“The absence of any Premier League sides in the Champions League last four will be hysterically depicted as a sign of the English in decline. Hold the obituaries… No one European league dominates, surely a welcome development” – Henry Winter

Comment & analysis round-up

Quote of the day: “They got him sent off. There’s no doubt about that and they would have never won if we had 11 men. He [Rafael] is a young boy, inexperienced and there’s a bit of immaturity about what happened but they got him sent off. Typical Germans. That sending off changed the game. I thought they were typical professionals in the way they saw the opportunity and forced the referee. It was only a slight tug at the boy and, Jesus, he was 35 yards from goal.” – Sir Alex Ferguson.

Runner-up: “He’s at a select level, being the best in the world and a star at Barcelona. Lio is playing kick-about with Jesus… How could I not be happy for Messi to win the World Cup? The Maradona and Pelé polemics will end and the best thing is that Messi is Argentinian.” – Diego Maradona.

Today’s overview: Wayne Rooney’s inclusion. Going 3-up only to lose on away goals. Rafael’s red. And Arjen Robben’s volley. In short, there are plenty of talking points this Thursday after Bayern dramatically dumped Manchester United out the Champions League.

Starting with the decision to field Wayne Rooney, Kevin McCarra surveyed the wisdom of the decision. “The manager took a chance in selecting Wayne Rooney, whose ankle ligament damage in Munich had seemed severe, but the decision might have been vindicated. His appearance enlivened the atmosphere and surely assisted in adding verve to the team’s early work. Gradually, though, misgivings took shape. The forward hurt the ankle again but insisted on continuing. This led to a disturbing suggestion by Ferguson at the interval that Bayern were targeting Rooney’s weak spot. He was withdrawn in the 55th minute. Following the match, however, the United manager was [loathed] to expand on the allegation.”

Also picking up on Rooney’s inclusion was Oliver Kay. “With the benefit of hindsight we can say that the Rooney gamble backfired spectacularly — he now looks certain to miss the Premier League match away to Blackburn Rovers on Sunday, when United will look to steer their campaign away from the rocks — but, as with the selection of Rafael, Gibson and Nani in place of Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, it seemed, for a time, to have been wholly vindicated.”

Shifting the conversation along, Ian Chadband assessed Rooney’s impact against that of Arjen Robben’s. “It was Robben who provided the crystal-cut Lionel Messi moment, while Rooney  was left to watch the former Chelsea  man’s glorious coup de grace from the touchline, again powerlessly nursing an injured ankle, again leaving a nation fretting for his wellbeing, again making us realise his critical importance to club and country… It was hard not to feel some delight for Robben.”

David Pleat questioned Fergie’s tactics after Rafael’s sending off. “Responding to a sending-off is every manager’s dilemma. We’ve all faced it and, so often, the instinct is to cling on – particularly if a lead has already been established… Yet, with the considerable benefit of hindsight, could they not have taken a gamble and gone three at the back, three in midfield and three up front, or even reverted to a 4-2-3, in the hope that a decisive fourth goal could be scored?

On the sending off itself however, Glenn Moore had little sympathy for Rafael. “The problem with youth is immaturity. Rafael’s first booking was foolish, the teenager reacting petulantly to Mark van Bommel’s unpunished challenge. His second was just as foolish. In Europe referees are quick to penalise players who pull back opponents (outside the penalty area, that is). Tugging Ribéry as he broke forward, in full view of the referee, could have only one consequence. Rafael will learn from the experience, but that was of little consolation last night, especially after Arjen Robben drove what proved the winner inside the post Rafael would have been guarding.”

Ian Herbert was equally dismissive of Rafael’s performance against Bayern. “The 19-year-old’s long, disconsolate trudge directly to the tunnel after his dismissal disguised the story of his match: a dangerous lunging tackle in the game’s opening seconds; a vanishing act when Thomas Muller’s header reached Ivica Olic to slot in Bayern’s decisive first goal; two acts of petulance which saw him dismissed.”

Paul Hayward looks at the wider picture that no English team will be present in the Champions League semi-finals. “After five years of debt-fuelled ostentation by England’s best, Liverpool were dumped in the Europa League after the group stage, Chelsea bounced off a hyper-motivated Inter in the second round and Arsenal were eviscerated by Lionel Messi on Tuesday night. To talk of regression might be to fall into the trap of lumping evidence together rather than considering each exit in isolation, but the least we can say is that Liverpool have gone backwards, Chelsea were no match for José Mourinho and Arsenal look effete against the very best opposition.”

Also picking up on the wider debate, Henry Winter advises English football fans not to turn on their product just yet. “The absence of any Premier League sides in the Champions League last four for the first time since 2003 will be hysterically depicted as a sign of the English in decline. Hold the obituaries. Cancel the wakes. As the semi-final line-up shows, Bayern versus Lyons and Barcelona against Inter Milan, no one European league dominates, surely a welcome development… The Premier League, the home of the adrenalin rush, remains the most watched league in the world, partly for its thrills and spills so this is no time to play the Last Post.”

In a brilliant article, Matt Dickinson investigates whether English football is on the slide. “We knew it was not a vintage year for our leading teams; now we have the proof. No English clubs in the last four of the Champions League for the first time in seven years. After the feast, the famine… As a nation, we need not read into the advance of Lyons that our own Barclays Premier League is now lagging behind Ligue 1, any more than Bayern Munich’s progress is decisive proof of a wider German revival. As for Italy, if AC Milan’s old men can remain firmly in the hunt for the title then Serie A is not back to the rude health of the Eighties and Nineties.”

Trigger-happy to call a crisis though, the Daily Mail’s Ian Ladyman starts complaining against the quality of the EPL. ” It may be a blip. Nevertheless, it is a hiccup that has come about on the back of declining standards. Before the game Bayern coach Louis van Gaal suggested that the level of football in the Premier League is rather modest outside the top four. He was right and he could well have taken his argument further. The top quartet have not done much to advance an argument for their improvement either… The past month or so has been about English football’s collective failure. We have all gloried in our domination of the Champions League. Now it is time to accept that standards have slipped.”

Magical Messi: A day after the night before, Leo Messi still commands attention after his breathtakingly good four goal haul against Arsenal.

The excellent Sid Lowe waxes lyrical over the world’s best footballer. “When he scored a hat-trick against Zaragoza a fortnight ago, one fan started shouting something about how brilliant he is. Pep Guardiola approached the fan and replied: ‘If it wasn’t for him, I’d be a third division coach.’ Last night he became their all-time top scorer in the Champions League. He is top scorer in this season’s La Liga. He has provided more assists than anyone else, too. Yesterday was his fourth hat-trick of the season. He has scored 119 goals for Barcelona and he’s still only 22.”

Redressing the balance, Oliver Kay almost fence-sits as he assesses the genius of Leo Messi. “Messi, 22, has a significant advantage in that he is not reliant on pace and does not seem to be vulnerable to that strange Catalan malaise that seemed to sap the energy and the enthusiasm out of Rivaldo and Ronaldinho — and even Maradona. He appears humble, playing with a smile — in contrast, perhaps, to the Cristiano Ronaldo pout — but he is not immune to injuries and the twists of fate that have stopped many a world-class player fulfilling his apparent destiny.”

Peaking forward to the semi-finals, Dominic Fifield details how Inter will try and stop Messi and co. “Mourinho will be more pragmatic: the starting point for his game-plan is surely how best to suffocate his opponents. In Esteban Cambiasso (29), Thiago Motta (27) and Javier Zanetti (36) he boasts players of considerable experience who are willing to set their sights on destruction… Barcelona pose threats throughout their team, though it is in the invention of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi that they are most potent. Inter’s midfield may lack youth and pace but they are shrewd and, if needed, ruthless. Lucio, arguably one of the best centre-halves in the world, will relish making his mark on this tie.”

Looking at Barcelona at large, John Carlin celebrates the best team in the world. “As of now there is no team in sight that plays association football the way this lot do. Messi may not be entirely of this earth, but the deeper reason they are so good is that they have raised the concept of the team game to a new level… What’s the secret? Two basic footballing ideas, so hard to sustain game after game, that their coach, Pep Guardiola, drums into them with the repetitive doggedness of a grizzled brainwasher. One is that at least one player must always, always make himself available to receive a pass in space; two, that the instant the ball is lost (to say that Barça are weak in defence is just so much tosh), players must hunt in hungry packs to get it back.”

Doing a Rooney: According to John Cross, “Aaron Lennon is set to give Tottenham and England a huge boost after being lined up to make a shock Wembley return this weekend. Tottenham winger Lennon has not played since December 28 and a persistent groin injury has left his World Cup hopes in the balance. But Lennon, who turns 23 next week, has returned to full training and is hoping he may be fit for Tottenham’s FA Cup semi final with Portsmouth on Sunday.”

Misery on Merseyside: Andy Hunter reports on Rafa Benitez’s upset over Liverpool’s financial plight (before ending with some good news). “Hicks and Gillett met financial lawyers in London this week to discuss options ahead of their next refinancing deadline. For Benítez, however, the impasse casts more uncertainty over his summer spending plans and doubt over Liverpool’s ability to act on Fernando Torres’s insistence that the club requires major signings to compete… Pepe Reina, the Liverpool goalkeeper, has agreed a new six-year contract with the club.”

Adding rumours and speculation into the mix, Chris Wheeler farted “Benitez has been strongly linked with Juventus in recent months and reports in Italy yesterday claimed the Turin club want a new man in place this month.”

Sideways: Getting het up over an argument that she is never gonna win, Louise Taylor loses her rag over foul-mouthed football fans swamping online forums. “With contributors shielding their true identities by hiding behind silly names such as BeansOnToast or BigCheese and many forums unmoderated or slackly policed, they are also cowardly. A modern equivalent of poison pen letters. How many bloggers would be happy for their wives or employers to know precisely what they have been writing? The time has come for the game’s ruling bodies to initiate a national “Online Respect” campaign designed to modify an uncomfortably harsh climate of web ranting.”

Transfer Lies: The Guardian’s David Hytner dips his toes into the world of transfer gossip to list a host of targets for Arsenal this summer. “Wenger is monitoring Everton’s Jack Rodwell and Brede Hangeland of Fulham. Both would cost more than £8m, Rodwell substantially so. Wenger has also been linked with the Borussia Dortmund defender Neven Subotic. Up front he has a long-standing interest in Bordeaux’s Marouane Chamakh.”

No-name and no accountability, the Daily Mail spew “Sunderland have launched an ambitious bid to sign Udinese’s Italian international winger Simone Pepe. The 26-year-old is highly sought after across Europe but Sunderland manager Steve Bruce wants to make a statement of intent with a £15million bid.” In a separate article the Daily Mail link Blackburn with Greek under-21 player Anestis Argiriou while adding “Olympiakos have offered Morten Gamst Pedersen £25,000-a-week tax-free plus a substantial signing on fee.” Lastly in the psuedo tabloid we learn that “Wolves are trailing Southampton’s £2m-rated midfielder Adam Lallana.”

John Cross claims “Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, 19, has caught the eye of Liverpool’s scouts this season with Feyenoord demanding around £5million.”

Managerial-merry-go-round: Simon Jones closes today’s gossip reporting “Brian Laws was on the brink of becoming the latest Barclays Premier League manager to lose his job. Barely three months after being appointed Burnley boss, the 48-year-old is facing the sack after a run which has seen his side pick up only one win in 14 games, losing 12.”