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A kicking before the quarter-finals

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'Hollow victories' and 'soul searching' were just some of the descriptions of English club fortunes in Europe this week. The obituaries were being written, the knives sharpened, and the critics out in force. Talk about kicking a man when he's down.

But it was football, rather than rugby, that was having to roll with the blows this time.

No Arsenal, No Manchester City, no Chelsea, no Manchester United. No English club in the last eight of Europe’s top football tournament for the first time in 17 years.

The last time rugby’s Premiership suffered this same indignity was back in 1999.

This year, of course, there are three English sides in the rugby equivalent, the Heineken Cup. The Tigers are joined by Harlequins and Saracens, along with three French and two Irish.

In football, as in rugby, the margins in any showdown between the best in the continent can be extremely small. In the Heineken Cup there are certainly seasons where whole pools swing on the outcome of one passage of play in one fixture.

Small competitions also require luck of the draw. Tigers, for instance, were alongside Clermont Auvergne and eventual finalists Ulster last year, and with four-time champions Toulouse and Ospreys this season. Northampton were in with Munster and Perpginan a couple of years ago, while Sale Sharks were pulled out with Clermont and Munster the year before that. With just six games to negotiate, it is difficult to find some extra leverage in a pool like that.

A missed kick at one end, an interception try at the other; a 50/50 penalty call; a wicked bounce or error of judgement; a key figure missing with injury or suspension; at the top level you are unlikely to get away with any one of them.

There are many factors beyond the control of the national boundaries and failure doesn’t necessarily mean everything in the box is broken.

Take heart, too. Although no English club reached the Heineken Cup last eight in 1999, in the three seasons around it the trophy was lifted by an English team, including of course the Tigers in 2001 and 2002.