TURIN, Italy (AP) – Barcelona are in, and Chelsea are almost out. Tuesday night saw a tale of two champions heading in opposite directions.
For some the results will be cause for schadenfreude, particularly if you hail from the hamlet of Munich in Bavaria. Those folks never got over the fact that Chelsea managed to pip the giants on their home turf thanks to a rearguard action that Napoleon would have admired. Tuesday night, with John Terry and Frank Lampard out, the Chelsea defense crumbled 3-0 to Juventus , a constant, withering threat in Turin. In fact, had it not been for Petr Cech, this game might have had a scoreline better fitting an NFL game.
In Moscow, Barcelona downed Spartak by the same scoreline, skating past the Russians on an icy plastic pitch thanks to Lionel Messi. Barcelona - who were denied by Chelsea as well last season - have been outrageously successful this season and their Argentine star is close to smashing another record. With a haul of two goals on the night, Messi needs only five goals to equal Gerd Muller's mark of 85 in a calendar year. Whether or not you agree with the merits of this particular "record" - it is, in fact, meaningless - there is no mistaking Barcelona's unstoppable excellence.
In truth, Barcelona should be Chelsea. This is a team that has literally been played to death. They have won World Cups and European Championships thanks to being at the heart of Spain's golden generation. They have dominated La Liga in the past ten seasons and taken three European Cups in the same span; and they have accumulated so many other wee bits of silver that they could open a respectable pawn shop should they wish to. All of that should have come with grave costs - their best players never seem to get any time off. Instead, they keep motoring on. Were doping tests not prevalent, I'd suggest a check of the food stores at La Masia.
Chelsea, in contrast, seemed to have reloaded. Oscar, Eden Hazard, Victor Moses, Cesar Azpilcueta -are just some of the spoils acquired by the Blues in an orgy of summer spending. And it's not like they were joining chaff; Juan Mata, Gary Cahill, the aforementioned Cech and Terry all combined to make a very solid squad. And when Chelsea started this season they looked http://msn.foxsports.com/foxsoccer/laliga/teams by far the slickest, silkiest team in all of England.
Yet, here we are. Chelsea have slipped badly and they face becoming the first Champions Leagu e holders to go out in the groups stages. If there were folks in London who took glee in last year's wreckage in Manchester, well, there's another word for that: karma.
The untold and possibly unsettling tale that undergirds all of this is that despite their protests to the contrary, English soccer is no longer that dominant. This has been a poor Premier League campaign, only a third of the way in, and much of the best soccer has taken place in Germany, Italy and Spain. England has more money and arguably more stars - but it seems to have less technique and know-how on the European stage.
Spain might be dismissed as a "two-team league," but three of their four teams have qualified for the Round of 16 and only a meltdown will scupper Real Madrid . It doesn't matter whether you think much of Malaga or Valencia , only that they are in with games to spare. The number of home-grown stars in that league far eclipses England - unless you believe that the likes of Andres Iniesta are less preferable than a Steven Gerrard.
Then there's Germany, often ignored. Top to bottom, it looks to be a stronger league than the Premiership year after year, and the proof is in the fact that no one really wants to have to face Dortmund , Bayern or Schalke ? They also have a talented, technically astute mass of home-grown talent that complimented as opposed to supplanted by imports.
As it stands, United are the only British side through. Of the bunch, only a very mediocre Arsenal is odds on to join them. Neither of those teams rely on English players. Manchester City , powered by Argentines, Spaniards and Belgians, are surely out, not having looked like they belonged here in the first place. And the Brazilian and Spanish-powered Chelsea now need a win and help. How meaningful is it that these teams cannot succeed on domestic players alone? Quite significant.
One of the reasons Lionel Messi is allowed to be great is that he is surrounded by a stable core of talent. It has been steady, battle-hardened and added to over the years -- rather than reworked and dismantled. Contrast that with Chelsea, which jettisoned many of the players that won last year in Munich and has seen others simply age out. Messi looks like he has a core that can support him for another decade. That cannot be said about either Eden Hazard or Juan Mata, who often look like virtuosos seeking talented partners.
For all of Messi's individual brilliance, he is so good because he is also surrounded by genius. How good would Fernando Torres look if he had Xavi passing to him? We'll likely never know.