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The slowly shifting standards of the Champions League

Talk of a pendulum swing away from the Premier League is misguided; a far more subtle shift is altering Europe’s power dynamic.

Claudio Villa

There was much talk in the run up to this most recent round of Champions League football about the shift in power. Showing its customary tardiness, the British media woke up to the fact that English clubs are no longer all that where European competition is concerned. There was some hand wringing about England's having fallen behind not just the new-old powerhouses in Spain but also the re-risen German powers and maybe even the so-recently-joke-worthy Old Ladies of Italy. There was talk, then, about the cyclical nature (and blogging, probably, about the dialectical development) of footballing dominance.

The last fortnight's action seems to have confirmed those fears - managerial phenomenon Alex Ferguson's Manchester United may have held their own against Real Madrid, may well knock the nouveau galacticos out and have reached three finals since 2008, but they didn't even make it out of their traditionally lightweight group last year. English clubs are no longer dominant in Europe's top competitions (Europa League representation is down to three now, too); but to describe the change as a power shift is too stark. A much more subtle force is at work: simply, there are only ever five or six really top teams and these are taken from a global semi-elite of around 12 clubs who fluctuate in and out of the elite group independently of national parameters.

This is best exemplified in Bayern Munich's defeat of Arsenal. Described abundantly as an "outclassing" and even an "evisceration", Bayern's win was really just a straightforward case of professional superiority. It is not the German football is better, simply that Baryen are. It was, essentially, the same as Juventus's win over Celtic in Glasgow the previous Tuesday. On both occasions, the visitors won because of a clear-sighted determination, a willful reduction of football into its essential truths: that goals win games and that superior players doing their jobs with the utmost professionalism will score more goals than (and concede fewer goals to) inferior opponents. Thus, in both games, the home sides had a number of highly satisfactory stats -- most notably the possession counts -- while being comprehensively beaten. Both ties are over at half time, as it were, not because of a vast cleavage of class (that may be the case but, in the Celtic game especially, that wasn't made evident) but as a result of superior efficiency.

Both Celtic and Arsenal knew, of course, that they had to score, and that they had to stop their opponents scoring. Neither, though, displayed any sense of how these cooperative aims were to be achieved. This apparent aimlessness was both collective and, for the most part (read mandatory excepting of Jack Wilshere here) individual. Their opponents evidently knew what they were doing, how their identical aims were to be achieved. It was evident that they knew what they were doing because, unlike their opponents, they did it. As a result of this discrepancy, the away sides won. Comfortably.

Unexpectedly, the away sides' dominance (which was a trope of both sets of fixtures) was disrupted in Milan, where Barcelona lost 2-0 for, broadly, the same reason. AC Milan's victory was based, largely, on the successful implementation of a plan specifically tailored for Barcelona's very unique challenge. Defensively, they allowed Barcelona the ball in most areas of the pitch, only really crowding them -- and Leo Messi in particular -- when they came within the third quarter (between the half-way line and their own penalty box). This was phenomenally successful as Christian Abbiati was only called upon to make one save. Offensively, they hit numerous early cross-field balls towards Stephen El Sharawaay which, even if he didn't have his best game, disrupted the rhythm that is so important to Barcelona who, like grander (if gawdier) Arsenals or Celtics, simply did what they always do. It didn't work but Barcelona unlike Arsenal or Celtic are not out of this yet. If they are to come back though, they will need to meet Milan at the Nou Camp with a particular, specific plan. And implement it.

The game, the tournament's best game so far, that didn't fit the above model was Madrid - United. There, players were both good and professional and a ding-dong one all draw ensued. United, for all the lamentations about their supposed domestic weakness (a weakness which is not, it has to be said, especially apparent), do actually seem to be A Good Team on a global front. They problematise the "decline of English football" paradigm.

Taken together, the first legs' outclassings, the upset and the classic are evidence for the subtle shift suggested above. European dominance now seems (and of course this narrative could be exploded by some rousing second-leg comebacks) to be the consequence of the professionalism of individual clubs, managers and players. By setting specific plans for particular matches Bayern, Juventus, Milan (?!),Madrid and United (and, perhaps, Borussia Dortmund) have given themselves every chance of making the quarter final; there, they represents themselves and not their nations.