English football is hardly in the best of health. First Spain on a Saturday then Sweden in midweek come to challenge a depleted England team at Wembley. In the meanwhile, English hopes of European Cup success seem increasingly remote.
Even Manchester City, 3-0 winners at Villarreal, were virtually playing a team which had given up the ghost and were palpably missing their salient striker, the Italian Rossi, out injured alas for months to come.
When Rossi did play, in the first leg in Manchester, City scrapped through fortuitously after four whole minutes of added time, much against the run of play. Though Villarreal had never yet lost at home in Europe to any English club, last Wednesday they seemed defeatist from the first.
This in fact was City’s first convincing win in their Euro group, but at least it served to suggest that Mario Balotelli, incisive throughout as a lone and powerful striker, has adapted to his suroundings. At his illuminated best we know how dangerous an attacker he can be and City didn’t use Dzeko at all, and brought on Aguero only very late in the game.
Yet the team foundered at Bayern Munich and were held at home by a Napoli team whom they meet in what could yet become a crucial last group game. 3-0 down to an effervescent hat trick by Mario Gomez at Bayern Munich, they still managed to recover two goals suggesting that Bayern are better going forward than defending.
London’s challenge, mounted by Chelsea and Arsenal, looked anaemic in this round. True Chelsea missed a penalty, which poor, diminished Fernando Torres didn’t have the confidence to take, which would have put them 2-0 up in Genk. A team whom one had seen surrender abjectly at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea walked all over them.
But Chelsea, for all the bright utterances of their 34-year-old manager, Andre Villas Boas seems in crisis. Their 5-3 collapse against Arsenal at The Bridge beggared belief and it is all too clear that John Terry, still mired in the bewildering “racist” controversy of what he said or didn’t say to Anton Ferdinand, who didn’t hear him, is seriously on the wane. As indeed is the other leading English centre back, Rio Ferdinand who even Alex Ferguson admits has lost pace.
Plainly Villas Boas’ adventurous tactics are not working, he has fallen out with Nicolas Anelka and patience is hardly a virtue in the case of the oligarch Roman Abramovich.
Inspired by Robin Van Persie when he came on at The Bridge, the Gunners ran riot. But by the time one saw him so belatedly come on against Marseille at The Emirates, Arsenal were merely firing blanks and continued to do so. Surely he should have been on much earlier.
Wenger too has his problems though his club owner Stan Kronke, who made such a brief, bland and taciturn appearance at the Annual General Meeting, is no Roman Abramovich. But the Gunners surely need new dynamism, both on and off, the field, and they could do much worse than recall the ‘exiled” David Dein. A cool £1.6 million including bonuses was paid to the chief executive Gazidis, but it is hard to know quite why. While Peter Hill Wood criticised by fans, is hardly a dynamic chairman.
Manchester United, thrashed by City, pallid against their mediocre Romanian opponents at home again, seriously lack a Paul Scholes in central midfield. Alex Ferguson seems to have been remiss. Using Rooney there, as he did last Wednesday, is no long-term solution.