Painful as it may be to accept, English teams appear far behind the standard at which they were in years gone by. The fact that Manchester United – who reached the final of the Champions League two times in the previous three seasons – are playing in the Europa League should be testament enough to their decline in Europe. Arsenal on the other hand, were deservedly thumped 4-0 by a brilliant AC Milan side at the San Siro, and even though City and United won their ties, neither looked overly comfortable in victory. There were three Premier League sides in the quarter-finals of the Champions League last year. This year, both City and United crashed out in the group stages, Arsenal look likely to bow out in the last 16, and who knows how Chelsea will fare against surprise package Napoli next week.
The Europa League has been considered a poison chalice by managers and fans alike, but Manchester’s finest – both fresh out of the top tier of European football – went hell for leather for victories in the round of 32. Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini put out strong line-ups in their away legs against Ajax and Porto. Mancini threw Yaya Toure straight into the heart of City’s midfield after his return from the Africa Cup of Nations, and only started without the prolific Sergio Aguero in their win over Porto. Meanwhile, Ferguson started Wayne Rooney up front, and handed midfielder Tom Cleverley a first start since sustaining an injury in October in his team’s 2-0 victory over Ajax.
Arsène Wenger must have been apoplectic when he saw how poorly his midfield fared against Massimiliano Allegri’s team. The injured Jack Wilshere is only young, but like Cleverley at Manchester United, his creativity has been missed in the centre of the park. Alex Song, Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky all looked out of their depth from the outset. Whenever Milan broke they looked threatening. Whether it was Ibrahimovic’s invention or ex-Tottenham midfielder Kevin Prince-Boateng’s trickery, Wenger’s midfield were bypassed repeatedly, and matters were left to his flappable back four to deal with. Wilshere may be a young midfielder, but he is the best Arsenal have by half.
Stoke’s unbelievable Europa League run may be shuddering to a halt, after they lost 1-0 to a superior Valencia side at home. Stoke manager Tony Pulis may have described the game as “historic” in the lead up to the match at the Britannia Stadium, but it didn’t play out as he’d have hoped. Valencia proved their class after Mehmet Topal’s first have belter, and Stoke could find no way back once they were behind. The Potters will have a mountain to climb when they travel to the Mestalla next week for the second leg.
The Frenchman may have scored in his final Premier League appearance, however he was unable to sustain any impact on his teams heavy defeat at the hands of Milan. The veteran striker bagged the Gunners’ winner against Sunderland on Saturday, but even he couldn’t rescue Arsenal from the jaws of defeat before he returned to the New York Red Bulls. He replaced Theo Walcott at half time, and while his opposite number – Zlatan Ibrahimovic – shone, Henry didn’t even come close to threatening Christian Abbiati’s goal. Even so, it is still likely that Gunners fans will rue their record goalscorer’s return to America.
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