Premier League superiority hurt by European flops

LONDON - Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson blamed "typical Germans", Arsenal were laid to waste by the brilliance of Lionel Messi and last month Chelsea were tactically outwitted by Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan.

Liverpool long since departed the Champions League, unable even to emerge from their group, but the failure of England's other three big guns to reach the semi-finals rendered the regular boast that the Premier League is the best in the world a little hollow on Thursday.

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There is still the tightest Premier League title race for several seasons but a domestic squabble lacks the jet-setting glamour of a Champions League climax.

Not since 2003 has an English side failed to reach the semi-finals of the world's richest club competition.

In the last six seasons 13 of the 24 semi-final spots have been occupied by English clubs while in the past three seasons only Barcelona in 2007-08 and 2008-09 and A.C. Milan in 2006-07 have gatecrashed the English end-of-season party.

Ferguson's United looked set to reach the semis for a fourth consecutive season on Wednesday when they went 3-0 up on the night and 4-2 ahead on aggregate against Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich only to shoot themselves in the foot.

The 50th minute sending off of Brazilian full-back Rafael was blamed by Ferguson for United's fall from grace but his angry outburst about the role Bayern's players had in the referee's decision masked the real reasons for defeat.

Ferguson said his team had been unlucky and dismissed suggestions that the English flop in the Champions League this season was a cause for worry.

"I'm sure people will try to read something into it," he told reporters. "All the English teams were expected to get to the semi-finals as they have done in the last few years but I don't think it casts a shadow over the game at all.

"I still think it's the most successful league in Europe. You don't always get what you want in life and we were all suffering from the same thing."

PERFORMED WONDERS

He is right in some respects. The common denominator is that United, like Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have regressed this season and no longer scare the also-rans at home, let alone the cream of Europe who have raised their games.

A look at the Premier League table is revealing. With five weeks to go, United have lost seven times, leaders Chelsea five, third-placed Arsenal six and Liverpool, adrift in sixth, 10.

Last season that quartet lost only 17 matches between them.

While the quality of the sides pushing to break into the top four has improved, namely Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, there are concerns for England's elite.

Self-inflicted wounds may have contributed to United's demise but the fact that Wayne Rooney was rushed back just a week after damaging ankle ligaments demonstrated how United have become overly reliant on their talisman.

Rooney has performed wonders to fill the void left by the departure to Real Madrid of Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who scored 68 goals in his last two seasons at Old Trafford.

But it has taken its toll on him. With Carlos Tevez also gone to rivals Manchester City and Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes nearing the end, United, as Chelsea showed last weekend, are more vulnerable these days.

Chelsea have hit form of late, but their progress under Carlo Ancelotti has been steady rather than spectacular. Some of their most influential players, the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba, are past their peak and will need replacing in the coming seasons.

Arsenal, as they have been for several seasons, appear to be a work in progress. Pretty they may be, but with Messi rampant on Tuesday and no Cesc Fabregas to inspire them, they were given a football lesson by Barcelona.

With Liverpool unlikely to be in the Champions League next season, the odds are shortening on Fernando Torres plying his trade on the continent next season while rumours abound that Fabregas could return to Barca in the near future.

The Premier League needs the next Rooney to emerge soon if this season's blip does not become a pattern - a sobering thought for the so-called best league in the world.

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