English clubs falling behind rivals in Europe

Trevor Steven
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I WOULD have been a little surprised if Manchester United winger Nani had been shown a yellow card for his now infamous challenge during Tuesday’s defeat to Real Madrid, but a red card was a ridiculous decision.

It sent shockwaves through the United team. Players would have been thinking “there’s something not right here”, and, rather than rallying in their moment of trouble, they capitulated in disbelief.

Until that point the contest had been finely balanced. United were one goal ahead on the night and on aggregate, did not look in great danger from Real and remained strong candidates to lift the trophy.

But against that quality of opposition, and especially Cristiano Ronaldo, 10 men are always going to struggle. You also have to hand it to Real boss Jose Mourinho for the match-winning introduction of midfielder Luka Modric.

I take issue with Mourinho’s assessment of the match, however. His declaration that the best team lost is not true – Real edged it on points – although it will have done his job prospects at Old Trafford no harm at all.

He has long had a good relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson but less so with United fans. With one sentence he made many new friends at the club, and I can certainly see him managing there.

The former Chelsea and Inter Milan coach certainly comes with baggage, but has had to fight for the level of control he likes in Spain and United is one club where he could expect to be afforded that privilege.

Ferguson’s decision not to start Wayne Rooney in that Champions League clash was a strange one. If it was tactical it did not seem to work and I’m sure would have lifted Real Madrid spirits.

Rooney may not have been in top form lately but he has not been that bad. Players only get better by playing and often big occasions, such as major European ties, can prompt them to raise their game.

United are running away with the Premier League title so this confuses an otherwise settled situation, although I think Rooney likes it too much at Old Trafford for this to raise doubts about his immediate future.

The result means England is set to be without a club in the last eight of the competition, barring a miracle recovery from Arsenal next week, for the first time since 1995-96.

Other countries have made up ground. Germany’s Bundesliga is doing fantastically well, France has a new force in Paris Saint-Germain and Italian football has improved again, while Spanish clubs remain strong.

But this is a kick in the pants for English teams. They are just not as good as they were, and next season looks to be critical for restoring their damaged reputations.

Trevor Steven is a former England footballer who now works as a media commentator.