Is this the year English clubs return to the top of continental football?
At the close of play on Wednesday evening, you’d be hard-pressed not to say that Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham are now the favourites to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals, with Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola already confidently able to turn their attention to their next European opponents.
Liverpool’s domination of FC Porto at the Estádio do Dragão on Wednesday was one of the most dominant away performances by an English club in a Champions League knockout game for some time, and yet in terms of the quality of the football being played, it could only be considered an improvement on that played by Man City and Spurs due to the more impressive scoreline.
So, the question is, why does 2018 look like the year English clubs will once again by challenging for the Champions League crown? Firstly, you have to go back to last May, when Jose Mourinho lead Manchester United to the Europa League title, allowing England to enter five teams in this year’s contest. This numerical advantage means statistically England has a better chance of producing a champion this season than any other nation, but there’s more to it than that.
Firstly, Manchester City’s dominance of the Premier League this season makes them a clear favourite, and with a manager who has won Europe’s elite competition several times in his career already and a favourable draw up to this point, the smart money is on the Sky Blues. The manner in which City have won their games is what’s so impressive, having failed to come up against any formation or tactic that seems to negate their patient, short-passing style. Guardiola has set his team up to play with a similar tempo to his infamous Barcelona side, but with more dynamic wingers in Sane and Sterling, who are given more creative freedom than the likes of Pedro at Barcelona, whose role was to provide Messi with the best opportunity to influence the game. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva are his Iniesta and Xavi, with the former playing the best football of his career.
Aside from the obvious contenders, the strength in depth of the Premier League means that even if Manchester City were to succumb to their next opponents (an incredible comeback from Basel is probably off-the-cards at this point) there are still four other sides playing very different types of football for the rest of Europe to compete with. There are few sides in Europe with a more devastating front line than Liverpool right now, with PSG the only team currently able to boast more away goals than them this season, and their place in the quarter-finals is in serious doubt after their defeat to Real Madrid (more on that later).
Spurs are the in-form team in the league, with a striker who’s shoot-on-sight mantra able to bale out his side when the more creative players are drawing a blank, which happens less and less often as Mousa Dembele’s imperious form allows the likes of Eriksen, Son and Alli to play more creative roles. We have yet to see how Messrs Mourinho and Conte will fair in the opening leg of their ties against Sevilla and Barcelona respectively, however you can expect both of their sides to set up more defensively than their English counterparts.
The fact is, it’s very difficult to imagine a team, except for Manchester City, that have the ability to set up a team to beat three of these English sides, which is potentially what any other side would have to do to win the Champions League.
Finally, the knockout draw couldn’t have been much kinder to the English teams, with three of the five sides going into their ties as clear favourites, while Spurs are now also in a good position to overturn Juventus. Chelsea are the outliers in this scenario, although this is partly down to their inability to win their group, but also their recent form has been inconsistent and Conte’s cup pedigree has been called into question. Spurs’ group stage form has boosted the chances of their English counterparts too, forcing Real Madrid and PSG to face off earlier in the tournament than either would have liked to. Bayern Munich are the team that have gone under the radar this year in Europe in the UK, having managed to avoid playing any of the domestic clubs up to this point, and shouldn’t have too much trouble defeating Besiktas in their opening knockout tie. However, the Bavarians have plateaued over the last few years, and face the same challenge as PSG do in France with domestic motivation already dwindling as they wrap up their respective league titles with relative ease in the coming weeks.
Luck has certainly been on the side of the English club’s so far this season, but don’t look past how well these sides have played so far in Europe, and at this point, it would be impossible to rule out another all-English final, a feat that hasn’t been seen since John Terry’s infamous penalty slip in Russia.
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