As the end of another UEFA Champions League campaign draws to a climactic close, it’s traditional to assess those that stood above others with their contribution of exceptional performance, inspired tactics and delivery of dramatic moments.
The ritual of placing an outstanding player or masterful manager on a pedestal to marvel at their achievements is an annual exercise of adulation, but there is a flip side to the tale of the season that this ignores.
Tradition, according to Christian scholar Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, is “the living faith of the dead”, and so - with this thought as a guiding light - this column will focus on the negative and malfunctioning instead. Namely, which manager failed most to live-up to their pre-season goals? After all, this is the question that preoccupies the myriad of club owners across Europe.
Failure can be so subjective, so potentially the best bar to provide a measure of successless shepherds is to focus on the value for money they gave back to their sides. If transfer spending against progress in Europe’s top club competition is mapped the following four were rightly in the firing line*:
4. Alex Ferguson – Manchester United:
He may have been the greatest manager to grace British football and a two-time winner of the Champions League but "Fergie" had seen diminishing returns from his forays into Europe in the last two seasons of his tenure. A sizeable $103m were spent over the last campaign bringing in players such as goal-getter Robin Van Persie and goal-stopper David De Gea.
In return United failed at the group stages last year and were knocked out before the quarterfinals in 2013. No wonder the great Scot was left devastated by the Real Madrid defeat this time around, by his own standards the Red Devils had not delivered. Future – Retires at end of season
3. Roberto Mancini – Manchester City:
The blue half of Manchester are relative newcomers to Champions League combat, so that may be a mitigating factor for failure, but what they lacked in experience they surely made up for in player spending power. An outlay of over $230m in the last two seasons by Italian coach Roberto Mancini, not to mention the capture of the English Premier League title, had seen expectations soar as high as the players’ wage bill at Eastlands. And sadly, for their followers, this campaign saw the disappointment of a winless group stage and stunted progress in Europe once again.
Jack Rodwell, Maicon, Scott Sinclair, Matja Nastasic and Javi Garcia were all brought to the club for $84m but failed to propel the Sky Blues past the group stages at the second time of asking. Mancini’s critics will point to his limited success with Inter Milan in the same competition too. The timing and delivery of the termination may have been less than tender but is it any wonder the owners decided to wield the axe?*
Future – Unemployed after being sacked by City
2. Luciano Spalletti – Zenit St. Petersburg:
The 54-year-old Italian manager joined the Russian side in 2009 but in a show of enhanced ambition the national champions splashed out $140m in the last year on player firepower, including the signings of such luminaries as Brazilian striker Hulk and Alex Witsel of Belgium.
Despite such investment, and with promise to be the dark horses with designs on shaking up the old order, Zenit flattered to deceive. They notched up just two wins in six groups games, with Hulk scoring only once in five outings, and conceded nine. As club captain Danny concluded at the end of the campaign: "Considering the quality we have in this team we could have done much better." Future – Linked to Chelsea, Roma and AC Milan
1. Roberto Di Matteo – Chelsea:
Never before have the reigning champions of Europe been booted out of the competition at the first opportunity, but such was the fate of 2012’s unlikely title-holders from London. The football world marvelled at the ability of the 42-year-old manager Di Matteo to cajole a dispirited team and defeat the mighty Bayern Munich in last year’s final.
It then scratched its head in disbelief as the Italian’s - albeit inherited - team failed to fire despite over $153m of investment in the last 12 months. Di Matteo was dumped from the club shortly before Chelsea were dumped out the group stage. Whoever takes over next season will be expected to considerably improve on that return. Future – Currently unemployed
*Updates made in light of the sacking of Roberto Mancini by Manchester City.