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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Has Andy Robertson solved Liverpool’s left-back problem?

Liverpool were 4-1 up after 75 minutes against champions-elect Manchester City when Andy Robertson received a cheer from the crowd so loud, that anyone outside the stadium would have thought they’d scored a fifth.

In fact, Robertson had just taken the word ‘gegenpressing’ and given it a whole new meaning. Before giving away a free-kick on the left-hand side of Man City’s box for a foul on Nicolas Otamendi, Robertson had closed down Bernardo Silva on the halfway line, Kyle Walker at right-back, John Stones on the edge of the box, Ederson by the penalty spot and then the Argentinian centre-half.

If Robertson’s performances over the past month hadn’t impressed the Anfield faithful before then, he was certain to have convinced the home supporters after that.

It’s amazing to think that Robertson is only 23-years-old but has already earned 20 international caps for Scotland and made 214 career appearances since his debut for Queen’s Park in the Scottish Challenge Cup against Berwick at 18. That debut came on July 28, 2012, only a few weeks before Robertson was due to start university and potentially miss out on the opportunity to play professional football.

Andy Robertson started out at Scottish Third Division side Queen’s Park, who lived up to every Scottish stereotype by being sponsored by Irn-Bru

Robertson spent two seasons with Queen’s Park in the Scottish Third Division before being signed by Jackie McNamara at Dundee United. He was only in the Scottish Premiership for a year before Steve Bruce brought him to Hull where he earned his first international call-up and helped the Tigers reach the Premier League. That joy was short lived though, as Robertson stood out in a Hull team that were relegated the following season. 36 appearances in all competitions was trumped only by Sam Clucas and both players secured moves that kept them in the Premier League in the summer.

It was Robertson’s attacking endeavour, especially during the early parts of that season, that attracted interest from bigger clubs. An injury picked up in a match against Bournemouth at the end of October disrupted his run in the side, and although he returned to the starting line-up as soon as he was fit again Hull were already in a downward spiral.

By far his best performance in a Liverpool shirt, Robertson will be hoping to cement his place in the side for the remainder of the season.

At Liverpool, Robertson is playing in a side with higher expectations than he’s ever experienced before. This may be one of the reasons for Klopp taking his time introducing Robertson into the side. He only started two Premier League games before December, against Frank de Boer’s Crystal Palace and at home to Burnley, but since his appearance in Liverpool’s 5-1 win at Brighton, Robertson has started all but one of Liverpool’s games. Incidentally, Liverpool have gone unbeaten since Robertson replaced Alberto Moreno and his only defeat in a Liverpool shirt was in the Carabao Cup against Leicester.

James Milner, Alberto Moreno, Brad Smith, Jose Enrique, Aly Cissokho, Fábio Aurélio, Emiliano Insúa, Andrea Dossena.

These are the players that have played at left-back for Liverpool in the last ten seasons. They all attempted to replace John Arne Riise, who monopolised the position for seven seasons playing an important part in Liverpool’s Champions League win in 2005, (although he played in a more advanced position in this game ahead of Djimi Traore) their FA Cup triumph the following season, and won the League Cup several years beforehand. Replacing a player like Riise was never going to be easy, but when a versatile midfield player in James Milner is the man stepping into the role for an entire season, then there’s been a serious failure in recruitment.

The most recent left-back to leave a legacy at Anfield, Riise went on to play in Italy, Cyprus and India before returning to Norway

Robertson is not yet the player that Riise was, and it will be several seasons before we can even make this comparison properly, but he does have several key attributes that will help him emulate the Norwegian full-back.

Riise’s work-rate was what made him so vital in Liverpool’s team. He was able to join in with attacks and provide an extra option on the left, something that Robertson is already well-known for. The way Robertson was able to harass Raheem Sterling whenever he received the ball and take part in Liverpool’s attacks shows he’s able to match the best wingers in the Premier League on his day.

However, one obvious difference between the two is that Riise was aware that if he was caught out of position, he’d be protected by the likes of Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypiä and Daniel Agger, and although the Reds have just brought in Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, it’s unlikely Robertson will have that same confidence in his colleagues just yet.

Riise’s impressive dead ball technique and long range shooting ability used to steal the headlines and made the Norwegian stand out amongst his peers. Robertson is unlikely to ever compete on this front, but given the amount of attacking firepower playing in front of the young Scot right now, Liverpool aren’t going to struggle if he doesn’t start chipping in with goals.

To conclude, Robertson hasn’t solved Liverpool’s problem at left-back, and further analysis suggests that their defensive problems are more deeply rooted than simply bringing in a new full-back, but Robertson is at the right stage in his career to spend several seasons growing into the role. If Liverpool are able to bring in a new ‘keeper and potentially a partner for van Dijk in the near future, then there’s no reason why Klopp’s side shouldn’t be looking to compete for the Premier League title when these issues are solved.

What if Gareth Southgate could only pick one England player from each club?

The World Cup is only a few short months away and already speculation is mounting over who Gareth Southgate will select in his England squad. This in itself is a tough enough job as Southgate has to try and balance youth and experience, flair and levelheadedness and technical and physical players. But, what if we made his job an awful lot harder? How would the squad shape up right now if you could only pick one player from each Premier League club. How would you set your team up when you can only pick one from Raheem Sterling, John Stones or Kyle Walker? Does Jesse Lingard or Marcus Rashford go to Russia? And would 2018 finally be the year we would see Steve Sidwell at a major international tournament? Here’s the squad that we selected, and if you want to have a go too, you can download our Selector right here. Once you’ve filled it in, take a screenshot and tweet it to us at @FTHalfwayLine.

Arsenal – Jack WilshereEngland v Portugal - International Friendly

Wilshere has been resurgent since returning to Arsenal’s starting line-up at West Ham in the middle of December. If he can stay fit until the summer (and it’s a big if) then Southgate is almost certain to give the central midfielder his first international call-up since England friendly against Spain in November 2016.

Bournemouth – Callum Wilson

Bournemouth have more English players to select from than any other team, and could offer cover in practically every position. For this squad, we’ve gone with Callum Wilson who has the potential to be an England international in the near future, even if injuries have plagued his top-flight career thus far.

Brighton – Lewis Dunk

Brighton fans have been calling on Dunk to receive an England call-up ever since their promotion to the Premier League and he’s the most suitable candidate out of his club teammates to be selected in this squad.

Burnley – James Tarkowski

James Tarkowski was patiently waiting in the wings last season at Burnley knowing that former teammate Michael Keane was likely to move on in the summer. His partnership with Ben Mee was the foundation on which Burnley’s fantastic early season form was built upon; six 1-0 wins so far this season shows just how important Tarkowski’s contribution was to their success.

Chelsea – Gary Cahill

One of only a few players who are guaranteed a place in Southgate’s starting XI when they face Tunisia on June 18th. Cahill’s comfortable playing in a back three or four and in a squad containing several promising but inexperienced centre-backs his role would be more important than ever.

Crystal Palace – Ruben Loftus-CheekRLoftusCheekEngland

Very few players would have made their international debuts against tougher opponents when Loftus-Cheek started against World Champions Germany, but in a Palace squad containing very few other viable England options, the exciting attacking midfielder gets the nod.

Everton – Jordan Pickford

Joe Hart’s capitulation at club level over the last one-and-a-half seasons has given Southgate a dilemma in between the sticks. Pickford will almost certainly be in his squad next summer and with Stoke’s Jack Butland also struggling to keep clean sheets (albeit playing behind a lacklustre defence) Pickford may just pick up the number 1 shirt this summer.

Huddersfield – Tom Ince

There’s very little to say about this selection when you look at the players available. Would likely be a squad player who would be given five minutes as England desperately search for an equaliser against Panama.

Leicester – Harry Maguire

Jamie Vardy and Demarai Gray were also viable choices from Leicester, but the combination of other players picked from rival clubs means its the centre-back that gets the nod. Maguire has been Leicester’s best defender this season, with his last-minute equaliser against Man United being the highlight of the year so far.

Liverpool – Adam Lallana

Liverpool’s squad has an English core running through the centre of the pitch and for this squad, Adam Lallana’s versatility means he narrowly gets the nod of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jordan Henderson.

Man City – Kyle Walker

England’s first choice right back is the player most crucial to the Three Lions team from Manchester City. John Stones and Raheem Sterling will almost certainly start games in Russia for Southgate, but the lack of available alternatives at full-back make Walker indispensable to this squad.

Man United – Marcus RashfordMarcusRashfordEngland

Rashford hasn’t been playing at the level we know he’s capable of but his ability to play anywhere across the front line and change a game from the bench is what gives him the edge over Jesse Lingard in this squad, who on current form is the better player.

Newcastle – Jamaal Lascelles

Another young centre back tipped to make the step up to the England squad soon, anything good that Newcastle have done this season has involved Lascelles and it’s no surprise that the Magpies picked up just one point when he wasn’t in the starting line-up between November and the start of December while he was injured.

Southampton – Ryan Bertrand

Danny Rose’s inability to displace Ben Davies in Tottenham’s team means Bertrand is the favourite to play on the left for England this summer at the time of writing. Coupled with Fraser Forster’s dip in form and no other standout candidates in the Saints’ squad, Ryan Bertrand offers the most value from the options available.

Stoke – Jack Butland

A simple enough choice given Butland is the only member of the Stoke squad currently involved in the England setup and is likely to be competing with Pickford to be Southgate’s first choice this summer, although I’m sure no one would be against seeing Peter Crouch in an England shirt one more time.

Swansea – Tammy Abraham

Alfie Mawson is the young English centre-back that misses out across this selection process, with Tammy Abraham emerging as the only alternative in a weak Swansea squad.

Tottenham – Harry KaneHarryKaneEngland

Without doubt England’s most important player this summer, but his selection means the likes of Alli, Dier, Rose, Trippier and Winks are all miss out. Suddenly bringing together a group of exciting young English talent looks like a terrible decision from Pochettino.

Watford – Nathaniel Chalobah

Nathaniel Chalobah slotted into Watford’s side as a holding midfielder immediately after being brought in from Chelsea in the summer and impressed before picking up an injury. His defensive attributes make him a better option than compatriots Will Hughes and Tom Cleverley in this squad.

West Brom – Kieran Gibbs

With Pickford and Butland already in the squad, a third choice ‘keeper is a waste of a pick from one of the Premier League teams, so Ben Foster misses out. Kieran Gibbs offers slightly more value as a full-back who can play on either side than Jake Livermore or Jay Rodriguez.

West Ham – Michail Antonio

The selections made so far have made one thing clear; if you’re capable of playing in multiple positions, you have a better chance of being selected and Antonio typifies this. Andy Carroll is the other potential candidate from the Hammers, but with Wilson, Abraham, Rashford and Kane already in the squad, a fifth forward would leave England very thin in other areas.

Wildcards – John Ruddy (Wolves), Luke Ayling (Leeds), Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham)

Now, World Cup squads are made up of 23 players, which means Southgate would have to look towards the Championship for his final three selections. A third choice goalkeeper is needed, and Wolves’ John Ruddy already has 14 clean sheets to his name in 26 league games and so looks like the obvious candidate. The squad is short of a right-back behind Kyle Walker, so Leeds United’s Luke Ayling is brought in as cover, while Ryan Sessegnon offers you an option on the left hand side either as an attacking full-back or in a more attacking wide left position which he’s much more suited to.

So, do you think you can do any better? Click here to download our Selector (it’s only an Excel spreadsheet, nothing dodgy I promise!) and let us know via Twitter (@FTHalfwayLine) how you would set up this summer.