Jason Burt: 'The Champions League is wide open - every giant has their vulnerabilities'
Is this the most open Champions League for years? When the holders lose home and away to a side who do not even get out of the group stages it would appear to suggest the winner could come from a larger field than usual. And that may open up the possibility of a Premier League club triumphing for the first time since 2012.
Real Madrid’s 3-0 defeat by CSKA Moscow at the Bernabéu may have been in a ‘dead rubber’ but it was their heaviest ever at home in European competition. They did not play the kids. It was embarrassing. They are vulnerable and are not alone in that. Now that all four Premier League teams are in the last-16, the evenness – reflected across all the European giants - should mean the English clubs have a greater chance.
Except there are some significant caveats to that theory – and not least that three of those teams finished as runners-up in their group. It now all depends on Monday’s draw.
“That three of the English sides came second in the group will probably hurt their chances,” said Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at 21st Century Club, a football consultancy working with many leading clubs.
“The odds of an English winner will swing quite a lot on the draw too - last year Spurs and Chelsea got very tough ties, while Liverpool (who drew Porto) and City (who faced Basel) got straightforward routes.”
That was until they met each other in the quarter-finals. But Liverpool, finalists last season, have significantly strengthened since then. The same cannot be said across Europe – with the exception of a Cristiano Ronaldo-bolstered Juventus.
Even so, on the same night that Ronaldo’s former Real Madrid team-mates were losing then so were Juventus. They suffered the shock of an away defeat to clearly the weakest team in their group, the Swiss club Young Boys, although they still finished first because Manchester United failed to take advantage in Valencia.
Lokomotiv Moscow, a top seed who finished bottom, Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli and Benfica from the 16 teams seeded in the top two pots failed to get through. Porto were the only group winners to claim five victories but are seen as weak. Bayern Munich were the only other group winners not to suffer a defeat. Four runners-up progressed despite collecting fewer than 10 points.
Last season four group winners won five of their six games and four were undefeated while only one runner-up gained fewer than 10 points. Indeed last season the 16 teams to progress earned 205 points. This season it was 185 points in total – a fraction under seven fewer wins.
What does it mean? “It is a tough competition. Napoli lose one game, Liverpool lose three games and Liverpool go through,” Pep Guardiola, the City manager, said, pointing to the evenness of the opposition. “Little details. I am happy that all four English teams are through because for the Premier League it is good, good news. Big compliment to everybody and hopefully we will see them all in the quarter-finals.”
That would be the difference for the English who, for the second season in succession, have the largest representation in the last-16 and need to capitalise upon that. Last season it was five with United having won the Europa League.
“I would argue last year was a better chance of winning the Champions League,” Chaudhuri says.
“England had five teams in the knockout stages - so by that very basis alone the odds of an English winner was higher – and [Borussia] Dortmund, albeit not as good as they are now, and Atlético [Madrid] were knocked out in the group stages.
“This year, virtually all the good teams made it through, and obviously there's one fewer English team in the knock-outs. So even though maybe some of the best European teams are slightly weaker, some of the weaker teams are a bit stronger.”
It does appear more uniform. There is no doubt that the English clubs are stronger although the more significant difference in a competition where experience matters more than anything else could be the fact that in Guardiola and Jose Mourinho two of the four have managers who have won the Champions League more than once, while Jürgen Klopp has reached two finals, albeit losing both. Mauricio Pochettino is the least experienced but his Tottenham Hotspur side appears better-equipped than Mourinho’s United to go further this season.
Even so in the Champions League heyday for England, between 2004 and 2012, during which time three of the four semi-finalists were Premier League clubs in 2008 and 2009, the most English defeats in a group stage was five – this season it was eight.
Alongside the English quartet are the big guns but there is an unusual fallibility to many of them summed up by the problems faced by holders Real Madrid, still dealing with the departure of Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane and by Bayern Munich who have an ageing team and a coach, Niko Kovac, who has failed to convince.
It means that Juventus, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain should be regarded as the imperfect favourites outside of any Premier League contenders, led by City, while the danger posed by Atlético cannot be dismissed.
Dortmund are convincingly leading the Bundesliga in thrilling fashion while the re-emergence of Ajax has been exciting even if, like Monaco a couple of seasons ago, any tilt deep into the competition will be followed by the break-up of the young team.
The others in the last-16 – Schalke, Porto, Lyon and Roma, who are not the force they were last season when they reached the semi-finals – will not strike fear. It is up for grabs.