DAVID SHONFIELD: Belief the key for Arsenal and Man City in Champions League

English clubs are becoming so cushioned financially that they may be a softer touch in Europe, writes David Shonfield.

It is still too early to write off the performance of English clubs in Europe and in any case it is usually considered polite to wait for a patient to die before performing an autopsy.

Arsenal face a huge task tonight and Manchester City perhaps an even greater challenge tomorrow, even if they are only one goal behind from the first leg.

Nevertheless, teams have overcome the odds away from home before and last week Schalke came within a whisker of knocking out Real Madrid after losing the first leg 2-0.

All the same the humble pie is in the oven for those of us who have been arguing that the Premier League is the most competitive in Europe.

Not the best, and probably not the hardest to win, but the league with the greatest number of contenders and the only one where the also-rans are regularly capable of giving the thoroughbreds a shock.

That assessment looks ropey after the past couple of weeks.

Forget the Champions League for a moment. Everton could be the only English club left in Europe by the end of the week, and that will take a good performance in Kyiv.

There are two clubs from Russia in the last 16 of the Europa League, two from Ukraine and no fewer than four from Italy. Serie A has been the weakest of the big leagues in the past five years, so that is a real sea change.

One reason is that the Europa League winners now qualify for the Champions League, a priceless lifeline for clubs such as Napoli and Roma, who have little chance of sustaining a challenge to Juventus in their own league.

Playing on Thursday nights makes it even harder to compete domestically, but there is a big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as well as silverware.

Italian fans have been slow to appreciate this. There were fewer than 18,000 in the San Paolo stadium to see Napoli’s 3-1 win against Dinamo Moscow, under half their usual crowd, although the turnout in Florence for the match against Roma was the same as for their league game.

For the clubs themselves, however, the competition is definitely more of a priority, unlike English clubs such as Tottenham or Liverpool who have that huge Premier League TV deal to rely on even if they miss out on Champions League qualification.

English clubs are becoming so cushioned financially that they may be a softer touch in Europe.

European clubs have also become more streetwise in the knock-out stages. “We lacked experience last year,” said Marco Verratti, after Paris Saint-Germain battled through 90 minutes with 10 men. “Now we’re nastier.”

Cup football used to give English sides an edge. They were more used to one-off games where anything can happen, where you have to dig in against the odds, and where a last-minute goal can change everything.

Some of that edge probably remains, but it has diminished. The cups have become less important in England, and a bit more competitive elsewhere.

In the past three months PSG have played Montpellier, Bordeaux, Nantes and Monaco in the Coupe de France and also come through tricky away ties against St Etienne and Lille in the French league cup.

One ray of hope for Arsenal tonight is that Monaco are a lot less formidable as a cup side than their Paris rivals.

They do have a tremendous defensive record – just one goal conceded in their last 12 league games – but their cup record is weak, and they lost a shoot out to Bastia in the league cup only last month.

Playing in the Stade Louis II is far from intimidating, unlike Paris or Marseille.

History is now against Arsene Wenger on his return to his old club. Ajax are the only side to have overturned a 3-1 deficit in an away leg, and that was 46 years ago when deadlocked ties went to a replay.

Schalke’s performance last week can perhaps inspire. Players start to panic if the away goals factor gets into their heads.

Arsenal also know exactly what they have to do in this game. Belief will be vital.


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