It might well be the season to be jolly, but for British football fans, European competition has served up little to smile about this winter.
From the lowest ever points tally for an English team in the Champions League group stages to the first cup holder ever to be eliminated at the first stage, the English Premier League teams have been well and truly shown up by their continental cousins.
Whilst it is not all doom and gloom, with five out of the seven teams in European action progressing to the knockout stage, the report cards read “Must do better.”
Quantitatively ranked according to aspirations, ability, playing performances and results, here (almost definitively) are those report cards.
Manchester City came into the 2012-13 Champions League with high hopes. After their inaugural Premiership title at the end of the 2011-12 season, manager Roberto Mancini’s men looked set for a fair crack at breaking their Champions League curse.
A team with a real fight to save a season that promised so much, they leave the tournament after failing to register a single win.
Admittedly, they were handed a fiendishly tough group, facing off against Ajax, Real Madrid and Jurgen Klopp’s brilliant Dortmund side.
But this is Manchester City.
This is England’s richest club. A club that commands some of the world’s finest talent on its playing roster. A club that bowed out with three points from three draws and three loses.
It was an unmitigated disaster in every sense of the word.
A statistic that, to me, sums up the extent of City’s underachievement came after the 3-1 loss at Ajax: Ajax’s team cost, backed by the excellence of their famed youth academy, was a combined £2.75 million. Manchester City’s, at £187.5 million, was 60 times more expensive.
Admittedly, Dortmund and Real Madrid are both great teams, and as such, progression from the group was never assured.
Yet Man City were never in the ballpark. They gave themselves absolutely no hope of qualification. They can’t blame a hard draw for that.
Like Man City, Chelsea were handed a very hard qualification group for the defense of their European crown.
Up against Italian Champions Juventus and the formidable Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk, one was always going to miss out.
In the event, whilst Chelsea were unlucky no. 3 and will see out the season in the Europa League, they gave a fairly decent account of themselves.
Two results really sealed the Blues’ fate.
By losing away at both of their group rivals, it was always going to be an uphill struggle to qualify. The 3-0 loss at Juventus was essentially the nail in the coffin, which Chelsea played as poorly as they have all season.
Managerial upheaval looks to have derailed Chelsea’s EPL-title bid, but in Europe this cannot be used as an excuse.
Chelsea were not good enough and will now go down in history as the first ever defending champions of the competition to be eliminated at the first opportunity.
Newcastle qualified for Europe this season after an admirable 2011-12 Premier League season in which, for a time, it looked as if they may snatch a Champions League berth.
This season has, in a way not too dissimilar from the Magpies' famously striped kit, been almost as black is to white.
This Newcastle side is not the same one that so stormed the league last season. Papiss Cisse, a man who couldn’t stop scoring last year, looks pedestrian. Yohan Cabaye, among the best midfielders in the league last year, looks a shadow of himself.
Indeed, their 14th place in the league would be far worse without the continued goalscoring form of Demba Ba.
In Europe they have been slightly better, qualifying from their group and reaching the knockout stages—but it was a favorable draw.
Qualifying second behind a fairly average Bordeaux side, whilst not a disaster, does little to inspire hope of Newcastle’s prolonged involvement in Europe this season.
It is splitting hairs really to choose a more impressive performer between Tottenham and Newcastle. Whilst Tottenham had a harder group to negotiate, they are also a marginally better side, and therefore joint second place is pretty much equally underwhelming.
In the end Tottenham just get the nod as they were beaten by a Lazio side that could have realistic aspirations of some sort of run in Europe this season, more so than, say, Bordeaux.
In patches, Tottenham played some fairly entertaining football, although the calibre of the sides manager Andre Villas-Boas deployed on a consistent basis would have warranted better.
That just about sums up Tottenham’s European journey this season. Nothing to write home about.
Qualification assured, they will have to improve to deliver on the prize their boss is obviously targeting this season.
Arsenal did what Arsenal do in the Champions League yet again this season.
Dragging a squad that no longer befits the first-seed status that the Gunners were again afforded—on the illogical basis of Champions League exploits some five years ago—Arsene Wenger again pulled his team across the line.
It would be a surprise if, after finishing second in what should have been a relatively straight-forward group, Arsenal do not draw one of Europe’s elite.
After crashing out of the competition to Barcelona in both of the last two seasons, Wenger’s side has an innate propensity for doing qualification the hard way.
Their six games this year were a smorgasbord of varying levels of proficiency.
A double over Montpellier and a creditable 2-2 draw away at Schalke were let down by two underwhelming losses, at Olympiakos and at home to the German side.
Their seeding meant that Arsenal were always going into the group as favourites to qualify. Yet whilst they just about managed the first assignment, in the open waters of the knockout stages the plethora of deficiencies in this Arsenal squad will surely be found out.
To look at Manchester United’s qualification you could be excused for over-hyping it.
With qualification and the group victory assured before the final round of matches, the home defeat to Cluj was essentially irrelevant.
However, delving a little deeper draws up some worrying signs about the legitimacy of United’s challenge.
The group, as is the luck that United’s seeding often affords them at this stage, was ridiculously easy—quite possibly the easiest they have landed in the competition.
Yet it is also true that this has not mattered in the past—like last season, for example, when the Red Devils were eliminated from only a marginally harder draw.
Credit should not be deployed on such grounds for a side of United’s stature, and the manner of some of their victories this season left cause for concern.
In three of the team's four wins in the group, they came back from behind. The other win was a 1-0 victory at home to Galatasaray on Matchday 1, and they lost both of their last two matches.
Admittedly, not much can be read into the two losses as, with qualification assured, team selection played a part—and Sir Alex is prioritizing the Premier League. But for any realistic hopes of progression in the tournament, United—and in particular their defence—must improve, and fast.
Liverpool were the second of the English teams to win their group, and in my eyes they did so in a much more impressive manner than Man Utd.
Drawn in a tough group by Europa League standards with Russian big-spenders Anzhi, plucky Swiss side Young Boys and Udinese of Italy, qualification was not assured.
Liverpool, too, were struck by the debilitating curse of English teams in Europe, with a particularly embarrassing defeat by Udinese at home the lowlight.
Yet, for the most-part the Reds' youthful side committed itself well to the competition and came away with a good series of results.
With a Premier League season that already promises nothing more than mediocrity, Liverpool have a very realistic chance in the Europa League.
With the impressive youthful spine that Brendan Rogers has cultivated at Anfield among the best in the country, a strong European showing this year would be invaluable to their development.