For the first time ever in European footballing history, 5 English Teams will be in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League – Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. With English teams performing poorly in Europe since the halcyon days of all-english semi finals and winners in the mid to late noughties, Fabian Wood previews the challenges lying ahead in Europe for the Premier League clubs.
Liverpool have done the hardest work to get to this stage – having had to navigate a Champions League play off round which can occasionally throw up a banana skin. Hoffenheim, Liverpool’s Bundesliga equivalent in league standing, ticked all the boxes to be said banana skin. However, the confident manner in which Liverpool beat them both home and away suggests a new-found confidence that was lacking from their last foray into Europe 3 years ago which threw up dismal performances against then group also-rans Basel and Ludogorets.
Having come through the play offs – Liverpool fans would have feared the seeding process of the groups may have thrown them into a group of death, though such fears ultimately proved unfounded.
Sevilla – 3 time Europa League winners in recent seasons – offer the biggest threat to Liverpool. Although despite their success in Europe’s second tier, Sevilla have struggled to make much impact in the Champion’s League, having finished 3rd in the group last year and dropping back down to be a big fish in a little pond rather than the other way round. Spartak Moscow and Maribor may offer slightly tricky and inconvenient away ties – but with the formers abysmal domestic form and the latters relative European inexperience (a suprise victory over Hibernian in the Europa League 7 years ago notwithstanding) suggests Liverpool are assured qualification to the knockout stages and will look to kick on and top the group.
Chelsea’s absence from the Champions League only lasted a season, and they return to the tournament they famously won in 2012 years ago as champions of England. However their run to the Premier League title last season was undoubtedly helped by the lack of mid-week European action.
How Chelsea respond to the increased workload will prove critical in both their league and European successes, though few Chelsea fans will feel they’ve gone about their transfer business with the additional game time in mind. Chelsea enter the season with no significant net gain of squad size – with every arrival (Morata, Bayayoko etc) matched with a departure (Costa, Matic, etc).
Chelsea indeed have the quality and the starting XI to compete in their group alongside heavyweight and twice finalists in the previous 5 seasons, Athletico Madrid, and a potent AS Roma side. However it is vital to them that they enter these games fresh from the previous weekend and poor results against these two sides early in in the group stages could lead to Conte’s side playing catch up under significant pressure. Azerbaijani club Qarabag FK are group minnows and shocked many by just reaching these stage – but with the successes of APOEL Nicosia and Ludogorets in recent seasons fresh in their mind and a providing a long away day to other sides, they could be capable of a shock.
United’s return to the Champions League for the first time since they failed to make it out of the group stages under Louis Van Gaal. It took Mourinho one season to take the Red Devils back to Europe’s top club competition and even then qualification was only brought about through the back door of their Europa League trophy rather than the traditional route of finishing in the Top 4.
Mourinho was not brought to Manchester United just to win European Qualification, but instead to usher in a new dynasty to rival Sir Alex and meet the lofty expectations of the Manchester United faithful. Mourinho has bought himself time by qualifying for Europe, but could find a poor showing could bring the pressure back on him especially after the huge transfer outlay of the summer.
Arguably they have been landed with the easiest group of all the English sides – taking up their place alongside Portuguese Champions Benfica, Swiss Champions (10+ years running) FC Basel and CSKA Moscow. It is difficult to see any real threat to Man United topping the group although memories of 2005 and their shock group stages collapse may be triggered when they visit Lisbon in October. Benfica will be most bullish about going through with them, with FC Basel and CSKA Moscow fighting over 3rd place with one eye on arresting their poor starts to the domestic season.
Since leaving Barcelona, Pep Guardiola has been accused of taking successful European sides and making them worse. Either way, in their single minded pursuit of Guardiola (ergo European glory) – City disposed of a manager that had taken them to a Champions League semi-final the year before amd instead found themselves crashing out to a scincillating Monaco side in the quarter finals a year later. Twinned with high profile European failures with Bayern – this is a big year for the cult of Pep and Manchester City.
The draw has also been kind to them – being placed with dutch champions Feyernoord, Napoli and Shakhtar Donetsk. Napoli, with a consistent record of making it through the group stages, boast talent including Marek Hamsik, Luca Insigne, Andreas Milik and Dries Mertens and will provide the biggest threat to City, with Feyenoord and Shakhtar making up the numbers.
Having signed last year’s European heartbreaker Bernardo Silva early on in the window, as well as expensive quality additions throughout the side, it is no suprise that the bookies have City as the top English favourite to lift the Champions League trophy. City have overcome the jitters they first experienced when they entered Europe under Mancini and are beginning to be considered a European powerhouse in their own right. Expect them to top the group – and comfortably.
With their compatriots all recieving relatively easy European assignments to keep them busy until Christmas, Spurs – Premier League runners up – have found themselves in the proverbial group of death alongside consecutive winners Real Madrid, 2013 finalists Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia.
Blessed with an easy group last season – Spurs huffed and puffed their way around Wembley to finish third, where their reserves performed similiarly in the Europa League. Defeats at England’s home of football to Leverkusen and Monaco led many pundits to claim the existence of a curse on Spurs at Wembley – with a solitary defeat to Chelsea in the Premier League compounding their woes. Spurs are going to have to get used to Wembley and quickly before welcoming Borussia Dormund (finalists there in 2013) in the opener to their European campaign, with an away trip to the European Champions beckoning.
Wembley aside, Spurs have the quality to compete with these sides – demonstrated by being the top scorers and tightest defenders in the league last season and with CIES Football Observatories valuing Dele Alli and Harry Kane as the 2nd and 3rd most expensive players in the world behind Neymar. Spurs fans will comfort themselves with memories of their run to the Quarter Finals in 2011 which came at the detriment of their league form, finishing 5th that season. Having come so close to the title for the last two years running – questions will be asked whether Spurs can challenge on two fronts. With a difficult group ahead and a lack of top level European experience in the side, Spurs could be forgiven for perhaps keeping their attention and hopes on the elusive Premier League crown.
By Fabian Wood.