It’s been a strange season so far for the English clubs in The Champion’s League. In times past, the group stages represented little more than practice matches for the Premier League giants to hone their skills and fitness before the bigger challenges of the knockout phase.
But this season United and Chelsea have struggled whilst City, who are ostensibly unbeatable domestically, look in great danger of succumbing to the fist hurdle. Meanwhile, ‘crisis team’ Arsenal have eased through as group winners with a game to spare.
Whether this is indicative of a Premier League in recession or an improvement in other leagues is hard to say – I’ll sit on the fence and speculate that maybe it’s a bit of both. What is clear is that, even if the two Manchester clubs do progress, it will most likely be in second place, which means a probable tie against one of the big boys in the first knockout round.
And despite a decent performance from Chelsea and a brilliant contribution from the evergreen Didier Drogba (Fernando who?), you have to say that everything went perfectly for The Blues last night. They scored two goals in an opening half hour when they were dominated by Valencia and, but for some shocking defending by the away team, the scoreline would have been much tighter.
Manchester United started the season on fire and drew plaudits from all corners of the globe for their attacking prowess and overall fluidity – reminiscent of the great Barcelona. But Tom Cleverley’s protracted absence has exposed obvious chinks in United’s midfield armoury and, whilst they usually recover their swagger, they are currently grinding rather than spellbinding. Their problems in The Champions League stem form their home results. Draws against Benfica and Basle have left them with a tough job to qualify against an expansive Basle side that can, themselves, qualify tonight with a win.
Meanwhile Manchester City have looked every inch the European debutants and have illustrated perfectly the import of experience in The Champions League. I do however feel that they have a better chance of qualification than many are predicting. They can overcome an already qualified Bayern, minus the injured Robben and Kroos whilst Villareal, despite having no points, are no pushover. Napoli are also a bit hit and miss and won’t find it easy to leave Spain with the victory that they require to be certain of qualification.
What it does mean is that the Manchester clubs passage through the second round will be much more difficult. We hear soundbytes from the clubs about having to beat the best anyway if you want to win The Champions League but United and City would surely prefer to play Barcelona or Real Madrid closer to the end of the season, when they are in full flow and top form.
First things first however. Both Manchester clubs will be overjoyed just to get through the league stage this year and we can expect a highly charged and very exciting evening of European football.