A Premier League club is not in the draw for the last eight for the first time in 17 years, but what does it mean for English football?
Philipp Lahm, Bayern Munich's captain, was contemplating the list of potential opponents in the Champions League draw. It was Tuesday, the day before the Bundesliga leaders took on Arsenal, but he was talking as if it was a fait accompli and, in hindsight, tempting fate more than he realised. "It is a surprise to have no English teams in the quarter-finals," he said. "They have a strong league and have gone far in the past, so it's a big surprise."
What happened the following night very nearly caught him out. Jens Lehmann summed it up when he talked of the "arrogance" in Germany approaching the match. It was, he explained, not considered an important game. "In their minds, they are already through."
Ultimately, Lahm was right, even if the occasion did threaten to become an ordeal for the four-time winners. Arsenal came up short, while Manchester United will be another envious onlooker when the draw is made, and Manchester City and Chelsea have been excluded since the group phase. It is the first time since Blackburn Rovers in 1995-96 – when only the champions qualified for the tournament – that the Premier League has not had a side in the last eight.
Plainly, it represents decline, or at least evidence of decline, bearing in mind that in the last eight finals, the Premier League has provided eight representatives, three winners and one all-English affair. Whether that decline amounts to complacency, or a crisis in the making, is another matter entirely, bearing in mind it's only 10 months since Chelsea were parading the trophy through west London – and, certainly, there are plenty of serious football people who consider it too early for snap judgements.
Roberto Mancini talked recently of English football being considerably superior to its Italian counterpart. Rafael Benítez believes it is "not an issue" and "the wheel will turn again." Jose Mourinho says the same. Sir Alex Ferguson will forever be convinced United would have made it past Real Madrid were it not for a red-card decision.
Arsène Wenger, however, is not usually one for alarmist statements, so it is worth listening when he says it represents "a massive wake-up call". England have had 33 quarter-finalists since 1996, compared to Spain's 32, Italy's 24, Germany's 20 and France's 11, so not to have a single representative this year deserves scrutiny, at the very least.
Wenger's conclusion is that "the rest of Europe has caught back up with us" and he may have a point, bearing in mind the four English teams won only 39% of their games – again, their worst statistic since Blackburn 17 years ago.
Between them, they managed considerably fewer shots at goal, 269, than their opponents, 345. City had 56 compared to 92. Arsenal's figures were 48 against 93. The four teams conceded more goals per game, 1.39, than any season since 1998-99. Put it all together, and it clearly raises questions about whether the Premier League is quite as accomplished as it likes to portray itself.
A better time, perhaps, to assess that accurately will be in the next couple of years, when we will know whether this season was simply a one-off or part of a more serious downward trend. Yet it is not knee-jerk to wonder if there are areas of English football that are deteriorating, or at least need fine-tuning.
Defending, as a whole, has been pretty poor in the Premier League this season. The standard of goalkeeping has regressed (just try to name three goalkeepers who have consistently excelled). Of last season's top four, Arsenal, Chelsea and City have all slipped backward to some degree.
Other issues have to be factored in. English teams would clearly be refreshed by a winter break, but the top managers have all but given up on calling for it. In Spain, they will rearrange the fixture schedule to help their teams succeed in Europe. In England, that is unheard of. Then there is the speed at which the Premier League is played – 20% faster than five years ago, according to Prozone – when playing in Europe tends to require greater control and discipline and is generally a different tempo, quick bursts of incisive passing, but more structured and conservative beforehand.
City are the case in point, with only three wins in 12 attempts in the Champions League over the past two seasons. Two were against a Villarreal side that would eventually be relegated, the other against a Bayern team that had already qualified and fielded a virtual reserve team. This season there were no wins in six, albeit in a treacherous group involving the champions of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.
All the same, it is probably too early to make rushed judgements. Wenger made some valid points without actually identifying what had gone wrong, and it is also worth pointing out Arsenal's manager had argued in November there was no reason to be unduly concerned. "Maybe we have less room, less margin, than we had before, when it was just a question of when we would qualify. German football has come up, Spanish football is there every year and some French clubs have come back, like Paris Saint-Germain. It looks less obvious for us. But I don't think we are getting worse."
Jupp Heynckes, Bayern's manager, was correct, too, when he said it might not even be a debate but for one of the more contentious refereeing decisions at Old Trafford in recent years. "For United, what can you say?" Heynckes said, reflecting on Nani's red card against Madrid. "They had a referee decision that put them at a great disadvantage. When matches are really tight in the Champions League, you have to start and end with 11 players. A decision like that can completely change a match."
There are other mitigating factors, according to Mourinho. "Man City are out because the draw had something strange – [Borussia] Dortmund, Real Madrid and Man City," Madrid's manager says. "Chelsea were also in a difficult group (Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Nordsjaelland)."
Mourinho's view is that there is nothing greatly for English football to be concerned about. All four of the Spanish clubs, he points out, were struggling to qualify. "If the four Spanish teams are out, it doesn't mean that Spanish football is collapsing. It is football, it can happen."
As it turned out, Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga went through, and Spain have three quarter-finalists for the first time in 10 years. England managed that in three successive seasons from 2007 to 2009. Extend that period back to 2005, there was an English finalist in the Champions League every year. Since then, there have been only two English teams to get as far as the semi-finals – Chelsea last season, United the year before.
"A lot of teams have caught up," Lahm says. "We are here. Dortmund are here." He agrees, however, with Heynkes about what happened to United against Madrid. "They didn't have any luck in the draw. And they had only 10 players on the pitch. It could be very different."
Heynckes believes it is evidence that football is cyclical. "The English teams were strong. Now there are Bundesliga teams. There are always changes. That livens up the Champions League."
Benítez agrees. "I still see English clubs with a lot of potential who can do really well in Europe. I'm sure the wheel will turn again. Real Madrid and Barcelona are very strong. Italy have had some problems, but Juventus are very strong. To have two or three English teams in the semis or finals is not easy because of the size of the other teams. But I don't see a big problem. It's just one year. The next years may be different."
In the meantime, David Beckham, one suspects, will enjoy being the last Englishman standing. Three sides from Spain, two from Germany and one each from Italy, Turkey and France have made it. The draw is on Friday, when Uefa will map out the route to 25 May at Wembley. English football will have its nose pressed to the window outside.
This article has been amended since first publication