LONDON — A good week for English clubs in the Champions League. What many observers believe is the weakest Manchester United side in almost 20 years still beat AC Milan 7-2 on aggregate, while Arsenal, which always seem a work in progress, thumped FC Porto 5-0 at Emirates Stadium.
In Spain, Cristiano Ronaldo and his fellow Real Madrid galacticos were dumped out of the competition by Lyon, adding to the belief that when you leave Old Trafford the only way is down.
United was awesome against the Milan pensioners and it says everything about the visitors that their most effective player was the returning hero David Beckham, who came on in the 64th-minute to a standing ovation.
Wayne Rooney was again sensational, scoring his 29th and 30th goals of the season, increasing the chances of him beating Ronaldo’s 2007-08 mark of 42 before the season is over.
I have a feeling Chelsea will find it difficult to overcome the 2-1 deficit from the first leg against Inter Milan. I also believe Barcelona is still the team to beat, but on a memorable week for United and Arsenal, the strength of the Premier League was once again demonstrated in style.
The remaining clubs will be hoping an all-English quarterfinal draw is made next Friday — apart from Liverpool’s 2007 final defeat by Milan and Barcelona’s away-goals victory over Chelsea in last year’s semifinals, the only exits the Premier League’s big four have suffered over the past three years were inflicted by English rivals.
Yet in domestic football Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and United have been more fragile than usual. Last season, they lost a combined total of 17 league games, but this time around the number of losses is already 25. But while Arsenal may lose to Sunderland and Burnley can beat United, in Europe — Liverpool apart — the Premier League heavyweights march on.
It remains to be seen whether the balance of power in the Champions League changes, but for each of the last three seasons England has provided three of the four semifinalists. Only England can achieve that domination this season with Chelsea still involved — Spain (Barcelona and Sevilla), France (Lyon and Bordeaux) and Germany (Bayern Munich and Stuttgart) have two representatives left.
Meanwhile, the Premier League decided against fining Liverpool for fielding a weakened team against Wigan, but rarely in the history of this great club can the players representing the Reds have put on such a shocking, lifeless display in the 1-0 defeat.
Even when a side scores six goals, one or two players will be below their best. At DW Stadium every Liverpool player was inept, allowing themselves to be out-fought, out-passed, in fact, out-every thinged by a team battling against relegation.
Rafa Benitez is usually defensive of his players, blaming the referee for most losses, but for once he made no excuses, even questioning his side’s attitude, as damning a criticism as a manager can make.
Fans will accept, albeit reluctantly, defeat as long as the players have given every ounce of sweat in the cause. By implication Benitez accused his team of giving less than 100 percent — Liverpool fans are still split on where the blame lies, but the remarkable support the manager has maintained is diminishing.
Those outside of Liverpool have been amazed that Benitez has not been as roundly criticized as other managers of under-achieving clubs are. While loyalty should always be admired, it can sometimes fly in the face of logic, and letters to the local paper, fan sites and phone-ins underline that support for Benitez is on the wane.
It has been trotted out that it would cost £20 million to sack Benitez, and Liverpool’s American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks can barely agree on which day it is let alone whether the manager should stay. But if there is a tidal wave of opinion against the manager, and things are going that way, it will be difficult for Benitez to survive.
Benitez had guaranteed Liverpool would finish in fourth place, which is looking less likely to be come reality than “Broadway” Joe Namath’s more famous guarantee before Super Bowl III that the unfancied New York Jets would beat the powerhouse Baltimore Colts, which they did 16-7.
History is against Liverpool qualifying for the Champions League now — only one team, Leeds, has lost nine matches and finished fourth in the Premier League. Liverpool also clearly doesn’t like Mondays — it has been nine years since it had a happy Monday and won on the first day of the week.
Liverpool had £67 million-worth of talent (of varying degrees) on the bench at Wigan yet still had to play midfielder Javier Mascherano at right-back, where unsurprisingly he had a nightmare.
There are too many players, bought by Benitez, who are not of the standard set at Anfield — Lucas, Ryan Babel, Maxi Rodriguez, Alberto Aquilani and Philipp Deggen to name five.
Too many times Benitez picks a side not to lose rather than to win, which goes against the traditions of Liverpool started by Bill Shankly and carried through by his successors.
Maybe Benitez should lower his guarantee to sixth place and the Europa Cup next season but even finishing in the top six may be beyond one of the most ordinary Liverpool sides for many years.
The loss to Lille on Thursday in the Europa League is an irrelevance. Finishing fourth is far more important than winning a European consolation prize, and Liverpool is fortunate that its next Premier League opponent is last-place Portsmouth at Anfield, where it should be able to break its nine-year Monday hoodoo.
Should Liverpool fail to qualify for the Champions League, it is difficult to see Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Pepe Reina staying. With the exception of Valencia’s David Villa, all of Europe’s leading players began the season with clubs in the Champions League, and Liverpool’s big three will not want to line up against Rapid Vienna or Dinamo Bucharest in the Europa League next September.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.