Friday Dec 08, 2017
England will have a record five teams in the draw for the last-16 of the Champions League but it will take a repeat of their knockout stage dominance from a decade ago for talk of a new era of Premier League success to be justified.
Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Liverpool all topped their groups after this week’s final round of games, while Chelsea qualified in second place from their section.
No country has ever had five clubs in the knockout stage with the previous best being four from the same nation - achieved on several occasions by England, Spain and Germany.
While there were some eye-catching results which suggest real progress, such as Tottenham’s 3-1 win over Real Madrid at Wembley, there were few genuinely tough tests for the wealthy English clubs.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte perhaps had a point when he noted that his side, who finished behind AS Roma and above Atletico Madrid, had a tougher route than most of their Premier League rivals.
“I think it was not simple, but easy for a lot of these teams to go into the next round,” he said after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Atletico.
Liverpool enjoyed 7-0 wins at home to Spartak Moscow and away to Maribor and while their manager Juergen Klopp made a point of stating “the Champions League is not easier than the Premier League”, his team are unlikely to enjoy many 7-0 wins in the domestic competition.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola went to great lengths to praise group rivals Napoli and Shakhtar Donetsk as two of the top teams in Europe but whatever their level, his squad was still able to qualify with two games to spare.
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United were barely worried by Basel, CSKA Moscow and a poor Benfica team that lost all six of their games.
Monday’s draw will set up some clashes that will offer a much stronger indication of whether the English clubs are getting back to the kind of level they showed between 2006 and 2009 when they had a trio of teams in the semi-finals for three straight years.
One factor that has often been blamed for recent failures of English clubs is the intensity of the domestic campaign, with its heavy winter schedule taking a toll before the ‘business end’ of the Champions League.
Conte suggests that could again be a factor.
“We have to see. Don’t forget, here the season is very tough. You have to play a lot of games. When you accumulate games and then you arrive at the final stage, playing in the quarters or the semis, the English teams have a lot of games in their legs,” added the Italian.
“For this reason, it could be problematic to win. But... the English teams are very good and have the possibility to win and reach the final of the Champions League.”
Certainly there is no sign of over-confidence from the foreign managers of the English teams with Mourinho saying United are not “candidates” to win the title in Kiev in May, while Guardiola believes the favourites are familiar names.
“Maybe you are good today and in February you are a disaster or the opposite,” he said.
“It will be tough, the three contenders are tough [Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich] and so are the others but we are going to try.”