What can we read into the absence of Premier League teams from the Champions League?

Arsenal last night became the last English team to exit the competition

So Arsene Wenger thinks alarm bells are ringing for the Premier League. Gary Neville is more sanguine believing these things go in cycles. Both should take a step back, for neither point of view takes into account the nature of the competition.

The clue is not in the name. The Champions League is essentially a cup competition for Europe’s elite. The league stage in the main weeds out the lesser mortals, but this too is far from an accurate barometer because it is too short to reliably test the sample. You could, as Wenger does, read doom into the exit of Chelsea and Manchester City at the group stage, but it does not bear scrutiny. It is not a reflection of the strength, necessarily, of the Premier League, or the power of the individual clubs.

Chelsea and Manchester City are two of the most expensively-assembled teams in the world. They have a financial reach that is beyond even Real Madrid and Barcelona. Chelsea added Oscar and Eden Hazard in the summer, two players that topped global shopping lists. They went out as European Champions, however fortuitous that outcome might have been.

City didn’t spend lavishly but that was not because the owners were feeling the pinch in Abu Dhabi. City lost out narrowly in a group that included Real Madrid and Borussia  Dortmund, the Spanish and German champions respectively, who both progressed to the last eight. United won their group with games to spare and with 30 of the 180 minutes left to play of their last 16 encounter deservedly led Madrid before a controversial sending off skewed the tie.

These are matters of caprice not structural failings. Madrid could just as easily have left the scene as United. Barcelona lead La Liga by a million miles, yet might have gone out had M’Baye Niang’s shot not come back off the post shortly before Leo Messi netted a second, or Jordi Alba’s last-ditch tackle not blocked Robinho. Though it would have been a nonsense had Barcelona not profited from 67 per cent possession, they were only fractions the right side of fate.

Had they gone out, questions about the state of the Catalan nation would have continued. The doctor would have returned to Messi’s door to check for signs of decline. As it is they march on with reputations restored.

That is how it is in cup football. Outcomes rest on knife edges from which trends cannot always be drawn. The Champions League is a marvellous competition, is tough to win and pitches Europe’s best against each other, but like the FA Cup, is not the best way to judge the quality of a team. For that you have to look at league tables in May.   

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