There was a moment in Manchester City’s UEFA Champions League opener against Juventus Tuesday when everything seemed to change. Paul Pogba’s inch-perfect pass had just leveled the score after Vincent Kompany’s bulbous forehead had thumped the home side in front. But when a tweak of the calf muscle sent Manchester City’s captain off the field for an early shower, it happened – a subtle yet visible tensing-up from the home team; a grim, familiar fog of doubt creeping into the minds of the players in sky blue. And sure enough, the eerily inevitable winner finally came from an unstoppable left-footed strike Álvaro Morata.
It’s the latest chapter of Manchester City’s well-documented struggles in Europe, but they weren’t alone. Louis Van Gaal and Memphis Depay’s return to Dutch football couldn’t push Manchester United past a well-drilled PSV Eindhoven, and Arsenal never looked like they would win against Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb. Only Chelsea, who put four goals past lowly Maccabi Tel Aviv, was able to bring any points home for the Premier League after the first matchday of this year’s Champion’s League.
One could call this just a bad week, but consider the trend: English clubs have won only two Champions League trophies in the past decade. Two out of the past three seasons, the Premier League has failed to produce a single quarterfinalist. Arsenal, despite its impressive streak of 18 straight Champions League appearances, has only made the final once in that stretch. Manchester City, albeit with a smaller sample size, has never made it past the Round of 16.
There is plenty of time to turn things around for this year. All three English clubs who lost this week have a great chance of advancing to the knockout rounds, perhaps even as the top seed. But it’s growing increasingly important they do. If they don’t, the implications are severe.
Champions League spots are awarded based on a coefficient calculated by the last five years of a league’s European success, with only the top three nations receiving four berths in Europe’s competition. That means results from 2010-11 — when all four English clubs qualified for the knockout round, and Manchester United made it to the final — will be wiped after this year. Combine that with last year’s aforementioned failures, and England’s coefficient score has taken a big hit. With Italy now creeping closer, another disastrous season for the Premier League’s best could mean one less spot in Europe come 2016-17 (next season’s spots are already locked in). No more top four; now only a top-three finish will punch your ticket to European competition.