IF ever there was a time English clubs could do with a Champions League boost, it’s right here, right now. How grim was all that last night?
Arsenal and Chelsea go in to their opening games this evening knowing there has rarely been a worse first night for the English Premier League, usually so dominant in Europe.
There were signs last season that the EPL’s grip was loosening and with United held 0-0 by Scottish champions Rangers at Old Trafford and Spurs relinquishing a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 at Werder Bremen’s Weserstadion, it was not a night to remember.
United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps mindful of his roots in Glasgow, pronounced himself merely “disappointed” with a truly dreadful deadlock while Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was “frustrated” after what he called “a perfect opening 43 minutes”.
Though FC Twente, the Dutch champions managed by Englishman Steve McClaren last season, held holders Inter Milan 2-2, the Spanish big guns fired with some gusto – Lionel Messi scored a cracker in Barcelona’s 5-1 win over Greeks Panathinaikos while Valencia crushed Turkey’s Bursasport 4-0.
Further Anglo gloom was added by the awful ankle injury suffered by Antonio Valencia. Oh, and the much-hyped return to action of Wayne Rooney was hardly worth staying up for either. He appeared to hurt his own left ankle and did little on the field – other than pull his shirt over his head when he saw the extent of Valencia’s injury.
The £16m Ecuadorian has a fractured and dislocated ankle – much like those suffered by Arsenal’s Eduardo and Wasps rugby player Danny Cipriani in recent years – which left his boot at right angles to his shin. He’ll be out for the rest of the season. At least.
In the light of Valencia’s injury, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who welcomes Portugal’s unfancied Braga to the Emirates Stadium tonight, chose an apt time to talk about Abou Diaby’s injury. He suffered a heavy challenge from Bolton’s Paul Robinson on Saturday.
Robinson wasn’t booked – in fact Arsenal didn’t even get a free kick. Diaby must wait for the swelling to subside before a diagnosis can be made but Wenger raged: "It's the ankle on which he had surgery. We don't know how long he will be out. The tackle was very bad. I cannot protect the players; only the FA can do that.
"I love the English game but people are more interested in controversy than protecting the players. Why should I create another story? You asked me how the tackle was and it was bad.
“But I don't know if my views are taken seriously. Diaby has been injured from an unfair tackle. I've watched it 10 times and it is an unfair tackle.”
Yes, we get it Arsene. It can get nasty out there. Now get on with winning a trophy. It’s overdue.
Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti took a more typical approach to his side’s trip to Slovakian Double winners MSK Zilina. He made the now traditional Blues prediction: "This club deserves to win the Champions League. But to win, you have to deserve it not for the past, but we have to do it for the present.”
With Didier Drogba suspended as he always is at the start of a new European dawn, 21-year-old Daniel Sturridge, 21, will start up front.
Ancelotti named his side early, saying: "I've never seen a player as quick as Sturridge. He has improved a lot in the past year. He has improved his character, his professional behaviour. He has matured.
"We want to involve more young players compared to last season. Gael Kakuta played on Saturday, and on Wednesday we will play Daniel Sturridge from the beginning."
The English champions certainly have the talent and depth to do better than their three English rivals. But whether they can match Barcelona, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid – who face Ajax tonight – or Bayern Munich – who host Roma – is another matter completely.
Tonight’s schedule in full:
AC Milan v Auxerre, GpG, 19:45
Arsenal v Braga, GpH, 19:45
Bayern Munich v Roma, GpE, 19:45
CFR 1907 Cluj-Napoca v Basle, GpE, 19:45
Marseille v Spartak Moscow, GpF, 19:45
MSK Zilina v Chelsea, GpF, 19:45
Real Madrid v Ajax, GpG, 19:45
Shakhtar Donetsk v Partizan Belgrade, GpH, 19:45