By Zahi Sahli
LAU Tribune staff
With each of the Manchester duo suffering an early elimination from their Champions League campaigns, the media will surely be highlighting these shocking events for the rest of the season.
It is not the end of an era of English dominance over Europe as mourning columnists have written since last Wednesday. An end needs a start and if it’s someone’s era, it’s Barcelona’s. They won the Champions League three times in the last six years.
Despite Manchester City’s fine league form, the team’s early Champions League exit has brought some to a sudden realization that club manager Roberto Mancini’s record in European competitions has never been fruitful.
Actually, his career is marred with major blurs in European football as he struggled to lead a strong Inter Milan – a team which largely depended on stars they signed from then-demoted Juventus – beyond the second round of the Champions League.
Still City’s critics are exaggerating the size of what many see as a catastrophe.
Never since Werder Bremen’s exit in the 2007 Champions League has a club been eliminated despite accumulating double figures in the group stage. The fact that it was a club like Napoli which advanced ahead of City should be a consolation for mourning fans and good news for the neutrals.
While City attained their ‘big club’ status through the generous cash injections of club owner Sheikh Mansour –who has spent a mind-blowing £800m since buying the club in 2008– Napoli’s board has been practicing patience in a time where everyone in Europe has been spending much more than what’s in their wallets.
A cumulative sum of £344 million was invested by the English club to sign players during the transfer windows in the last four years – three of which are during Sheikh Mansour’s era. Last year’s £133 million wage bill eclipsed the club’s relatively poor £125 million income.
Meanwhile Napoli is a self-sufficient company which handles its wage bills carefully and uses the revenue it generates to operate its activities transfer market.
The club reported a £293,458 profit at the end of last season, a respectable sum if compared to the losses most Champions League clubs have been reporting on annual basis recently.
The club has made steady improvement since its promotion to Serie A just four years ago. Since the club struggled in the lower divisions of Italian football, the board spent approximately £141 million to reshape the squad in the last four years. That is more than 2.4 times less than what City has spent in the same period.
The club has depended on its scouting department to make shrew signings and build a team capable of challenging for the Serie A crown.
And most importantly, Napoli managed to match their English opponents in the Manchester club’s own stadium. The Naples side even outclassed their petro-dollar-rich rivals in Italy.
What amplifies the amount of disappointment is City’s superb start to the season. They were seen as an unbreakable team. But hey, the last time something deemed unbreakable sailed from English shores, the outcome was similar.
This time, however, I can’t see how the ship’s captain is the man to blame. While some might be skeptical about Mancini’s performance, I think the manager has done well despite his team’s premature exit from Europe’s elite club competition.
Given the history of heavy-spending owners and their determination to clinch immediate success, Mancini has the right to be worried about any gaffe he might commit while serving as City manager.
Perhaps the only consolation for the Blue side of Manchester was that their city rivals suffered the same horrible fate.
Had there an Early Shame Award presented by a Champions League committee, Manchester United would be uncontested as they scoop the prize.
Ferguson watched his team turn in lackluster displays and get kicked out of the group stages, finishing behind Portuguese Liga runner-up Benfica and Swiss Super League champions Basel in Group C.
To make matters worse for the Scottish manager, his team won only twice, recording both wins against tournament debutants Otelul Galati.
What adds to United fans’ disappointment is the high level of expectations which they had placed on the shoulders of their players.
Despite the obvious weaknesses in the side – like relying on 38-year-old Ryan Giggs – pundits were adamant that United would have a glorious European run as the team cruised to promising results in the opening weeks of the season.
Ferguson must be struggling to cope with two new realities which have smacked the faces of Manchester United fans around the world; first, United gets knocked off the perch in the Premier League by none other than City, and now they cannot overcome inferior sides in Europe.
Of course, Mancini looks in envy at Ferguson whose 25-year-service for the club means that his job is secure. The clubs are set to square off against one another in the Premier League title race this season.
Should United manage to change their fortunes and beat City for the league title, Mancini may then find it very hard to keep his job – and for a relatively decent reason.