So much for the supposed superiority of teams from what I still call The Greed Is Good League. This week however it might be better called the The Greed Isn’t Good Enough League. The two mighty plutocrats, the two richest clubs of all Manchester City, with their Abu Dhabi billions behind them and Chelsea, bank rolled by the oligarch Roman Abramovich.
For some time this season I have felt that Chelsea, though they may have so dramatically and unexpectedly won the European Champions Cup last season, looked vulnerable before a ball was kicked in major competition. In the somewhat peripheral annual match in Monaco between the two winners of the two European tournaments. True, John Terry the irreplaceable bulwark of the Blue’s defence, whatever his on the field excesses, was absent.
It was all too clear from England’s shaky defensive display in Poland that the defence is porous and vulnerable without him. True, he did play last Tuesday in Ukraine against Shakhtar Donetsk and was unwittingly involved in one of Shakhtar’s two goals when the ball flew off him on its way in. But what seemed plain enough from that Monaco game where Chelsea were simply torn apart by Falcao, Atletico Madrid’s Colombia centre forward, was that the summer transfer policy has gravely weakened the team defensively, while the decision to allow the dreadnought centre forward Didier Drogba to depart, on a free transfer to Shanghai Shenhua, has much diminished the forward line in which Fernando Torres, his form so unpredictable, imposes a radically different and less effective pattern on the attack.
Attack! That is what Abramovich has so long been seeking and to that purpose he spent huge sums of money in the summer, buying such dazzling talent at enormous expense as Eden Hazard the Belgian international and the effervescent Brazilian, Oscar. The trouble is that the defence is also a crucial part of football and when Chelsea allowed that tough and versatile Ghanaian Michael Essien to move out on loan to Real Madrid where the former, ever contentious and flamboyant Jose Mourinho took him, they were surely running a risk.
In fact Hazard did not even start the game in Donetsk, a team so shrewdly put together and managed by an old friend, Mircea Lucescu, whom I have known since he captained Romania in the 1970s. Though the club’s owner is substantially richer than Abramovich, Mircea has put together at far lesser cost a bunch of effervescent Brazilians who largely played ducks and drakes with Chelsea with the likes of the dazzling, Fernandinho, Willian and Adriano irrepressible. And Juan Mata who had tormented the defence of a Spurs team missing Gareth Bale and several other players, was wholly anonymous.
Abramovich is not a patient man and you fear for Roberto Di Matteo who even if he won the European Cup for Chelsea, has never been treated with full approval. His problem being that when Abramovich wants to impose a more adventurous style on the team it is he who has to pay the consequences. Abramovich was so angry when Chelsea threw away a two goal lead at Stamford Bridge against Juventus, still to be met in Turin, that he came down to the training ground to read the riot act. Defeat at Donesk will have infuriated him still more.
Meanwhile there is what you might call a glorious imbalance between the immense sums of money Manchester City have spent on foreign players and the poverty of their European results. That once great team Ajax, after a shaky beginning in these group games, made an uneasy start in Amsterdam last Wednesday against City though City’s opening goal by Samir Nasri was against the run of play.
In the second half however, Ajax exploited the holes in a City defence whose marking and covering were abysmal, Joe Hart, just as he did in the previous game at home to Borussia Dortmund, made save after resilient save. The clever young Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen had an exuberant evening, teasing and probing City’s strangely inept defence and eventually scoring himself in Ajax’s 3-1 victory. There seems little hope of City qualifying for the next round now, shades of how Roberto Mancini’s dubious choices in central defence led to the expensive defeat last season in Munich against Bayern.
The word was that Arsenal’s defence would be strengthened by the appointment of that former centre back Steve Bould, but if recent results have been anything to go by, improvement is non-existent. Chelsea won at The Emirates, humble Norwich deservedly beat The Gunners at Carrow Road, and now for the first time in years the Gunners have lost and lost badly at home to a Schalke team whose 2-0 win hardly flattered them. The attack was negligible, the defence a thing of gaps and distraction. The Gunners could still qualify, but how much further would they go?
Manchester United should also qualify, but in their narrow 3-2 win against the Portuguese of Braga, even if Alex Ferguson rested two key defenders, they had to come back from the embarrassment of two goals down. At least Ferguson can appreciate the finishing skills of the Mexican Chicharito who has had few recent chances. But all credit to gallant Celtic.