Tottenham’s 1-1 draw away to Real Madrid is another sign that English clubs are doing much better in the Champions League. It’s been a struggle over the past few years but now, under new and better managers, Premier League teams are starting to deliver in Europe again. By Jamie Braidwood
It’s almost five years since perhaps English football’s worst week in the Champions League. Defeats for Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City to Schalke, Shakhtar Donetsk and Ajax respectively left each team in a precarious position in the group with only three games gone, whilst Manchester United narrow 3-2 home win over Braga was the only English victory of the week.
In the end, only United and Arsenal made it through to the knockout phase, but neither made it through to the quarter-finals. In the four full Champions League seasons since, only four of the 32 quarter-final positions have been filled by teams from the Premier League, and only two teams have made the semifinals; Chelsea in 2014 and Manchester City in 2016. For such a strong, rich and powerful league, it wasn’t good enough.
It used to be so different. In the years before 2012-13, English teams regularly made the latter stages of the competition. Premier League teams were present in seven of the eight Champions League finals from 2005 to 2012, even if they only won on three occasions.
In the years that followed, and as English football adjusted to the fact that perhaps their top-flight was not as strong as they believed it to be, there was a lot of soul searching and scratching of heads. Numerous factors were considered; the lack of a winter break, the competitiveness of domestic football, the scarcity of genuine world-class English talent. But perhaps one was overlooked: the Premier League’s best teams were not managed by the world’s best managers.
In the summer of 2013, just after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, the landscape of Premier League management was very different to what it is now. United had just hired David Moyes, whose only season of Champions League football ended at the quarter-final stage in Munich, and then went for Louis van Gaal, who had to wait until his second season for Champions League football, before crashing out at the Group Stage.
Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, as you may expect, were the Premier League’s best representatives in the Champions League during that time, but still under-achieved, reaching only one semifinal in his three years. Manchester City never looked comfortable and never reached their potential in Europe under Roberto Mancini or Manuel Pellegrini, and Liverpool’s only season in the Champions League under Brendan Rodgers ended in complete disaster in 2014-15.
The only constant during that time was Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman’s record of reaching of reaching consecutive Champions League knockout stages was impressive, but his side has never looked capable of going any further. Arsenal’s streak ran out last year as they finished fifth, and missed out on Champions League football for the first time in Wenger’s tenure.
That, in a way, signalled a change in fortune for English clubs. Going into 2017-18 and England’s Champions League representatives had a fresh feel about them. Not only did they have five teams for the first time following Manchester United’s Europa League victory, but their big guns were back, and each managed by big characters.
Chelsea, Liverpool and United all returned to the competition for their first season of Champions League football under Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp and Mourinho respectively. Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino were able to build on their, admittedly disappointing, first season of Champions League football at Manchester City and Spurs.
It’s fair to say they’ve made an impact. We’re almost halfway through the groups and already, the Premier League teams are looking stronger. Where we’ve previously been used to teams scrambling for second place, so far the English sides’ collective record stands at played 13, won 11, drawn 2, lost 0, with United and Chelsea both likely to win Wednesday night. All five teams will qualify comfortably.
It’s not only the results, but it’s the big performances that have been most impressive. Spurs’ 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night showed they can handle playing at the highest level, according to Harry Kane. That result, along with their 3-1 Wembley win over Borussia Dortmund, puts them in not only a promising position to qualify from a dangerously difficult group, but to win it outright.
Chelsea became the first ever English side to win at Atletico Madrid with their 1-0 win a couple of weeks ago, whilst Manchester City’s 2-1 win over Italian leaders Napoli is another sign that they’re heading in the right direction under Guardiola.
The biggest question, however, will be how the Premier League sides cope in the knockout rounds. It’s been the biggest issue in previous years but again, things are different this year. United, City, Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool will all progress to the last 16, and without any risk of drawing each other until the quarters. It will be a difficult road to the final for all of them, but with Mourinho, Conte, Klopp, Pochettino and Guardiola, they’re all in a far better position to take on Europe’s elite than they were this time last year.
Perhaps, ten years on from that all-English final between Manchester United and Chelsea, the Premier League will have a Champions League finalist once more.