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A matter of urgency

In the 10 years that four teams have been involved in the Champions League group phase, English clubs have never produced a worse collective performance than they have this season.

Last Updated: 07/12/12 at 15:41 Post Comment

Neil Lennon: has grown massively as a manager during this European campaign, say

Neil Lennon: has grown massively as a manager during this European campaign, say

Never have there been so few wins, so many defeats, so few clean sheets and so many goals conceded and the last two factors on that list are ample evidence of why our teams have struggled.

A month or so ago I wrote about the paucity of world-class defenders in our game and, judging by our performances in Europe, that has come home to roost.

If you look at the Premier League, one of the sides that do know how to defend and the value of clean sheets - because they've had more than any other this season - is Stoke and consequently they find themselves above Arsenal in the table.

It's all well and good to try to play dream-like football, but you have to do the dirty business at the other end if you're going to get results.

Passion

At times it feels that we in this country are caught between two stools: our teams seem to want to play this supposedly continental-style football, by which I mean an attacking, passing game, but they forget there's more to it than that.

When Barcelona lose the ball they swarm around the opposition to get it back; the rule is that their supposed to get the ball back within six seconds. But if you watched Manchester City at Dortmund, there was no urgency or intensity.

Instead when Dortmund were in possession, City backed off, backed off and backed off still further in the hope that Dortmund would give it back to them!

Ruud Gullit and Didi Hamann, watching the match in our Champions League studio, were both very outspoken about the quality of the performance. City looked 'foolish' and were an embarrassment - that was the gist of some of the comments they were coming out with.

City said that they wanted Europa League football - but given their lack of drive and urgency it didn't look like it! That said it was quite clear after the match that Joe Hart was pretty angry about his team's performance. He is one of the few who did show some passion on the night.

Drive

Similarly, you can't fault Celtic's collective passion and drive - they did show the intensity and urgency necessary to get the ball back against Spartak Moscow. They have built their qualification on a good, strong defence.

They kept a clean sheet in the opening match against Benfica, and went on to concede the fewest number of goals at home in the Group G. They defended like Trojans in the two games against Barcelona and have now got their just desserts.

When the draw was made I thought Celtic could get out of Group G if they made the most of their home games - so you heard it here first! I was in the minority at the time but I have to admit that they've surprised even me.

In the studio on Wednesday we could hardly watch as Kris Commons took that penalty, so I'm not surprised that Neil Lennon had to look away!

You could see the colour draining from Kris Commons' face as the importance of the penalty dawned him and it took a phenomenal amount of bottle to step up and take it. I'd love to know exactly how much was riding on that kick financially, let alone anything else!

Lennon has grown massively as a manager during this European campaign. Before the group stages started he had a tendency to come across as a little defensive in his attitude, but he has blossomed into an eloquent, likeable, successful manager and all credit to him for that.

Opportunity

Unlike Lennon, Rafa Benitez must now focus on the Europa League - and I'm sure he'll see that as a great opportunity to win some more silverware.

Don't get me wrong; Europa League football is not what the club wants or needs, and it could well become a hindrance to their Premier League aspirations in weeks to come, but another trophy triumph certainly won't hurt Rafa's CV.

Let's not forget that he's already got a great record in European competitions.

Chelsea did what they had to do, indeed all they could do, on Wednesday and beat Nordsjaelland comprehensively but the damage had already been done.

Jeff's Jem of the Week

I was impressed with Swansea's win at Arsenal, but I'm going to go for Leeds' 4-2 victory at Huddersfield. They hadn't won at their rivals since 1963 but if ever there was a man who can get his team out of the Championship, it's Neil Warnock.

It was his 64th birthday on Saturday and I think that Leeds could be back in the big time before he's 65. I've somehow gained an impression over the years that Neil has his detractors, but on a personal level we've always got on well. He is a media man's dream and always good value.

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