Friday, April 12, 2024

Premier League in Europe

A fifth Champions League berth could be slipping away from the Premier League after a rough week in Europe. Liverpool was stunned at home by Atalanta in a 3-0 defeat at Anfield. Elimination from the Europa League now looms as the Reds travel to Italy for the second leg next week. Manager Jurgen Klopp made six changes after his club’s weekend draw with Manchester United and the result was not pretty from a side which played without spark and was victimized by the much higher energy of Atalanta. Former West Ham forward Gianluca Scamacca scored two of the three goals for Atalanta while Liverpool’s front line was wasteful. Darwin Nunez, in particular, was guilty of two egregious misses on gilt edged opportunities. The result represented the joint heaviest defeat suffered by Liverpool in a major European competition. The three-goal deficit will be exceptionally difficult to make up in Italy as things trend downward for the Reds. Rival Manchester United, having already eliminated Liverpool from the FA Cup, knocked the Reds from their perch atop the Premier League with last week’s result.

Arsenal, the Premier League leaders, have work to do in Germany after a 2-2 draw at the Emirates in the opening leg of the Gunners Champions League tie with Bayern Munich. With the German side playing far better than its disappointing domestic form would indicate, Arsenal improved its hopes for the second leg when Leandro Trossard scored the equalizer in the 76th minute to send the clubs to Germany level on goals. Both clubs thought they should have one goal more but for the decision of the referee and his friends in the booth. No penalty was awarded after a collision between Bukayo Saka and Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer as the contact, perhaps rightfully, was deemed to have been initiated by Saka. A second uncalled penalty benefited the Gunners. After the referee had whistled a restart, Arsenal goalkeeper David Raya kicked the ball to center back Gabriel. To the horror of those who understood what they were seeing, Gabriel picked up the ball and resituated it on the ground before kicking it back to Raya. The clear handball was not called. Bayern Munich Manager Thomas Tuchel later claimed the referee’s explanation was that he did not want a Champions League quarterfinal to be decided by a playground mistake. A subjective decision thus trumped an objective application of the rules.

Manchester City is in a bit better position heading into next week than the Gunners. The Citizens will be home at the Etihad for the second leg after drawing 3-3 with Real Madrid in Spain. Of concern, however, will be the manner in which Real Madrid took advantage of a lack of pace in Manchester City’s back line, particularly in the absence of Kenny Walker. The Citizens still looked headed for an away victory in Tuesday’s back and forth match before an equalizing goal by Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde in the 79th minute. Erling Haaland was scoreless for City, attempting just one shot in Spain.

Two late goals put West Ham on the brink of Europa League elimination after a 2-0 first leg loss at Bayer Leverkusen. Goals in the 83rd and 91st minutes by the current Bundesliga leaders rendered an otherwise solid defensive performance by the Hammers meaningless. The question will be whether the Hammers can generate enough in attack to overcome the deficit when the clubs meet in London this coming  Thursday. The possible return of Jarrod Bowen from injury would go a long way in bolstering belief in what would be an extraordinary comeback for the Premier League side. West Ham did overcome a one goal deficit to advance with a strong second leg performance in the Round of Sixteen.

The only Premier League club to win in Europe this week was Aston Villa which won its Europa Conference League opening quarterfinal leg 2-1 over Lille at Villa Park. The continued European progression for Aston Villa in the Conference League would help the cause for an additional Premier League Champions League berth, a berth which could well be filled by the Villans. An Arsenal win over Bayern Munich and/or a less probable West Ham conquest over Bayer Leverkusen, however, would be of even greater impact. Germany right now is marginally ahead of England for the coveted additional Champions League spot. Head-to-head European competition between the two leagues thus takes on greater importance.

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