Armchair Pundit

English crisis – who cares?

Alex Chick

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Arsenal suffer humiliation in Milan

So English football is having something of an annus horribilis in Europe.

Two teams knocked out of the Champions League group stage, only one successfully negotiating the Europa League groups, and now Arsenal's 4-0 drubbing in Milan.

The demise of Manchesters United and City from the Champions League group stage was portrayed as a major setback. Arsenal's defeat was an embarrassment.

Now our hopes lie with a Chelsea team that reports claim is openly at war with itself  - if they fail to reach the quarter-finals it will be time to hit the panic button.

Our national pride will lie in tatters.

Such was the glum mood on TV last night, and permeating today's papers.

So why is it that I can't find anyone who is genuinely bothered by England's underperformance?

I have never understood the idea that the English should support Premier League sides in Europe.

If you are, for example, a Tottenham fan, the chances are you don't like Arsenal very much. In fact, you probably want them to lose every week.

That being the case, why on earth would you abandon that stance when they take on a foreign team towards which you probably hold no ill-feeling whatsoever?

Answer - you wouldn't.

Even if it's not one of your direct rivals playing, there is undoubtedly something satisfying about seeing the Premier League's hubristic cream take a pasting in Europe.

There was a degree of neutral support for United in 1999 when they won England's first European Cup for 15 years - but since then any goodwill has dissipated thanks to our top clubs' enormous self-regard.

To maintain the impression of impartiality, the media are forced to take a general view of the nation's fortunes, but individuals do not think like that.

They think only about their own team. If they get knocked out early, it's disappointing. And that's it. If other English sides fail it is a slight comfort - you don't want them rubbing it in by actually winning the thing.

It is a strange sort of patriot who wants an English team - any team - to win in Europe. Even one you normally hate.

The best argument advanced in favour of supporting Premier League teams centres on the country coefficient that determines the number of teams that gain access to the Champions and Europa Leagues.

The better English sides do in Europe, the more places we get, and the greater my team's chance of qualifying.

It's fair enough, but the chances of England losing that coveted fourth Champions League spot in the foreseeable future are remote.

Three countries currently get four places - England, Spain and Germany.

England top the country coefficients, which are calculated on a five-year basis, and are absolutely miles clear of Italy in fourth.

The Premier League's seasonal coefficient is greater than Serie A's for each of the last five completed campaigns, as well as this one so far (though that may well change).

It is also notable that the highest seasonal coefficient of recent years was achieved by Portugal last year - thanks mainly to their performance in the Europa League where they had three semi-finalists.

So, the Manchester clubs' relegation to the second-tier competition could perversely have a positive effect on England's coefficient, as it gives them a great chance of getting their hands on silverware - for all our strength in numbers, English teams have won just three of 21 Champions Leagues since their return to Europe in 1990.

In short, as long as English clubs are good enough to be competitive in Europe, their coefficient will remain high.

For English sides to lose their top-three country coefficient ranking, they would have play badly enough for long enough that their absence hardly mattered anyway.

After all, what's the point of having four (or three, or even two) teams in the Champions League if they are just going to lose, season after season?

Finishing fourth in the Premier League remains a priority for Arsenal, due to the riches endowed by Europe's foremost competition.

But judging by this season's continental catastrophes, you might wonder why they would let themselves in for more punishment.

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