Wenger badly let down by his players

It is often said that the best way to deal with an emotional setback is to talk or write about it. Talking or writing is meant to be therapeutic, and if so, it is a measure of the pain caused by Arsenal’s defeat that I immediately felt the urge to write about it in its aftermath. By delaying that process for a while longer, I only found my repressed emotions about the match had a knock-on effect on other little things that impact one’s mood throughout the day.

Nor is there any cause on this occasion for non-football fans to scorn at the oft-justified lack of perspective that us fans can display about a win or a loss. This loss was about more than a simple match; it was about one man’s legacy, the shame in seeing a fine oeuvre unjustifiably sacrificed by the brittleness of his players, and the pain of knowing it all seems to be heading towards a very unhappy end. Arsene Wenger is no ordinary manager, and just as he is held to a seemingly impossible standard in comparison with managers who have trodden a more familiar career path, so the pain caused by seeing his career come to the type of end suffered by so many in this profession is also unique.

The performance encapsulated the promise and bitter failure of so many post-2006 performances: a rousing first 48 minutes in which Arsenal looked every inch a team with the right balance between flair, steel and cunning, followed by the rest of the second half in which they characteristically threw away all their good work in stunningly naïve fashion. Not even on a school pitch would you see players perform as abjectly as Wenger’s did for him in the moments after Bayern went 2-1 up.

The sense of Wenger as martyr is increased by signs all around him of the necessary, functional ingredients other teams enjoying success have which, for practical or principled reasons, he has been unable or unwilling to acquire. For all their class, Bayern Munich are essentially an unimaginative football team who owe their success to the sense of entitlement that money can buy. While Wenger was being assailed by his fans yet again for lacking tactical nous, Carlo Ancelotti could get away with the respect of football fans the world over despite fielding the same 4-2-3-1 formation Wenger is derided for and owing his champions league trophies (another thing Wenger is derided for) to working with the most brilliant players of their respective periods. Bayern’s arrogance in victory yesterday underlined a sense of entitlement born of riches and access to the best players, which merely heightens the frustration that Arsenal – a team that, despite all their problems, still carried the unique Wenger stamp of free flowing football in patches yesterday – could not be a more consistent match for them and thereby stand in stark contrast as a standard-bearer for the best qualities in football. If Bayern represent the mechanised evolution of football in the era of pressing and mammoth clubs, Wenger’s failure to adapt has at least preserved Arsenal’s status as a club trying to do things the right way on the pitch, committed to a strategy that others would deem foolhardy. For Wenger undoubtedly manages players with lesser talent than many of his opponents; for all the claims that Arsenal match up on paper to the best in the Premier League, they are far below what Chelsea or Bayern can boast.

In this age of mechanised football, it is impossible to totally rule out the suspicion that Wenger is missing one more ingredient which has distanced the gap between Arsenal and the rest: drugs. The stats will show Bayern ran as much as Arsenal yesterday, but Arsenal consistently look outpaced and slower in 50-50 challenges compared to their immediate rivals (not to mention suffering injuries on a far more believably human level than the Clark Kents at other clubs). While giving football the benefit of the doubt, the history in German football of doping, the lack of thorough testing in football, and the history of other sports means it would be foolish to take everything we see at face value.
For all these reasons – finances, the players at his disposal, the injuries he has suffered and, above all, the manager he has been and the man he is – there is no way this blog will come even close to adding to the vitriol now being poured on his head.

Instead, the fans should turn their attention to the players towards whom he has only been guilty of one fault: affording them his trust and patience for too long. The manner in which they collapsed yesterday made it clear that it did not directly emanate from the dressing room, in the sense of tactical misdirection, but rather from a childlike inability to deal with the disappointment of going a goal down in the second half. From that moment on, Arsenal played with a callowness that is unbecoming of professional players and indicative of a subconscious complacency which has taken advantage of the loyalty of their manager. From the time that Flamini left for AC Milan, Arsenal players have shown a selfish disregard for the idealism and vision of their manager to create a unique project at Arsenal. This applies to the dumpers like Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie and, perhaps on a lesser scale, to those who have not developed to the level which would have been expected of them by now, and even to those such as Sanchez who have sometimes shown a tendency to hog the ball on the pitch in a manner antithetical to Wenger’s vision of dazzling, collective attacks. The sense now that he is approaching the end on his own, with a storm raging all around him, is galling to those to whom he has meant so much over the years.

Dignified Benitez growing in stature as a result of his Chelsea trials

Amidst the recurring malcontent that has peppered Chelsea’s season, there has been one man who has stood firm to enhance his interpersonal and managerial skills under the sternest tests, and that is Rafael Benitez. No manager facing the overwhelming pressure that stalks big clubs can also claim to have had to deal with a hand of cards as difficult as Benitez’s – including those held by his much-vaunted nemesis at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho, whose deific stature in the eyes of Chelsea fans trips the Spaniard’s every forward step even now. Benitez has been buffeted at every treacherous twist and turn by slights and insults as varyingly vilifying as being jeered by Chelsea’s fans at every opportune moment in a match, greeted by silence whenever his tactical switches induce a positive turn in events, being forced to bear the emasculating title of “interim manager” despite carrying the CV of a Champions League winner and two-time La Liga winner with one of Spain’s “other” clubs, enduring his own fans teaming up with those of the opposition to abuse him in songs, and having a fellow colleague in charge of a great rival completely ignore his offer of a handshake at the beginning of a game.

Throughout this steadily growing flood of insults and invective aimed at him from every angle, that would have tormented and broken the spirit of a lesser man, he has displayed an admirable resolve not to let his personal hurt get in the way of his professional job. As provoking as it must be to have his weight and entire personality dissected by wanton abuse on a weekly basis for six months – and we need only recall Emmanuel Adebayor’s knee-jerk reaction to Arsenal fans who had been abusing him for 90 minutes against Man City to acknowledge the tolerance threshold of lesser men– his steady resolve to resist the invitation to lash out at his abusers in interviews has given him an aura of quiet dignity and increasing authority. Goaded repeatedly and insolently by Geoff Shreeves to react to the catcalls that greeted his first match in charge and express his disappointment (view it here), Benitez diplomatically chose to explain that he had not heard them and his only disappointment stemmed from the draw that hurt Chelsea’s cause. This was of course necessitated by a realisation that fanning the flames of the fans’ anger could result in an even shorter stay than originally intended, but as the weeks went on and the abuse became more virulent, his ability to stay on message displays both the greatest professional steel and reserves of character, patience and equanimity that not enough people have given him credit for.

“I am professional”, he said in a recent attempt to gain more crowd support for Chelsea’s cause, and “will do my best until the last minute.” Even following Sir Alex Ferguson’s puerile decision to snub his offer of a handshake, Benitez largely contained his understandable affront by tactfully asking journalists to redirect the question of why the handshake failed to take place to the Manchester United manager instead.

Benitez has always been credited with tactical acumen that is in keeping with the mind of an avid chess player, and his decision to introduce John Obi Mikel to free up Ramires to make his rampaging forays towards the United penalty area in their FA Cup clash flummoxed the home team and nearly claimed a glorious comeback. Yet in being forced to summon up hitherto unnoticed qualities of diplomatic tact and personal restraint to deal with the bear pit at Chelsea, he has finally added stature to his tactical skills to emerge as a firm and fair leader of men who puts to shame those who characterised him as a “fat Spanish waiter” for so long. Only Benitez knows how much he has learnt about himself by coming through his siege at Chelsea with flying colours, but this stiffest character examination may have just invaluably enriched his skills as a manager and provided him the means to unlock far greater success in the future. Would this reborn Benitez, in possession of a fine tactical mind along with the ability to inspire his players through his new statesmanlike example off the pitch, have succeeded where the old one failed at Inter Milan? Are Chelsea not in fact missing a trick by opting against helping a highly able manager who has demonstrated an admirable – and hitherto unnoticed – capacity to endure the worst dirt people can throw at him and emerge stronger for it weather the storm and work with a talented squad that has many Spanish speakers at its core for longer?

Observant clubs across Europe would have done well not to miss the way Benitez bravely plunged himself into the fire at Chelsea and is emerging stronger and better than before as a result. If he does end up at Real Madrid, his stoic, remarkable ability to conjure up positive results and build personal authority in the face of an avalanche of political intrigue, boardroom machinations, and reckless populist barracking may stand him in good stead to add the proudest chapter to his CV yet. Wherever he goes, and whatever he does next, this dignified man may find that his sincerest efforts at a difficult posting will end up enhancing his career from this point on and ironically, he may have Chelsea’s fans to thank for that.

Arsenal missing out on plenty if they let Sagna fly away

Arsenal can seemingly never free themselves from the merry-go-round of mediating with players who are approaching the final year of their contracts, and Bacary Sagna’s name is next up on that wearisome list. Whether through some form of fatigue with this issue, or failing to fully appreciate the contribution that an experienced Sagna could make to this regenerating Arsenal side over the next five years, the fans have remained conspicuously silent up to now over Arsenal’s reluctance to tie him down to a new, long-term contract.

That is a mistake. If there is one player who can offer a convincing deconstruction of Arsenal’s blanket policy of viewing all players over the age of thirty in the same diminishing light through offers of one-year contracts at most, it is Sagna. Arsenal fans have spent so long lamenting the loss of a succession of key players that they have blinded themselves to the richly satisfying fact that one player worthy of comparison to those that jumped ship chose to remain behind and dedicate his career to the club. Before his leg breaks, there was a compelling case for Sagna to be compared to the best right-backs in Europe, but he has never once shown a hint of the disaffection that players giving the impression they had outgrown the club regularly displayed. Until injury and uncertainty over his contract status began afflicting him this season, there had never been so much as a waver in the consistency of his on-pitch excellence. Arsenal have been crying out for legends, for players of stature and wholehearted devotion to grab them by the scruff of the neck and haul them closer to glory once more, and Sagna has grown into those shoes.

It was in the fraught 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light a few weeks ago, where Arsenal stood firm against waves and waves of pressure after Carl Jenkinson had been dismissed on 56 minutes, that Sagna both confirmed his status as a sportsman of the finest competitive breed and offered a glimpse of the benefits Arsenal could gain from trading their veterans’ policy for a more meritorious, case-by-case approach. Shifted to centre-back right before kick-off following Laurent Koscielny’s injury in the pre-match warm-ups, Sagna came to Arsenal’s rescue time and again through an outstanding display of last-ditch tackling, towering headers and perfect positional sense. As Sunderland sent yet another threatening cross into the box in those nerve-wracked final few minutes, and Sagna rose yet again to thump the ball clear with a towering header, there was the sense of a player whose excellence was the product of commitment to his club’s cause and regret at time lost to two broken legs as much as through innate ability. It is these kind of qualities, alchemised to such perfection on the football pitch, that have the ability to win the hearts of fans, raise the young nucleus of Arsenal’s squad to greater heights, and forge the intangible spirit around the club that has been so sorely lacking in recent times.

Other clubs have recognised the important role that older players of the finest professional instincts play in creating a spirit around the club that breeds excellence. Barcelona have Carlos Puyol to embody Herculean drive and devotion; Chelsea have long thrived behind the siege mentality so defiantly heralded by John Terry; and Manchester United have Ryan Giggs to put any one below his age at the club to shame for so much as taking a breather during such sacrosanct rituals as training, recovery and on-pitch commitment. Rather than force Sagna to reassess his loyalties by failing to offer him anything more than a one-year contract, Arsenal could seal a warrior for life by giving him a five-year contract to play at both right-back and, increasingly centre-back, and demonstrating that their loyalty to him is bound by something more than concern that the player may be slightly more susceptible to injuries following two broken legs. Their reward for such a faith-based gamble would be the potentially crucial role that Sagna would play on the pitch in forging the type of spirit around the club that makes champions out of their growing stable of young starlets. As Arsene Wenger seeks to build yet another Arsenal team brimming with youth and talent out of the ashes of the last one, he would do well to consider these benefits before ushering Sagna out of the door when he still has much to offer.

Chelsea’s treatment of Benitez worthy of boos

If heaping abuse upon Rafael Benitez before he had even been given one match to prove himself was bad enough, Chelsea fans have now come out and said that they will continue to vilify him in the future. At a club whose capabilities to shock with their flagrant disregard for good conduct and good football people have been in the spotlight in recent times, this still stands out as an egregious injustice capable of showing yet another aspect of their multifaceted ugly side.

If there was more than the thinnest wisp of substance behind the campaign to deny Benitez a chance, neutrals may grudgingly turn the other cheek to the rampant humiliation of him that was on display on Sunday. Yet Benitez’s crime extends to nothing more than ousting a Mourinho-led Chelsea in two titanic Champions League tussles in 2005 and 2007 as well as 2006’s FA Cup, and offering some platitudes implying that nothing – not even Chelsea’s flag-waving fans – could match the passion of the supporters of the club he was in charge of before a particularly important match between the two. It is understandable that the manager of a club would have wanted to rally its most important constituents – players and supporters – before a match by choosing fighting words, and one need scarcely remind Chelsea’s fans of the scandalous lengths Jose Mourinho would go to in his attempts to rally them. Such attempts led to one referee retiring to protect his family, after receiving death threats from Chelsea fans whose anger had been stirred by their manager’s vapid accusation that he had colluded with Barcelona to oust Chelsea from the Champions League, and also included complaining bitterly about Liverpool’s “ghost goal” that led to Benitez triumphing over them in one of the Champions League semi-finals. Was it the then-Liverpool manager’s fault that the lack of goal-line technology had claimed another victim, or was Mourinho’s subsequent sniping at Benitez the product of a man who has never known how to take defeat and the vacillating fortunes of a game hostage to human error in the right spirit?

All Benitez did in those duels with Mourinho was prove himself a manager capable of holding his own against the best, and offering some stability to the steering wheel at Chelsea. Instead he has been greeted with the seething and spitting venom of a crowd who were given a lesson in bitterness and shifting blame from their most famous manager in the Abramovich era that they have been only too happy to display frequently. In the malicious mocking of every fan on Sunday one could see the evidence of Jose Mourinho’s legacy at Chelsea, and one reason why that club have become such a symbol of scorn and recrimination in the Premier League. Rafael Benitez is merely a very credible manager with an impressive track better who deserves better, and no amount of digging up the past history of Liverpool and Chelsea will point to anything more than the fact that their fans are acting out of a sense of spite and hate that was taught them by Mourinho and which they have proved reluctant to relinquish since.

Premier League forwards serve up wonderful entertainment, and Suarez is pick of the bunch

The Premier League has been lavishly gifted this season with the array of talented forwards that its top clubs have put together. On any given weekend, fans can marvel at the sight of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck causing spontaneous combustion at Manchester United. Fernando Torres may be struggling to remember what a great striker he was, but that hasn’t made seeing the slick interplay of Chelsea’s talented triumvirate behind him any less compelling. Olivier Giroud is beginning to find his feet at Arsenal, his demonstration of quick thinking allied to remarkable strength in the manic 3-3 draw with Fulham hopefully the first of many to come, and who cannot fail to feel fortunate to be watching the Premier League when two of the best Argentine forwards in the world are strutting their breathtaking stuff in every match for Man City?

However, even in that daunting cast, there is one man who is rising head and shoulders above every one with his exhilarating mix of sheer brilliance and individual fortitude and he is Luis Suarez of Liverpool. The hat-trick against Norwich was the first sign that a player who could score thirty goals a season if he took more of his chances was finally becoming more clinical, but in then single-handedly hauling Liverpool from defeat to the brink of victory against Newcastle, Everton and Chelsea with five goals across all three matches he proved that his talent knows no bounds. It is launched from the springboard of a strong-willed, indivualistic personality with fire in his belly, as proven by his wonderfully cheeky dive in front of David Moyes after scoring a goal, in response to criticism of his antics from the Everton manager, and by the plays he attempts on the pitch. When faced with a defender, he without fail turns to improvisation and attempts a trick that re-creates the childlike joy of football from the street or playground – and which is recognisable to every fan – in the professional theatre of the Premier League. It is a delight to see him mug a well-honed defender who has been prepped with tactical knowledge with a trick that has been invented on the spot and strips the sport back to its basics, just as it is a delight to see how often he looks to bring his teammates into play with inch-perfect passes that are every bit as good as his runs and skills. He radiates brilliance just as he hustles with grit and determination, and this effort is endearing to fans who recognise that his inimitable talent nevertheless draws upon his insatiable work ethic and proud, wilful determination to give everything in service of the cause. It is not just Liverpool who are indebted to him, but every single viewer who is in love with football and recognises the wider zest for life and activity in his play that holds the key to mobilising one’s talent and creativity.

There was an altogether different thrill associated with watching Robin van Persie materialise in Arsenal’s penalty box as if out of thin air to poke home a lofted ball from Patrice Evra in Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat of them two weekends ago. Van Persie failed on that occasion, but the movement was so ghostlike, so sudden, as to be barely believable. Premier League fans should celebrate the variety on display between a van Persie, with his invisible, wraith-like movement and a Suarez or Aguero, who combine outstanding talent with the endearing hustling qualities from the streets of the continent they come from. At this moment in time, Suarez occupies the number one place in many fans’ affections, and perhaps this has something to do with his multi-layered, compelling personality as well as the way his character shines so clearly through his football (much like an Andrei Arshavin as well). One writer imagined the damage Suarez could wreak playing for a Chelsea or a Manchester United, but there is a more tempting hypothesis. What if Barcelona had not bought the faltering Alexis Sanches for the purpose of running at defenders and creating havoc alongside Lionel Messi and Pedro, but Suarez instead? With his intelligence and box of tricks, Suarez would have taken to the task like a box to water, benefitted enormously from the service of Xavi and Iniesta and the glow cast by playing with Messi, and Barcelona would have found the key to unlocking stubborn defences that sit back as most obviously displayed by Celtic a few weeks ago. A player of Suarez’s heroism and talent deserves the stage and acclaim of a club like Barcelona, but Liverpool’s struggles and the way it perhaps elevates his efforts, mean that he is certainly not under-appreciated in the Premier League. Sergio Aguero may be snapping at his heels, and Fernando Torres may be a sad warning sign of how many twists and turns a player can take throughout the course of his career, but right now Luis Suarez is playing at a level and with a determination that will even cause those who claim he is a curse upon the game to reluctantly admit there is something special and likeable about this boy.

Racism is just one small component of Premier League football’s greater sickness

As the latest racism saga to engulf football continues to swirl uncomfortably around the upcoming matchday, from which Mark Clattenburg will again stand down, the sport’s participants could do with taking a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror. The litany of soul-searching extends from entitled players to their overprotective clubs, from a sensationalist media to fans with a taste for abuse that makes them get their three-year old sons involved (as was seen by the heinous video of a three-year Arsenal fan singing obscene songs about Robin van Persie at the apparent behest of his father). All who have been guilty of the above crimes have inflamed delicate situations, and turned football’s reliance on its pantomime element and heady narrative-building into a weapon that is causing serious damage to people, their careers and their personalities.

It is difficult to pick a first culprit for the mess football finds itself in when there are so many, but Chelsea’s behaviour in the aftermath of the acrimonious 3-2 defeat to Manchester United seems a good place to start. How could they rush to damn Mark Clattenburg as a racist just two hours after the match had finished, in full knowledge that a rapacious media would seize on their embryonic statement and leave a stain on his character that will not be fully wiped off for the rest of his life? There was no way Chelsea could have collected enough evidence to substantiate their claim in 120 minutes, and jumping to a conclusion before thoroughly examining all the necessary evidence was reckless and unprofessional. What little evidence eventually trickled through in the following days was centred around a witness who barely does the term justice: John Obi Mikel never heard the abusive word said to have been directed against him by Clattenburg (“monkey”), but nonetheless made a witness statement using Ramires’s – a player with fledgling command of the English language – account of what he had heard. A Chelsea player also claimed that Clattenburg had further called Juan Mata a “Spanish twat”, although that too was never heard by the apparent target and was eventually dropped. How Mikel’s complaint stuck on the back of evidence that was no greater than the Mata one is something that might be explained by the inquiry in the coming weeks, but complaints over black players have always carried greater weight in of themselves courtesy of the attention drawn to this particular form of racism by the media and that might have emboldened Mikel and Chelsea to persist regardless of the scant evidence.

Are the media’s current intentions in training their sights on racism in the game noble, or have they inflamed an otherwise domiciled issue for commercial purposes to the point where everyone – including black players – has lost touch with the ground reality? Before Patrice Evra started the first of a trio of racist cases that has soured the Premier League, it was difficult to remember football’s most exciting league having a serious problem with racism. Compared to the frequent monkey chanting in Spain, or organised humiliation of black players in Italy, the Premier League had become a theatre where black players were regarded first for their ability, with their nationality being a secondary, general point of interest. Didier Drogba is remembered at Chelsea for the goals he scored and the leadership he provided; Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were one of the best-loved striking duo’s in Premier League history; Emmanuel Adebayor took his chance to shine at Arsenal and put Togo on the footballing map; Demba Ba recalled Alan Shearer at his best for one season at Newcastle. From London to Manchester to Newcastle, all the country’s Premier League clubs have been a proud racial melting pot that has now been upturned and spilt by the claims of the past two seasons.

It is against this history of progress and integration that the claims of Evra, Ferdinand and especially Mikel should be considered, rather than by relying on evidence of witnesses from Chelsea who have been shown to be open to peer pressure, persuasion and constructing clear falsehoods in the face of their legal obligations. If Chelsea’s Ashley Cole created John Terry’s evidence at the prompting of club secretary David Barnard, and never actually heard what he claimed to have heard, then how can the FA possibly take the word of Ramires – a representative of the same club and with an uncertain grasp of English to boot – at face value in determining the fate of Clattenburg? Rather, the FA should consider that the undeniable racial content of the first two cases came in the context of a fierce slanging match that went back and forth between opponents and encompassed insults no less heinous because of their non-racial nature. Patrice Evra brought up Luis Suarez’s sister’s pussy before the latter rebutted by calling him black in an aggressive manner. Anton Ferdinand cruelly reminded John Terry that he “shagged his mate’s missus”, provoking the much-maligned Chelsea captain to unleash that notorious line of racist abuse. In Ferdinand’s estimation, that brought it “to another level” but what is the difference between one expensively remunerated star sexually slurring another’s family, the other remarking on his skin colour, or the first hitting back on the way he looks? The hurt felt is mutual, the sense of players losing their heads in the heat of battle shared. Suarez’s wife has wryly observed how she “doesn’t like or recognise the Luis that plays football on the pitch”, the man transformed into a competitive snarling beast who was once driven to bite an opponent on a football pitch in Holland. Arsene Wenger and Robin van Persie received the brunt of the worst abuse from the last matchday weekend when Arsenal played Manchester United. Wenger was jeered as a paedophile, while allusions were made to Robin van Persie as a rapist and a “Dutch Jimmy Savile” (referencing the deceased British celebrity who has recently been exposed as a serial child abuser). As recently as last week, a Facebook friend saw fit to mockingly describe Wenger as a “paedophile” in his Facebook status, displaying the kind of detached cruelty that is all too often euphemistically passed by as “banter” in masochistic English society. Some of the chants I have heard directed against Wenger by Stoke’s male, female and very young fans through the television set turned the ears blue at a family hour while a group of friends returned from a Chelsea-Barcelona match in 2006 numbed by the ninety minutes of sexist, vitriolic abuse they had heard directed at the away side. As usual, Wenger caught the gist of it when he described the abuse he faces, such as calling him a paedophile, as just as “racist” as that received by Evra or Ferdinand. Rather than segregating the abuse received by them as somehow worthy of greater attention and action, black Premier League stars must accept that they are part of a slightly different problem and one which the evidence of the Evra and Terry cases suggests they have in part contributed to. It is a problem that antagonistic managers like Jose Mourinho must also acknowledge contributing to in the past, by stirring up hatred and bile between opponents to an extent that loosens the restraint and better civil tendencies of those in the stands.

For black Premier League stars to instead claim that racial abuse of them in a competitive theatre is removed from the vicious abuse of all types that is regularly traded on the pitch by players (including them) and between fans is a false distinction that recklessly sabotages the good work that has been done in the Premier League over the last fifteen years and remains to be done at the grassroots level and in lower leagues. It is in these areas, far away from the spotlight of the national press, where black players are not so protected by their fame or their worth to their clubs, that racism remains a tangible issue. The young black teenager who is racially abused by a white opponent on the field of play is subjected to a form of psychological bullying that can leave long-term scarring and should be warded away from every growing child. It is in the lower leagues, where comments are not picked up by the newspapers or television cameras, and ethnic diversity perhaps not so prevalent, that a culture of systematic racial abuse and targeting of black players without the means to resort to expensive legal vindication available to an Evra or a Ferdinand may persist from the stands and from white players. Yet by presenting an exaggerated picture of the state of racism in the Premier League, and developing a dangerous precedent of crying wolf every time an insult is pointed in their direction, black players in the Premier League have stirred up old hostilities and diverted attentions from the battlegrounds of racism truly in need of help. Just last week, a Chelsea fan taunted Dany Welbeck by brandishing a monkey gesture at him and it was difficult not to imagine that Evra, Ferdinand and Mikel had brought this about by feeding the beast.

Even more culpable than the players, however, are a lascivious media who have recognised the potential inherent in the racist saga to sell papers and abused their prerogative to the hilt in doing so. Racism is now first and foremost in everyone’s minds as a result of their incendiary coverage, and this has led to an increase of hatred, deepening divisions and hardening of positions.  One feels for those black players in the lower leagues now, as a result of how the media has knowingly precipitated a backlash against all black players by egging their Premier League counterparts on to report players and officials for the smallest of crimes and thus making them appear as troublemakers. This reputation will attach itself to black players in the lower leagues who have to put up with far worse, as the papers that cover the Premier League in such misleading fashion are also read by fans of lower-league teams. As with the Chelsea fan who taunted Welbeck, it will be hard to escape the feeling that any increase in racial hostility in the lower leagues resulted from the media’s mischief-making and was evidence of irresponsible behaviour by black Premier League stars to their quietly suffering lower-league counterparts. Better the media train their sights on racism in the darker corners of the footballing hierarchy that are more in need of their strong public voice, and stop devoting pages and pages of coverage to the travails of stars such as Terry and Ferdinand in an insidious way that engenders greater hatred.

The football media has always been aware of their need for narrative to burnish the weekly match reports, while calmer heads have always been able to keep sight of the real issues behind their need to script stories and talking points. The hyperbolic flashpoints this season have already swung between diving – again, an issue inflated to unbelievable heights – and now racism. Yet this one has the power to generate real racism where there previously was none, across all England’s leagues and footballing pitches, and for consciously creating these conditions they perhaps deserve the strongest rebuke of all. Meanwhile Mark Clattenburg is said to be lurching from bewilderment to the point of serious breakdown, and psychological counselling has been cited as something that may be needed before he is fit to resume his job. He also faces a police investigation by the Met prompted by the Society of Black Lawyers that is based on evidence provided by footballers who have been shown to be willing to lie in court, making it ludicrous to imagine that a man could be criminally convicted on the back of their word – or that of a headstrong player still learning English who might have heard wrong. This is what the worst tendencies in football’s culture – ranging from a self-serving, misleading media who have encouraged black players to believe they are being wronged, to clubs willing to lie in courts to protect their own interests, to leading players who have forgotten that the real struggle for racism could be affected by their eagerness to see others fall, to fans willing to use this crisis as a free pass to take their abuse even further than before – have led to: the picking apart of a potentially innocent man, publically doomed to be judged before any verdict is found, and the breaking out of real hostility and enmity across the sport and the vast cross-sections of society it affects.

Exciting new clubs need to hold on to best players to ensure Champions League revival is here to stay

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.