to hoist the championship trophy.

More than any of the other 3 squads, ManU have maintained a fairly strong balance between European contention and Premiereship consistency. Perhaps this season will see them return to their 1999 heyday.

No team better personifies the chasm between domestic domination and UEFA stagnation. For the past 4-5 seasons, Chelsea have been a wrecking ball in the EPL, having seemingly played 3,563 consecutive unbeaten games at Stamford Bridge. After falling 6 points shy of ManU in the league last year, the Blues appear primed for a late-season push, with their eyes set on a third EPL title in 4 seasons.

The Blues' domestic success can be owed largely to the fact that, more than any of their peers, Chelsea beat the teams they are supposed to beat. They never lose at home, and they never lose stupid games. (See United's early 1-0 loss to Bolton. Wanderers. Yes, that's right. Bolton.)

Strangely, though, the dominant Mourinho-led Chelsea teams were never able to translate their EPL brilliance into Champions League success. Liverpool (!) snipped them in last year's semifinals, and eventual winners Barcelona dispatched them in the opening knockout stage the year prior. It was, perhaps in part, this elusive European glory that led to the souring of relations between Golden God Mourinho and Chelsea's equivalent of George Steinbrenner, Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich.

Much like Manchester United, Chelsea are still very much alive in both domestic and foreign competition this year--and how ironic would it be for Avram Grant, the much-booed replacement for fan-favorite Mourinho, to take the Blues over the proverbial hump?

Consider these results from a single 2-month stretch of Arsenal's '07-'08 campaign (listed chronologically):
  • Loss: 5-1, Tottenham, Carling Cup
  • Loss, 4-0, Manchester United, FA Cup
  • Draw, 0-0, AC Milan (holders), UEFA Champions League
  • Draw, 2-2, Birmingham, EPL
  • Draw, 1-1, Aston Villa, EPL
  • Win, 2-0, AC Milan (holders), UEFA Champions League
  • Draw, 0-0, Wigan, EPL
  • Draw, 1-1, Middlesbrough, EPL

The Gunners of several years ago resembled Chelsea--able to complete an inconceivable unbeaten season in the EPL, yet relatively unimportant in the larger European scheme. Lately, however, Arsene Wenger's side seem to have become Liverpool 2.0. Only a couple of years ago, Arsenal, despite being a man down on Jens Lehmann's inexcusable early red card, were on the brink of greatness. For 75 minutes they held Barcelona's otherworldly strike force of Eto'o, Ronaldinho, and Larsson at bay. A quarter-hour from time, however, Eto'o netted an equalizer--and the effects could be felt by everyone watching at home. Catalan spirits were immediately inspired, and a mere 5 minutes later Larsonn fed substitute Belletti for the go-ahead goal that would prevent a second successive CL title for the EPL.

This season, however, Arsenal exhibit a Liverpudlian perplexity, clearly displaying the moxie required to dispatch perennial CL giants AC Milan, yet lacking the consistency (and age? and experience?) to dispense with even their mid-table domestic competition.

With a recent 1-1 home draw to Liverpool, Arsenal's domestic ambitions, at least for this season, appear stifled. Will this hurt their focus in the Champions League, or will it simply motivate them even more?

Liverpool are, in essence, the polar opposite of Chelsea. They are the only team among the Big 4 not to have captured an EPL crown over the past 4 seasons, and, despite losing only 4 Premiereship contests this season, the Reds boast a woeful 12 draws. On the home front, they lose to their rivals and they draw against sub-par opponents. In a league where points are at a premium (see 2003-2004: Arsenal, despite completing a 38-game unbeaten season, finished only 11 points clear of Chelsea), such mediocrity simply will not do. (18 goals in 16 road games is nothing to write home about--no pun intended. Or was there?)

Somehow--and here's the kicker--despite this relatively unimpressive string of EPL seasons, Liverpool have become UEFA monsters. They've made the knockout round in each of the past 4 seasons (including this one), highlighted by 2 finals appearances and a miraculous victory over European heavyweights AC Milan in the '05 finals.

Perhaps Rafa Benitez's style of management--and Liverpool's style of play--is more suited to the European theater. Rafa is a tactician, and given the ability to plan over the long term for once-a-fortnight ties often gives him a keen edge. As a team, Liverpool score fewer goals and play a less flashy brand of football than free-flowing Arsenal and star-studded Chelsea. This style situates them well in European competition, but perhaps falls short in the fast-paced everyday world of the EPL.

It'll be interesting to see the reception that follows Liverpool (and Benitez) if they are able to reach a 3rd CL final in 4 seasons. Will the usual logic hold true--that is, will fans be willing to overlook domestic failure so long as their team is flourishing on Europe's largest stage? Or, will success have the opposite effect, leading doubters to question with even more fervor the reasons for the Reds' continued English malaise? Interesting, to say the least.


Last year, 3 English teams made the Champions League semifinals, yet AC Milan hoisted the crown; this year, 4 teams remain in the CL's final 8, with another 75% English final foursome looking extremely likely. Maybe it's the inconsistency I've been writing about here--or maybe it's the fact that comeback-miracle Liverpool and historic-treble Manchester United have been the only English CL champs of my lifetime--but I am becoming ever more aware of Barcelona and Fenerbache lurking amid the last eight. Even with a potential 3 of 4 teams in the semifinals, I simply can't put any real weight behind the idea of an English champion.

Predictions: Barcelona def. ManU 1-0 to win a 2nd crown in 3 years. (Why--because it would be thoroughly typical for an out-of-whack domestic squad, which Barca have undeniably been as of late, to win the Champions League.)

Peculiar indeed.

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