In the league, it's England unter alles, while Arsenal fly their own flag in Europe

Last updated : 12 March 2006 By Aidan O'Byrne
Arsenal are now England's only representatives in the top level of competition following Chelsea's expected and Liverpool's somewhat more surprising elimination, though the burden placed on the shoulders of Arsene Wenger's young squad has been expanded to being the sole representatives of Britain (this wider remit being due to Rangers' unprecedented advance to the knockout stages and consequently noteworthy elimination at the same stage. God what pressure would there have been if Total Network Solutions of the Welsh league had got this far only to go out on the away goals rule to Juventus, eh?).

In the games concerned, Highbury witnessed what I will leave to Ruud "sexy football" Gullit's summation as the best goalless draw in history – his words, note you, rather than mine – while Anfield was the scene for a total collapse of Liverpool self-belief once this season's possible surprise package Benfica had added an away goal to their existing tally. In the Nou Camp, Mourinho's poor choice of containing tactics when goals were required – and in particular his continued refusal to bench the über-wasteful Drogba in favour of the much more effective Crespo, a mistake only rectified too late in the game to be of much use – were Chelsea's undoing. The fact that after £250m of squad-related spending (or is it £350m, I've kind of lost count now?), the third choice striker to get you a late goal as Chelsea manager is centre-back Robert Huth (of "Hoof it to Huth" fame), well, that's quite revealing to me. Just as revealing was of course the traditional post-match rant from surly Twilight-Zone-dwelling Jose, who seemed not to have seen the beautifully crafted (and muscled) Ronaldinho goal but was the only attendant of the match to believe that the late penalty award in Chelsea's favour was anything other than a farcical decision (I include the referee in that, since it seems to me that he may have been trying to mess with Chelsea's minds and only have given the spot-kick so that he could blow for full time immediately after its conversion, thinking all the while "this one's for you, Anders").

Anyway, the whole thing about an Arsenal squad going forward into the quarter final draw without Liverpool, Man U, Chelsea, or for that matter Everton as well as Rangers, while that squad contained so few currently fit-to-play (adult) Englishmen, is that it has prompted what the press laughably call a debate, but which in reality is a lament for a golden age that never existed, concerning the alleged necessity of having English players representing English clubs.

Actually, Arsenal do not really want to be England's, or for that matter, Britain's representatives in European competition – they are quite happy just representing themselves, ie Arsenal, in Europe and have tolerably large enough reserves of history, tradition, and indeed track records of glorious failure at the death to be going on with on their own account, thank you very much, without borrowing any from England. For that matter, how come Boro aren't being asked to shoulder that burden?

But, should we be tempted by the rhetoric that English is always or even normally best for those within England, that certain people dubiously asserting a claim to a moral high ground of pro-national prejudice would have us believe is perfectly natural and to be encouraged rather than unmeritocratic and dangerous, then let us briefly examine what happens if you choose to believe just that.

I'll mainly restrict my observations to the football arena, though as the first generation London-born son of foreign immigrants and continuing carrier of a non-English passport myself, I like to think that I make a net positive contribution to society here in England, ta very much, and both my council and income tax bills this year (settled just prior to the end of January) provide some fairly concrete evidence in my own mind that I'm not just being PC about that.

Anyway, in football terms, such an English-is-best belief would tell us that West Ham won their game this weekend because they had a goal scored by an Englishman and a former English international at that, albeit a near-geriatric one whose spell as national team first choice strike partner to the also now-retired Shearer lasted only about as far as the last major international tournament hosted on these islands (Euro 96). Sadly for Alan Pardew, one of those daft enough to open his mouth and try to diminish Arsenal's achievements on the basis of their having failed to meet a nationality quota they'd never subscribed to in the first place, reality was somewhat different. In case you didn't notice, the Hammers were nailed by Bolton through two goals from a Greek European champion, another from an Irish international (performing an unaccustomed overhead bicycle kick just to make sure you noticed) and a Norwegian (if indeed that is Pedersen's nationality – it's never really occurred to me beforehand to check). Wenger's comment that Pardew didn't seem to be reading from his own script when attempting to negotiate first a loan move and then a permanent deal for Jeremie Aliadiere (who's French, by the way) earlier in the season was fairly apposite, those I preferred Lee Dixon's question as to whether Pardew would ever really prefer Marlon Harewood to Thierry Henry if he were ever given the choice.

Let's take a look round the other results to see if this is an isolated example – Spurs are strangely enough the largest potential contributors to all-English Sven's squad in the summer, and duly scored their moral high ground goal through Jermaine Jenas at Stamford Bridge. Sadly yet again the premise proves false, the evil Ghanaian Essien and Frenchie garlic-muncher Gallas doing for the plucky Brits, sorry English, sorry Dutch-managed failure-from-jaws-of-victory-snatchers. Was this really a surprise? Not as much as the green grass-like surface which seemed to have miraculously appeared on the pitch (grown in greenhouses in Holland, in case you were wondering).

So if it didn't help the Lilywhites themselves, did the Spurs policy of offloading non-English players to build a John Bull spine to the team contribute relative failures and weaknesses to those teams who'd been daft enough to sign these effete foreigners from them? Not down at Portsmouth it didn't, as Pedro Mendes scored two quite brilliant goals to consign Man City to an way defeat (cf the remarks above for the inevitability of this, given that the sky blue's squad is managed by a "proper English hero" and co-veteran with West Ham's Sheringham of Euro 96 penalty shootouts, Stuart Pearce, and the fact that City's losing goal had been scored by Richard Dunne).

Shall we look elsewhere? Henri Camara scored Wigan's goal at the Stadium of Light, but that's perhaps not statistically significant given the Mackem's dismal form to date, Everton did win at home to Fulham thanks to two goals from Englishman James Beattie, but then they were hosting perennially bad travellers Fulham, and anyway needed a cushion form a Scotsman to make the game safe when the Cottagers' belated fightback through Collins John began.

Villa are our strongest proponents so far of the foreign is crap theory, since Milan Baros wasted seemingly hundreds of reasonably straightforward chances before Blackburn scored through Andy Todd (who is English) and Craig Bellamy (more Welsh even than Robbie Savage). In the Midlands, the Finn Forssell opened the scoring for Birmingham City, while Nathan Ellington clawed back a crucial equaliser. Newcastle lost at Old Trafford as they customarily do, a brace from Englishman Rooney not being that convincing on the nationality argument since the first was presented to him on plate by a backpass and because Man U is of course managed by a Scots/Portuguese combo on behalf of the American franchise-owners, whereas the plucky Toon are all-English owned and managed at present.

Therefore, is the fact that Charlton won by two English-scored goals (Bent) to one Australian (Viduka) over Middlesbrough the reason that the FA have now been found to be holding openly-secret talks with Alan Curbishley, then? That's the only sign I could see of English-managed, English-engineered talent winning in the top flight of the English game this weekend, and that's before we even consider what happened at Highbury, from where I've just returned...

Arsenal played this game with a team effectively unchanged from that which had conquered Madrid over two legs and which had started this whole argument, ie with the back four in particular comprising a Frenchman, a Swiss, and two Ivorians, who'd been recruited by the club for an aggregate transfer fee of £2.5m between them. That amount is just less than half the £6m price tag of the admirably West-Ham-academy-educated Englishman Glenn Johnson who was thick enough to get himself deported from Spain while trying to get on the bench for Chelsea vs Barca in midweek because he'd either failed to realise he needed to bring a passport with him, or perhaps had lost it in the nightclub he'd been partying in before getting a taxi to the airport to meet the team plane. Who got the better deal?

The winning brace of goals was contributed by a French maestro whose name need not be repeated because it is so self evident, though it's worth noting that his first was laid on by a divine defence-splitting pass from an eighteen year-old Spaniard, and the second by a calamitously suicidal back-pass from the current poster boy of Umbro's recently-launched England away kit, Steven Gerrard. Which team captain would you rather have playing for you – the English or the French one?

More English calamity ensued as Peter Crouch contrived to confirm that (whenever it truly matters) he couldn't score in a brothel, and it was no surprise to hear news at half time that the score in the Six Nations match taking place that afternoon had ended at France 31, England 6. Should we even mention the cricket? No, probably not.

So now that we've dispelled the theory of England-über-Alles, and consigned the "buy British" campaigns back to the 1970s where they were last seen (enticing British consumers to ignore those nasty foreign VW Golfs and buy solid reliable Austin Allegros from British Leyland instead), we can turn back to the Champions League draw, held on Friday.

This of course has brought together Arsenal and Juventus, meaning that Patrick Vieira will be travelling back to Highbury with an opposition side for the first time since his summer transfer. Arsenal fans will greet their former captain warmly, remembering the fact that his last kick for the club was a trophy winning penalty in Cardiff against Man U, while those Italians who bother to turn up in Turin (average gates at the Stadia delle Alpi this season have been at around 40% of capacity) will have greater cause for concern at the return of the no-hoper winger they sold to Arsenal for a song in the summer of 1999. On the other side of the draw, the fact that Barca and Benfica have been drawn together caused me to quirk an eyebrow – had Benitez and Mourinho both managed to overturn their first-leg deficits, they'd have drawn each other AGAIN. As it was, though there was a delegation from Liverpool who were forced to hand over the new trophy to the mayor of Paris for safe keeping through gritted teeth, the only sighting of Jose was a brief shot of him, stony-faced and already in the grip of the Russian billions, on the winners' podium with an otherwise ecstatic Porto team in 2004.

There were no real surprises in the draw, then, though the calamitous organisation of the whole affair just went to prove once again that (whenever it truly matters) UEFA couldn't run a bath. Leaving aside the failure of the ball-carriers to deliver balls into the glass bowls at the first time of asking; or the introduction of a video montage of the nine remaining teams in the draw (nine since Inter and Ajax have yet to play their second leg) which was actually followed by a fanfare-accompanied video montage titled "Last 8 Teams"; or the fact than when the relevant ball was drawn out it said simply Inter on the slip of paper inside ("or Ajax", piped up an aide from stage left in deference to the Dutch side's continued possibility of qualifying); then the highlight of draw was surely when glamorous French presenter Carole Rousseau fainted on stage in front of the live cameras, causing the draw to be delayed while she received attention from the attendant onrushing physios.

Was it a surprise that the Englishman Gerrard backed off in apparent horror at the swooning French lady who had been interviewing him a couple of seconds earlier, while it was the septuagenarian Spaniard Francisco Gento (a member of the Real Madrid side that won the first ever European Cup in 1956) who was the one to step forward and catch her? Probably not.