Thursday 19 July 2018

City and Reds left to prove English sides are still a force

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: PA
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: PA

Samuel Lovett

And then there were two. After such early promise, the Premier League's big hitters have been picked off, leaving just Manchester City and Liverpool as the only English sides left in the Champions League.

Against the might and magic of Lionel Messi, Chelsea were the latest side to see their European hopes brought to an early end, following Manchester United and Tottenham to the exit door. What was meant to be a new dawn for English football has failed to materialise.

Of course, City and Liverpool are both viable contenders for this season's Champions League title - with Pep Guardiola's men among the favourites to lift the trophy in May.

But how is it that, from a position of dominance, England's presence in Europe has diminished?

In the upper echelons of the game, it's often the fine margins that prove to be the difference.

Tottenham, for many, were this season's dark horses - as highlighted by their stunning win over Real Madrid last term.

Their two-leg tie with Juventus, then, was deemed as winnable - and for 170 minutes that certainly looked to be the case. But, across a devastating 10-minute spell over both legs, their fate was sealed.

Had Harry Kane's late header circumnavigated Giorgio Chiellini it may have been a different story, but it's by margins such as these through which Juventus often prevail.

Undeserved

Undeserved winners but unsurprising nonetheless.

Chelsea, for their part, came close. At Stamford Bridge the tie was theirs for the taking while in Barcelona the end result could have made for a very different story.

Despite the scoreline, the visitors put in a defiant display, hitting the post twice and enjoying promising passages of play that pointed to a resilience not seen enough in this Chelsea side across the current season.

On the occasion, the irrepressible Lionel Messi proved to be the difference - and it's players of his ilk who will swing ties of this nature - but maybe Antonio Conte was fair to argue after Wednesday's defeat that his side had been "a bit unlucky".

Which brings us to Manchester United.

Lambasted as uninspiring, apathetic and downright embarrassing after Tuesday's defeat by Sevilla, there's little doubt Jose Mourinho's men deserved to exit the competition with their tails between their legs.

But in comparison to Chelsea and Tottenham, their last-16 tie should have been a walk in the park.

Given the calibre of players within the side, United simply failed to show up - despite the confidence-boosting win over Liverpool four days prior. Simply put, it was a result of United's own doing.

The point here? All three teams had either the opportunity or means to reach the last eight.

Had this been the case, English football's brave new dawn within the competition would have been confirmed as reality - regardless of the eventual outcome in Kiev.

This is all conjecture, of course, and, for Tottenham and Chelsea at least, such wishful thinking will get you only so far against the experience of Juventus and Barcelona. But it's been a long time since England's elite were collectively knocking on the door as they did this season.

Indeed, the last time England had four or more sides in the quarter-finals was in 2009.

This season marked the closest point we've come since, and the question, now, is what comes next for the Premier League in Europe?

City's presence within the competition is undoubtedly assured. The club are competing in the Champions League for a seventh successive year - the longest ongoing sequence of any English side - and will be playing in an eighth campaign next season.

Liverpool, too, seem to be in the ascendancy as they close in on Champions League football for a second consecutive season. But only against a Barcelona or Bayern Munich will their true colours be shown on the main stage.

Who knows what lies in store for Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham?

With the latter two in a period of uncertainty and transition, how long will we have to wait to see England's best teams once again pushing for a place in the Champions League's later stages?

The boat may have been missed this year but at least there are consolations to be drawn, instances of misfortune to point to and fine margins to agonise over. In all, close but no cigar.

For now, the hopes of bringing Champions League glory back to England rest with Liverpool and Manchester City.

The quarter-final draw takes place at 11am today. The ties will be played on April 3-4 and 10-11.

© Independent News Service

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