At the end of the Champions League group stage this season, it seemed for all the world as if English football was about to retake its place at the top of the European game.
No country had more sides in the last 32 of the competition.
Germany, for so long seen as an example for the rest of us of how to run a football league, had seen Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig fail to escape their groups.
Atlético Madrid had been eliminated just as Diego Costa was getting ready to join the party, hipster favourites Monaco and Napoli choked, and the draw seemed to contain a number of lesser sides that the Premier League big boys could swat aside; Porto, Basel, Shakhtar, Beşiktaş… Sevilla.
But, jetting off on their European adventures, the English boys took something of a beating. Liverpool and Manchester City, handed the simplest ties, are through but Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, and now Chelsea have been left battered and humbled by their own experiences of life at the sharp end of club football.
Were we premature in hailing the Premier League’s return to the top? Or is this season just a bump in the road and a step in the right direction?
City and Liverpool hold hopes of glory
First, it should be said that the two remaining English sides in the competition are each in with a good chance of winning it.
Manchester City have been a largely unstoppable force this season. Liverpool seem perfectly set up for a knockout competition, and their tie with Porto showed their blueprint – let the lads up top score five in the first leg, then feet up and give Adam Lallana and Danny Ings a runabout in the second.
It could also be argued that the two London clubs were hard done by in their respective ties.
Spurs fought back superbly in their first leg with Juventus and could have been through in the last seconds when Harry Kane glanced against the post. They will learn from the experience and hope to come back tougher and smarter into the competition next year.
Chelsea made four mistakes and conceded four goals. All three in the second leg were brought about by the greatest player of all time and they hit the woodwork twice while dominating the game in the first. Had Álvaro Morata been on his early-season form and trusted to start, or had Eden Hazard bothered to have a go at scoring a goal, they might well have fared better.
Only Manchester United really embarrassed themselves, so to say that English teams are still second-rate when it comes to the Champions League is perhaps a little harsh.
English hegemony seems a long time ago
It would be fair, though, to point out that it continues a worrying trend. Since Chelsea won the competition in 2012, English sides have won three Champions League knockout ties against teams from the top five leagues. Manchester City and Chelsea have beaten PSG, while Leicester beat Sevilla. The days of Manchester United vs Chelsea in the final are long gone.
City and Liverpool, safely through to the quarters, have had it relatively easy so far this season. City’s biggest threat have been an off-colour Napoli, while Liverpool managed to throw away a three-goal lead in their second game with Sevilla, the only team they’ve faced so far to have any real European pedigree in the last decade.
It is difficult to gauge how they will fare against the genuine superclubs, should one of them draw Bayern, Juventus or one of the El Clásico sides in the next round.
Liverpool have shown themselves capable of beating City, while also being capable of losing 5-0 to them and being deservedly beaten by a United side that registered four shots on target in 180 minutes of Champions League knockout football.
Manchester City, themselves, have had few real challengers in the league and their best hopes of practising against top-level opposition have ended up as little more than training exercises as Arsenal and Chelsea laid out the red carpet to let the superior team pass without a hassle.
Their ceilings at this level won’t be clear until they face one of the favourites.
Eliminated sides have to react well
The eliminated three probably found their level. Spurs beat Real Madrid in the group stage and will be hopeful for either an improved performance or a luckier draw next time around. Chelsea and Manchester United have been well off their best form all season and to see either reach the latter stages would have been a surprise.
How they react to their disappointments in the summer will shape this debate. If they strengthen, there is no reason why they cannot emulate Manchester City and Liverpool in making easier work of the competition.
Spurs’ demise looked due to a lack of European experience as much as anything, but had they qualified they would have been without Harry Kane for the quarter-finals – finding a capable backup for him remains a quandary but other key players such as Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli should continue to improve.
Manchester United have another summer of being linked with Antoine Griezmann to look forward to and the hope that they will start next season with a genuine team rather than an expensive group of players. The raw materials are all there but José Mourinho still hasn’t found the right blend – they have lots of potential to improve next campaign.
Chelsea seem the furthest off. Though bowing out to Barcelona is no disgrace, it isn’t clear what they will look like when the knockout round kicks off next season. Antonio Conte doesn’t seem a man who wants to be there for another year, while Roman Abramovich seems to have tired of fuelling megastar signings and dramatic squad overhauls.
Top sides have to catch City as well as Europe
Arsenal still have a shot of qualification through the Europa League, of course, but it is hard to imagine them as anything other than the perennial entrée for Bayern Munich in the last 16, whetting their appetite before a genuine challenger comes about.
Manchester City’s dominance in the Premier League this year may well encourage the other sides to throw money at their problems this summer, which could see an increase in quality.
But it will take a lot to overcome the feeling that English sides now go into the big ties as underdogs rather than equals. That is something that will take more than one year of good group stage performances to turn around.
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