Now the dust has settled on the Champions League quarter-finals, with no English teams making it to the final four, it is time to reflect on the reasons for Arsenal and Manchester United failing to progress.
Arsenal’s exit is the more understandable of the two, considering their injury problems. As if Cesc Fabregas’ broken leg wasn’t enough of a setback, Arsene Wenger’s side was forced to make do without their defensive leader and their main creative influence, in William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin respectively.
Gallas’ absence was the most significant. Time after time a lack of communication between the Gunners’ back four cost them dear, with Emmanuel Eboue’s positioning for the clinching fourth goal symptomatic of a makeshift defence ill-equipped to deal with the movement of Lionel Messi and Bojan.
Although Nicklas Bendtner led the line admirably at the other end, he was well marshalled by Gabi Milito and Rafael Marquez, whose performances simply emphasise the strength in depth which separates the Catalans from Wenger’s young squad.
In the end Barcelona’s convincing victory was little surprise, and Arsenal will need to draw on all their reserves when they visit White Hart Lane on Wednesday.
But if Arsenal’s departure was somewhat expected, Manchester United’s exit from the competition at the hands of Bayern Munich comes as a minor shock.
The main talking point before the game was Wayne Rooney’s inclusion in the starting line-up, and I feel Sir Alex Ferguson made the right move in risking his star man.
This may come as a surprise considering Rooney’s rather subdued performance, but the sad truth is United have no other individual who comes close to worrying defences in the same way as the England frontman.
Despite not being directly involved in the moves leading up to Nani’s two goals, even an injured Wayne Rooney was enough to keep opposition defenders on their toes. Indeed it was perhaps Bayern’s overestimation of the 24-year-old which freed up so much space for his Portuguese team-mate.
Rafael’s sending-off was of course a factor, but one might wonder why Ferguson reverted to a 4-5-0 formation when his lone striker’s ankle injury flared up.
The answer to this can be found by looking at the impact made by Dimitar Berbatov when he finally took to the field with 10 minutes remaining.
Berbatov thrives on the space created by a strike partner, and his own minimal movement means he often struggles as a lone frontman. With wingers Nani and Antonio Valencia overworked to the point that the former was seen visibly gasping for breath after one lung-busting run, the Bulgarian was required to make space for himself and fight for the ball. He is unlikely to be seen doing this at the best of times, and last night was no exception.
Sir Alex Ferguson will surely deny it, but yesterday’s elimination offers proof – if any was needed – that Carlos Tevez should still have had a place at Old Trafford.
United’s success this season has been based around a fully-fit and on-form Wayne Rooney, with no ready-made replacement in the same mould.
Rooney’s game is so strong because his goalscoring and link-up play is complemented by a willingness to chase every ball and never let the centre-backs settle. For the entire second half yesterday, the often-shaky Daniel van Buyten and Martin Demechelis were allowed time and space to get forward, with only the occasional burst forward from Nani and Valencia causing them problems.
United saw before the break how the Bayern centre-backs struggled with the movement of their front three, and if they could call on someone like Tevez, rather than Berbatov and the ineffective Ryan Giggs, we might have seen a contest in the second half rather than an attack-versus-defence encounter in United’s half of the pitch.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s reluctance to call upon Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf, coupled with Michael Owen’s season-ending hamstring injury, suggests the Red Devils could not afford to lose both Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo without bringing in an experienced replacement.
It is all well and good having talented youngsters on your books, but if you are unwilling to utilise them in high-pressure situations it seems ridiculous not to augment the striking talent at the club, even if just bringing in someone on a short-term deal, as they did with Henrik Larsson in 2006.
Instead of making excuses about refereeing decisions or about Bayern players crowding around the official in a manner not dissimilar to previous United sides, Ferguson needs to have a look at his own shortcomings.
His side had no response to a Bayern side lacking their own one-time talisman Miroslav Klose, and whose star men Ribery and Robben underperformed save for one crucial moment of genius.
For all the intelligence of Ferguson’s initial approach to the match, at this level of football you need to have a Plan B which you can rely on.