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Big-spending English clubs superior only in money terms to their European rivals


The mistake is to look only at the money and ignore the human element. On a purely economic reading, Manchester City's extravagance should smash a path through Europe and the 315m Roman Abramovich spent just to extricate Andre Villas-Boas from Portugal is a guarantee of conquest.

"Struggling? Are you serious?" Alex Ferguson asked before rising, with a smile, from his press conference seat. A winner of two Champions League titles in his 25 years, Ferguson was not inclined to join a debate about English toil in this group phase.

Arsenal, the former broken men of the Premier League, are through to the knockout rounds for the 12th consecutive season. Roberto Mancini, the City manager, though, rates his own chances of escaping the Europa League booby prize no higher than "30 per cent".


On the other side of a booming football metropolis, Manchester United will step down if they lose in Basle on the night City host Bayern Munich, their group's top dog. With their "high line" working like a noose, Chelsea need to beat Valencia at Stamford Bridge to lessen the chances of Abramovich ditching a manager for the seventh time in as many years.

Naturally a jig is starting up in readiness for the fall of two great monuments to extravagance. The inability of Chelsea's players to break tactical habits instilled in them by Jose Mourinho (and only tinkered with by his successors) guarantees that Villas-Boas has become his own daily survival movie.

The Inflexibles, as this Chelsea side may come to be remembered in their later years, turned on Luiz Felipe Scolari for undermining the ancient virtues of midfield power and defensive resilience. The chances are they will turn against Villas-Boas too for trying to change the style too fast for them to deal with. Then it will all come down to Abramovich's football intelligence. Does he change the manager again or this time the players?

With the team's identity in flux it comes as no surprise to observe the regression in Europe, where positional confusion is punished much more sharply than in England, where Chelsea are hardly impenetrable either. All we are seeing is the battle between past and future played out under harsher continental lights and the images are hardly pretty.

With their £194.9m loss, and their bristling two-team squad, City are even less likely to attract the sympathy of neutrals as they endeavour to recover from defeats in Munich and Naples.

Aurelio De Laurentiis, the Napoli president, is a film producer and amateur clown who called Lionel Messi "a cretin" and claimed English women "do not wash", so we ought to be wary of repeating his description of City as "a toy" which Sheikh Mansour will walk away from if the Europa League is all he gets for his money.

All this disdain demonstrates is that City's wealth has blinded many to a deeper football truth. The Premier and Champions Leagues are contrasting universes, in tactics, tempo and tone.

On the playing fields of England, City have scored 42 times in 12 league games and have pinned opponents back with their orchestral forward play and doughty back four plus two screening midfielders. Few Premier League sides will counter-attack them lethally or try to match them for possession.


Beyond the Channel these are established arts. For £200,000 a week, the absentee landlord Sheikh is entitled to expect a little Euro-literacy for his cash. Most of these City players are fully equipped for Europe.

Collectively though, in a tough group, they have yet to learn how to switch between the two modes, as Arsenal and United have over many years.

Complacency in the 3-3 home draw with Basle largely explains United's predicament. Two-nil up after 17 minutes, they were 3-2 down before Ashley Young's late equaliser and for them the campaign has been a recovery mission stemming from that night. The cost could be a second-round tie against Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Spain is where the real power shines. Real and Barca have each scored 16 times in five group outings. At home and abroad Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are engaged in an arms race which Arsenal's Robin van Persie has joined, with 31 goals in 29 league appearances in 2011.

Arsenal climbed on top of Borussia Dortmund through Alex Song's wonderful dribble and Van Persie's finishing. The individual human element still beats the pound sign, still writes history. Money is not always destiny, even for Chelsea and City.