Premier League Preview: Gameweek 31
English teams have received plenty of criticism in the past few years for considerably underwhelming in the Champions League, but this might well be the year that they start to positively contribute to European football once again.
With Manchester City and Liverpool already through to the quarter-finals, that makes it double the amount of Premier League teams that were representing English football in last year’s competition. Only one club, Leicester City, carried the flag in European football past the round of 16, which was an absolute travesty.
Tottenham might have been knocked out by the immensely defiant, brave and resilient Juventus at Wembley on Wednesday evening, but they showed what they can produce on European nights, and will be back stronger than ever with having being involved in experiences such as those. In the words of Kanye West, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
There is a chance – albeit a slim one – that two more English teams can join City and Liverpool into the quarter-finals, as Manchester United face a home tie against Sevilla that is nicely poised having drawn the first tie 0-0. Chelsea travel to Barcelona after recording a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, but that is going to be an incredibly tricky game to overcome given Barcelona’s dominance in the Nou Camp. But if any team can do it, it will be Chelsea.
On paper, there should be three English teams into this season’s Champions League quarter-finals – a feat that hasn’t been matched since 2011 when Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United were in the runnings. The Red Devils, under Sir Alex Ferguson, went on to reach the final, coming up against a Pep Guardiola’s Barça side that defined an era.
There is room to be optimistic for the future of English teams in Europe, however, given the dross that has been produced in the last half-decade. Too many times have Premier League teams crumbled under the spotlight, or not produced when they should have. But there appears to be a different aroma and aura around these teams.
Liverpool have one of the most frightening and dangerous forward lines in the whole of Europe, that will be a test of any team’s defensive discipline and organisation, including Juventus’.
They have improved their defence somewhat, too, with the addition of January signing Virgil van Dijk from Southampton. The Dutch centre-back has become a catalyst in starting attacks from the back and has contributed hugely in keeping the Reds’ intensity and concentration to the required levels.
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) March 8, 2018
In terms of odds, Manchester City are the favourites for this year’s Champions League, which is remarkable given they have never reached a final before. But under Guardiola, the Citizens are embarking on a special season with the domestic title already wrapped up. They can rest their influential players in those Premier League games that don’t matter and solely concentrate on the FA Cup and their European campaign.
City have a very well-rounded and balanced team, playing out from the back in a formation that promotes fluid football from start to finish. With Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Agüero all fit and raring to go, there’s no reason why they can’t cause problems against the true elite and stamp their authority on the competition.
José Mourinho’s United are different to the other two English aforementioned. They are far more reserved in their approach – case in point was the first leg in Seville where they came back to Manchester with a scoreless draw – but their defensive outlook might just pay off in the Champions League.
While no one is expecting United to win the competition, that prediction is reserved for their across-town rivals, the Red Devils might just find themselves going through the rounds under the radar. Mourinho has a vast amount of experience in negotiating through Europe and, as we saw last season, he won the Europa League for the first time in his career rather seamlessly.
Mourinho has a tendency in Europe to perform when asked upon, and while his team might not be as prolific as the likes of Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or even Manchester City, it does have a great spirit and perseverance to it – as shown when staging their impressive 3-2 comeback against Crystal Palace.
Regardless of who you support, having English teams back in the deeper rounds of the pinnacle of European football is always a good sign. Rivalries will start to spark back into life and it’s always an amazing moment when two Premier League clubs come up against one another in Europe. There’s something truly special about those spectacles.
It has been a long wait, but English football finally seems to be on the rise again, and with potentially three or four clubs in the quarter-finals, no country will have more ambassadors than England in the latter stages of the Champions League.