It was a refreshing surprise to watch three Premier League clubs receive their comeuppance in this week’s Champions League matches against nominally lesser opposition who have arguably been more deserving of praise in recent times. While Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City (and Real Madrid, who lost to Borussia Dortmund) have grown accustomed to strolling through to the latter stages of tournaments off the running of players attracted to their multimillion dollar salaries and brand names, lesser lights in Europe have quietly been compensating by diligently working on their player development programmes, respecting their managers’ remit and poaching talents from right under the noses of the giant clubs. On Tuesday and Wednesday night, they seemed eager to announce themselves to the watching world and more appreciative of the occasion of the Champions League than their more illustrious opponents.
There was the irritating sense that Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City had arrived for the kind of strolls in the park they seem to expect against lesser opposition in the Premier League, without bothering to give magnificent footballing theatres such as the Amsterdam Stadium and roaring Donbass Arena the respect of preparing with the utmost commitment. Manchester City and Roberto Mancini, in particular, were guilty of approaching their game with the same leisurely attitude that has suffused many of their recent near-scares in the Premier League, and the significant defeat inflicted on them by a vibrant, hungrier Ajax side has been a long time in coming. Arsenal’s emphatic defeat against Schalke should have conveyed the worrying message to Arsene Wenger that he can no longer claim to be miles ahead as a pioneer of sculpting exciting football teams from modest resources. Chelsea’s famously granite stubbornness was comprehensively shattered by the uniform wave of noise, ambition and quality that Mircea Lucescu’s enterprising club have been displaying for some years now.
In the face of these deserved reversals, it was a telling sign of the arrogance of the Premier League clubs and inertness of football’s competitive status quo that British papers should have already been focussing on which of the talents of Ajax and Shakhtar would be next to be plucked by their vanquished opponents. Willian of Shakhtar as good as put out the come-get-me call to Chelsea by describing them as “one of the clubs he was interested in” after putting in a starring shift against them for his employers. The Daily Mail noted that he left the Donbass Arena clutching a Chelsea shirt with his name and a question mark on its back given to him by one of the club’s supporters.
However, if Chelsea represent the best of the Premier League and Shakhtar showed that they can be more than a match for them on their day, then why should the billionaire owner of the Ukranian champions contemplate selling a player that they have helped turn into a star? For too long, smaller clubs in both domestic and European competitions have been happy to maintain the competitive status quo by selling their brightest players to bigger clubs in return for hefty sums of cash. This balancing of the books has neither advanced their sporting or business ambitions, and owners of these clubs have failed to realise that the surest way to grow their brand name is by success on the pitch. By retaining a core of players that displayed dynamism and fire in overwhelming Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday, Shakhtar have generated interest in their club that could be utilised to much greater financial benefit than any one-time sale of Willian. Rather than perennially serving as a stepping board for the ambitions of others, there should no longer be heresy attached to the idea of Shakhtar or Dortmund taking their ambitions as clubs to new heights.
The Champions League will be richer and more fascinating for it. The suggestion that players such as Van Rhijn at Ajax were driven to exceed themselves in the knowledge that the Champions League represented an audition of sorts to Europe’s traditional powerhouses is an insult to the clubs who nurtured them, and a shrug of the shoulders to the idea that the tournament will ever be anything more than an annual shootout between familiar names. If these players can drive success on the pitch, money will pour into the coffers that can be used to fund more lucrative salaries for them and provide an incentive to stay put. The theory implicit in Willian’s plangent call for a big club to take him off Shakhtar’s books was that the level of quality remains higher in certain leagues. To that the owner of Shakhtar can offer the sound riposte that their club beat the best in England in a competition that already represents the apex of European football. Shakhtar’s success will in turn inspire more interest in Ukrainian club football, and so it is vital for the landscape of Champions League football to be any different than the stale, monotonous state of the last few years that Willian stays put. Much the same could be said of Robert Lewandowski of Borussia Dortmund, who has recently been the subject of much interest. The list of pretenders for the final rounds of the Champions League has grown considerably this year, and it is making for a more interesting and vibrant tournament.
Deprived of the opportunity to exert financial muscle to cherry pick players crafted at other clubs, Premier League giants may just start rediscovering their sense of obligation towards bringing through youngsters, and creating teams of hunger and with a collective idealogy. There remains something ineffably exciting about witnessing sides such as Dortmund or Ajax in action, who have clearly been the product of creative ideas, hard work and a collective sense of purpose and are now reaping the rewards of their approach. The likes of Chelsea and Man City can offer nothing so tantalising beyond lumping together star names and pitting them in a yearly Champions League glamour match with another big European name. The continuation of this state of affairs, through breaking up the bright work of many rising clubs in Europe with money and power, would be depressing to say the least.