herald

Sunday 19 August 2018

English teams back in the Euro frame

Sadio Mane celebrates scoring Liverpool’s fifth goal and completing his hat trick against Porto on Wednesday night
Sadio Mane celebrates scoring Liverpool’s fifth goal and completing his hat trick against Porto on Wednesday night

The business end of the Champions League will always expose weakness in teams but it also highlights raised standards and I think we now have to acknowledge that the Premier League has recovered its swagger.

Halfway through the Round of 16, the Premier League is looking good for three quarter-finalis ts.

It's one thing finding a way to navigate the group phase of the competition but once the knockout rounds arrive, poor sides have mostly been weeded out and each game is a true test.

For the last few seasons, we numbered English sides among the poor teams but the impact of a vast amount of money spent on the best managers in the world and some of the most exciting players on the planet in the last 12 months is now obvious.

I also believe that there has been a mini-decline in Spain and while Real Madrid surprised most observers with a good win over PSG, they are at a point of transition and I think a lot will change there in the summer.

Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan (right) celebrates scoring his second goal with Raheem Sterling as City beat Basel 4-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday night
Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan (right) celebrates scoring his second goal with Raheem Sterling as City beat Basel 4-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday night

Transition

They certainly wouldn't be my favourites to win the Champions League.

We will see next week how good Barcelona are but there is also a transition under way at the Nou Camp and I give Chelsea a decent chance of upsetting the odds over the two games.

I would also expect Manchester United to deal with Seville, although I would rank Jose Mourinho's team as the Premier League club least likely to actually win the competition.

For all the money spent, I think Mourinho has the poorest balance of any team at the top of the table. He is particularly light in midfield and his problems with Paul Pogba won't be resolved until he can find a top-rank playmaker.

I can't rule them out because Mourinho has proved many times that he can conjure results from the most difficult situations but my gut tells me that if there is to be a Premier League winner, it will come from the trio of clubs that did so well this week.

On Tuesday, I watched Manchester City stroll while they battered Basel and thought to myself that the trophy belongs to them if they play like that from now on.

But the little niggle at the back of my head about City's defence has not gone away and as I said at the start of this piece, the Champions League is the one arena in which there are players capable of punishing mistakes in an eyeblink.

New record

City's 4-0 win over Basel set a new record for an away win by an English club in the Champions League and 24 hours later, was trumped by Liverpool when they smashed in five against Porto.

I don't trust Jurgen Klopp's team or his knowledge of the art of defending but I would have to give Liverpool a great chance in the Champions League simply because they can deliver performances like this.

Spurs did great things in Turin to fight their way back into a game which looked lost after 20 minutes and are looking very good now for a place in the quarter-finals.

I know Juventus are on the way down but I thought Spurs were very impressive. Reading about Toby Alderweireld's wage demands confirms that all is not well at the club and that Daniel Levy will have to juggle like never before to keep everyone happy this summer. But this performance told me that Pochettino still has the players and they are still up for the fight.

Each of those three teams - City, Liverpool and Spurs - have Champions League momentum and have won very comfortable positions with top quality first-leg performances.

City's massive lead at the top of the Premier League table gives Guadiola a wonderful position to attack the Champions League from and it also clarifies matters for Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino.

The league title is off the table for both men and they can focus all their efforts on the Champions League.

All of this bodes well for a Premier League winner of Europe's top trophy.

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