For the first time ever, five Premier League teams will be taking part in the Champions League group stages, thanks to Manchester United taking advantage of the new bonus place which has been awarded to the winners of the Europa League since 2015.
This, then, is the second time that one country has sent a quarter of its top division to Europe’s most prestigious club competition, after Spain did likewise when Europa League masters Sevilla joined Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Valencia two years ago. However, only three of those Spanish teams managed to escape the groups and to make it to the last 16 – no prizes for guessing which three – so it would be historic if Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United all secured Champions League football past winter in the 2017/18 edition.
But is it possible? Not since 2013/14 has the Premier League managed to earn four last 16 berths, so to secure five would be a major achievement, as well as something of a shock. That, then, begs the question: if it doesn’t happen, which club is the likeliest to have fallen at this first hurdle?
Of the Premier League’s five representatives, Manchester United are surely the team with the best chance of successfully navigating the group stages, for two reasons. Firstly, they have started the domestic season well and lead the way in the Premier League, with their new additions having hit the ground running and with last season’s signings Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan having now hit the heights expected of them last year. Secondly, the fact that United are in Group A with Basel, Benfica and CSKA Moscow means that they have an excellent opportunity to finish in the top two. While it’s not accurate to label any Champions League group as ‘easy’, it is fair to say that this is one of the kinder groups Jose Mourinho’s men could have drawn.
Moving on, another team to have come away from the draw in Monaco with a smile would have been Liverpool. The fact that the number one seed in the Reds’ group is Spartak Moscow means that they have a far better chance of progressing than if they’d drawn one of the true ‘big boys’ of continental football. While Maribor are unlikely to make much of a splash at all, Sevilla are, of course, not to be underestimated. Yet Liverpool should certainly be in the running to progress, especially because their style is best-suited for European football, never mind the fact that they have a coach who has already been to a final.
Speaking of coaches who have been to Champions League finals, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will also fancy their chances of making it into the next round. While their group of Napoli, Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk is competitive across the board, they will, like Liverpool, be pleased to have drawn one of the weaker pot one teams in Shakhtar. Given the amount of money spent since Guardiola touched down last summer, they should be able to make it through, even if Napoli will be a serious challenger for first place in the group.
That brings us on to the two teams who should have the hardest time of it, Chelsea and Tottenham. The fact that these two teams finished first and second in last season’s Premier League shows that they might just be England’s best two teams, even despite their relatively quiet transfer windows. Yet they both find themselves in really tough groups, strong enough to threaten their last 16 ambitions.
For Chelsea, the fact that they must take on perennial quarter-finalists – as well as 2014 and 2016 finalists – Atlético Madrid is beyond daunting, not least because it was Diego Simeone’s side who knocked them out in the semi-finals of the 2013/14 campaign. Throw Roma into the mix and there truly is a three-way race to qualify in Group C – no offence to group minnows Qarabag. Another cause for concern for Chelsea fans is the fact that the Champions League has until now been one competition which Antonio Conte has struggled in, most recently getting knocked out in the group stages with Juventus in 2013/14.
As for Tottenham, to be paired with current champions Real Madrid and with Borussia Dortmund – who have enjoyed post-Christmas European football in each of the previous five seasons – is a mighty stroke of bad luck. The fact that they were similarly knocked out of the group stages last season in what was a weaker group than this year’s is further cause for concern, especially as they’ll be once again playing at Wembley. While the idea of a Wembley curse may be nonsense, what it true is that this rare chance to play at the home of English football is extra motivation for opponents, which a quick look at the excitement in the Spanish and German media the day after the draw will have demonstrated.
So, given all of the above, which English team is the least likely to reach the Champions League last 16? Rather than sit on the fence, I would opt for Tottenham over Chelsea, mainly due to the fact that Borussia Dortmund should be a tougher prospect for them than Roma should be for the Blues, with both Madrid teams likely to progress as well. Adding in the Wembley factor and last season’s uninspiring continental performances, it would be quite the achievement if Mauricio Pochettino’s group can progress. If all five Premier League teams do, then it would be an historic feat.
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