Premier League superpowers on track as new Champions League challengers emerge
Following the 4-0 victory over Juventus – a club which have won nine of Italy’s last 10 titles – the sight of Stamford Bridge was particularly cheerful on Wednesday morning. Progress in their Champions League title defense had been secured by Chelsea’s demolition of Juve. Twenty-four hours later, the road map ahead seemed familiar and encouraging.
Manchester City was also muscular, with a consummate victory, coming from behind, against Paris Saint-Germain, leader of the French championship. Like Chelsea, City had reversed the outcome of the previous meeting – Juventus had beaten Chelsea in September, when PSG had beaten City in Paris – and produced the kind of performances that would normally be described as “complete” until ‘we remember that it was made without signing players available. Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku still comes back from injury; City chose holes at PSG without Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden or Jack Grealish involved.
The same goes for Liverpool’s declared victory over Porto, a fifth of five wins in a Group B that had seemed the toughest of all first-round games. The 2-0 victory at Anfield was accomplished with several regulars rested or unavailable. When reserve talent is blessed with the kind of technique Thiago Alacantara applied to score the opening goal, they can be sure that they are a team capable of competing on multiple fronts.
For all three English clubs, the European front could look the nicest when the knockout first round draw comes next month. This is shaping up to be an unusual Champions League by recent measures, and potentially a straight path for the Premier League superpowers in the bottom four provided they avoid each other until then.
Champions League Team of the Week
It’s very plausible that none of Barcelona or Atletico Madrid – winners or runners-up twice each in the past decade – will even make it into the bottom 16. Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig certainly won’t. Villarreal and Sevilla, the last two winners of the Europa League, may not come out of the group stage of this Champions League.
All of this indicates a radical change from the monochrome composition of the later phases of the 2020-21 edition. Last season there were four Bundesliga clubs in the round of 16, four in Spanish La Liga, four in the Premier League and the only Italian club to stumble was future Serie A winner Internazionale. PSG were the only French presence and Porto the only club outside the so-called “top five” of the national leagues.
By the second Wednesday in December, there could easily be three Portuguese teams. Sporting Lisbon have already, for the first time in 12 seasons, dominated Dortmund 3-1 on Matchday 5. They joined Dutch club Ajax, whose impeccable record – they beat Dortmund twice in their five out of five wins – is accompanied by the astonishing record of striker Sébastien Haller. The former West Ham forward has scored nine times in the group stage. He had never played Champions League football before September.
Benfica could take Barcelona out of the last 16. They follow them in the squad, but Benfica only needs a better result from Barcelona on the final matchday to overtake them. And who would not rather be in Benfica’s place, at home against Dynamo Kiev – who can only finish last in the group – than Barcelona? Barca are due to visit Bayern Munich, who have inflicted 3-0 and 8-2 victories on Barcelona in the last two encounters.
Porto only need one point at home against Atletico, who were beaten at home by AC Milan on Wednesday, to qualify, while RB Salzburg are set to bring a further novelty to the last 16. They only have to draw a draw with Sevilla to progress in Spain. at the club’s expense.
“The Champions League is ruthless,” sighed Atletico Madrid head coach Diego Simeone after a third European game on the trot on Wednesday, leaving the Spanish champions at the bottom of Group B.
Even for Real Madrid, Champions League winners three consecutive seasons until 2018 and who are perhaps the only La Liga club in the round of 16, it seems ruthless from now on. They, PSG and Manchester United may sound out a group of maverick outsiders and believe their pedigree gives them an advantage. But then they have to recognize that there are also four very clear favorites – City, Chelsea, Bayern and Liverpool.
Updated: November 26, 2021, 04:16