Shoddy defending and gung-ho attitude are killing English clubs in Europe

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This week has told us something we have suspected for a while. The Premier League is not as strong as it used to be.

For my money, ours is still the best league in the world because it is so competitive, so exciting and on any given weekend bottom can beat top.

But in terms of quality, we have fallen behind Spain and Italy and results in European competition have only gone to prove that.

Manchester United are not as good as they were. The fact they are still challenging for the title says much about their best quality: team spirit.

Take out Robin van Persie from the Arsenal team and they would finish eighth or ninth in the Premier League.

A few seasons back, Chelsea had a power base of Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba.

They would bully and batter their way through European games. But now Chelsea have an ageing squad of the same players and they have fallen short in the Champions League.

Manchester City - rather like Chelsea - still have a chance of turning their tie around but seem to be still learning.

City have the potential to go on and do well in Europe. They certainly have the resources and this season will have helped gain valuable experience.

You can point to one-off factors this season. United lost their focus in Basel and crashed out of a group which they should have dominated.

City were drawn in the Group of death and were edged out into the Europa League.

Arsenal showed their experience and European know-how to go through into the knock-out stages.

But their defeat in San Siro was abject, disappointing and shocking. It left them too much to do in the return leg, no matter their heroics against Milan on Tuesday night.

Chelsea are a team in turmoil. They were disorganised and disjointed in Naples and played like a team wanting rid of their manager.

But the truth is, take Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi out of the Napoli team and they are so average. They are poor defensively, which is unusual for an Italian team of any quality.

Take the top eight or nine teams out of Italy and they would compete in the Premier League so we're on a very similar level in that regard.

However, Spain has the two superclubs in Barcelona and Real Madrid. Barcelona these days seem to be focusing on the Champions League and that's their challenge. Lionel Messi is the best in the world.

But Real Madrid are dominating La Liga and you can bet Jose Mourinho's challenge is to repeat their domination of Barcelona in the Champions League.

Traditionally, Valencia have been the third team. Athletic Bilbao showed at Old Trafford that there is depth.

Bilbao coach Marcelo Biesla proved himself to be a tactical genius as he outwitted United, exposed flaws and played some terrific football.

In Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez, he has two players to prove all the big players do not belong to Barcelona and Real Madrid.

But that game also proved the real reason behind English clubs' decline in the Champions League this season.

That is quite simple. The standard of defending. This is another reason to give me hope that it is a temporary blip because United, City, Chelsea, Arsenal and whoever will surely address the issue.

Arsenal are so weak defensively, both domestically and in Europe. Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny both look good individually in games but the Gunners don't defend as a unit.

It has never been easier to score against Manchester United. The number of mistakes are alarming.

Just look at Athletic Bilbao's third goal. Rafael Da Silva just nodded off, didn't chase the ball and United have been left with a huge task in the second leg.

Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and the Brazilian boys are learning their trade. Nemanja Vidic is missed so much.

Chelsea are the same. Jose Bosingwa has been found out. John Terry has lost half a yard of pace and David Luiz clearly has talent - but not as a defender.

Rafael's fundamental mistake is just typical of the poor standard of defending in Champions League and Europa League games this season from English clubs.

Premier League games are so competitive and exciting to watch. But they are also littered with mistakes that make the games more entertaining as they provide more goals.

But in Europe against the cream of opposition, AC Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid will punish every error.

It is that reason and that reason alone which we should look to as the biggest single factor for the English decline.

I still maintain the Premier League is the best. But the mistakes are alarming, even if they do make games better by default.

The difference also between England and Spain is that Spain has the technical level and skill, but the Premier League also has the commitment, strength and tackling.

Traditionally, we want those full-blooded, tough tackles and we have teams who will provide a contrast and excitement.

We need a contrast to provide a different test and challenge to our best teams. It also means that we get classic games, great comebacks, commitment and fantastic entertainment.

Put the Premier League's 1 to 20 up against each other and the bottom are capable of beating the top. It won't happen that often. But it can happen.

Look at Blackburn's win at Manchester United. How on earth did that happen? How did Sunderland beat Manchester City, for example? City battered them all game and yet ended up losing.

It provides a drama and excitement domestically that I don't think you get in Spain. The top two are out on their own.

But when it comes to the Champions and Europa League, the Premier League is paying a heavy price for that excitement.


Interview By John Cross

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