Hopes high for English Champions League winner after strong show

February 15, 2018

The resumption of European football after the winter break - or, in England's case, the busiest period of the season - has brought an unparalleled sense of expectation. Never before this season had five Premier League clubs been playing in the group stages before, but, better still, all of last year's top four and Europa League winners Manchester United sailed through to the knockout stages.

With the second round split over four weeks, it is not yet possible to draw any definitive conclusions about the chances of an English winner emerging this season. But the three sides in action this week have all added weight to expectations that a period in the relative doldrums is coming to an end.

Manchester City have been among the favourites for the trophy all season, having been as dominant in Europe as they have domestically. True, they did lose their final game away to Shakhtar Donetsk, but that was an irrelevance with the group already won. 

FC Basel were never likely to provide too tough a test to the blues. The Swiss side may have enjoyed a slightly fortuitous 1-0 win over neighbours United in the group stages, but, having just come back from a winter break, they were caught cold by a City side that scored three times in the opening 23 minutes on their way to another 4-0 win.

While the ability of Pep Guardiola's men to score goals aplenty is not in doubt, the one question mark was against their defence. Vincent Kompany looked shaky, while Nicolas Otamendi was extremely fortunate not to give away an early penalty. In the contest of how the game started, it may seem odd to reflect that Basel could have been leading in the opening few minutes. Nonetheless, it is a chink in the armour that may give hope to stronger opponents. 

City's win in Basel was the biggest away from home by an English team in the competition's knockout stages, but that record lasted for just a single day. Liverpool's 5-0 win at two-time European champions Porto, a team that has not lost a domestic game all season, provided yet more evidence that Jurgen Klopp's men have a forward line to compare with most sides in Europe.

Granted, Porto were poor and their successes at home need to be put in perspective by the dismal group stage showing of rivals Benfica, last year's Primeira Liga champions. Even so, with Mo Salah netting his 30th goal of the season, the prospects look bright for Liverpool, even if their suspect defence will face far greater tests.

While Manchester City and Liverpool racked up the goals, it was Tottenham who arguably produced the most impressive performance against last year's finalists Juventus. To come from 2-0 down against one of Europe's finest teams to clinch a draw represented a stunning result that should set Spurs up to progress and eliminate one of the key threats to an English club triumph. 

Quite aside from the scoreline and the resilience they showed, the way Mauricio Pochettino's men outplayed Juventus on their own pitch was hugely impressive and, following their group stage successes against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, mean Spurs have done the most so far to suggest they are equipped to succeed against the biggest and best continental sides.

Next week will see Chelsea facing Barcelona and Manchester United away to Sevilla. United will expect a tough challenge, but also one they should negotiate, with the Spaniards going out to Leicester City at the same stage last year.  

This leaves Chelsea looking the most vulnerable of the English sides, with Antonio Conte's fragile team in poor form and up against a side that has responded to the loss of Neymar this season with a series of brilliant displays that have seen them charge away at the top of La Liga, where they remain unbeaten after 23 games.  

Indeed, with Lionel Messi still at his brilliant best and Luis Suarez back in form, Barcelona look the most formidable side on the continent. If Chelsea were to upset the odds, the likelihood of an English winner of the competition this season would soar.

Image: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images from Keith Prowse subscription

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