Sunday 18 March 2018

Balance of power wavers with England's clubs sitting pretty

Optimism quietly builds with all five Premier League sides top of their Champions League groups

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are going well in the Champions League, though he still has defensive problems to address. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are going well in the Champions League, though he still has defensive problems to address. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters

Paul Wilson

The Champions League group stage is now at its halfway point, each team having played three matches with three more to come, and before anything happens to spoil the effect it might be worth pressing the pause button for a moment to take in the unexpectedly fine view.

Not only does the Premier League boast the impressive total of five entrants this time, thanks to Manchester United's dogged perseverance in last season's Europa League, but all five English clubs top their groups. The competition is still young, yet even though Tottenham have visited the Bernabeu and Chelsea have faced Roma and Atletico Madrid, no English side has lost yet.

Anyone looking at the stats and rankings could easily run away with the impression that English teams are quite good. How this promising situation is going to resolve itself over the next few matches to reach the doom and gloom scenario that the group stage usually brings is unclear, but for the moment at least the Premier League has nothing to beat itself up about.

Of the 15 matches involving English clubs in the Champions League so far, 11 have been won and four drawn. English football doesn't get the chance to crow about these sort of numbers often, so let's have a look at La Liga for purposes of comparison.

Spanish teams have played 12, won six, drawn four times, and been beaten twice. German teams, of which there are only three, have recorded more defeats than victories - P9, W3, D2, L4. Bayern Munich have already changed coaches and Borussia Dortmund look unlikely to progress .

Beware of premature celebration, you might warn, when the English malaise normally starts in earnest in the knockout rounds, once the gruelling festive fixture programme and lack of a winter break have taken their toll, and you might have a point. But even the most wary of pessimists would have to admit that the early signs are encouraging.

This time last year Spurs were on their way out of the competition without even reaching the knockout stage; now they are considering themselves slightly unlucky not to have returned home from Rea with three points. Mauricio Pochettino's team are exactly level with Zinedine Zidane's holders, with two wins and a draw and the same number of goals scored and conceded, topping their group in advance of Wednesday's return match at Wembley by virtue of the away goal scored in the head-to-head in Spain.

Liverpool hit a record seven goals in the last round away to Maribor and, while the Slovenian champions may not be a household name around Europe, they did hold Spartak Moscow to a draw in an earlier round of games.

Manchester City and United have made perfect starts with three wins out of three, both have scored eight goals and conceded one, and both are consequently in a position to practically wrap up qualification with another good result.

United must have an excellent chance of doing exactly that with a home tie against Benfica on Tuesday, while Tottenham and Liverpool are also at home and facing the not inconsiderable challenge of performing as strongly as they did last time out on their travels, against the same opposition.

There is no doubt where the most daunting fixtures take place this week: Chelsea and City are in Italy (Serie A record to date: P9, W4, D2, L3), Antonio Conte taking on Roma on Tuesday after gaining only a draw at Stamford Bridge, Pep Guardiola getting another look, on Wednesday, at the high-flying Napoli side he admires so much .

If English clubs are still holding all the pole positions by the end of the week, it might be something to celebrate in a country that supplied only Leicester City to the last eight last season.

Again, the real winnowing usually occurs after Christmas, though at least this time Arsenal will be unable to set the tone by being taken apart by Bayern.

When English clubs made predictably early exits last season Steve McManaman, winner of Champions League medals with Real Madrid in 2000 and 2002, said it was because few Premier League sides were stable enough to permit a sustained challenge in Europe.

"Look at last-stage regulars like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich and they don't change much from year to year," he suggested. "You just see small nuances here and there, whereas in England the response to an unsuccessful season is often to rip everything up and start again."

That may have been true a year ago, when managers such as Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp were busy ripping things up to start again and Tottenham were still coming to terms with Wembley and the Champions League, though the situation appears to have settled down since.

Every manager in charge of an English club is now in at least his second season and all the wiser for it. Guardiola has smartened up his defence, Mourinho has added power to his front line, while Pochettino is simply reaping the benefit of having put together a strong side that is growing in confidence and experience.

One could nitpick and observe that Klopp still has defensive problems to address, or that the consistency that served Chelsea so well last season continues to elude them, but it is probably best to save the moaning until such time as there is something to moan about.

For now, the picture is bright, and though it goes against the grain a little to be going into Europe whistling a happy tune, we might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

Sending five clubs into the Champions League is already a feat worth noting. Sending out five stable and prospering clubs is the sort of advertisement for Premier League standards no one could realistically have expected.


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