Bayern Munich appear the most serious contenders from outside England’s elite
After two all-English finals in the last three years, Premier League clubs have been rampant in Europe again this season and look ready to dominate the Champions League knockout stages, with the draw for the last 16 taking place on Monday.
Liverpool ran riot in what appeared a difficult section, becoming the first English side to win six Champions League group games out of six against Atletico Madrid, Porto and AC Milan, scoring 17 goals in the process.
They were even able to go to San Siro last Tuesday and win 2-1 against a Milan side needing a result, despite fielding only three regular starters. Manager Jurgen Klopp called it “absolutely incredible”.
Manchester City and Manchester United both won their groups with a game to spare, while holders Chelsea only missed out to Juventus for first place in their section after a second-string side conceded a stoppage-time equaliser to draw 3-3 at Zenit Saint Petersburg.
In the last three seasons there have been two all-Premier League finals in Europe’s elite club competition featuring four different clubs, with Liverpool beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in Madrid in 2019 and Chelsea edging City 1-0 in Porto last May.
Given the way the draw for the last 16 is set up, with clubs from the same country not able to face each other, there is a real chance all four English representatives will make the quarter-finals.
That also happened in 2018/19 but had previously not been seen for a decade, during the last period of English dominance.
Things have changed since then, however.
The Premier League’s financial advantages over the rest of the continent become more entrenched with each passing year, and all the more so now that it continues to rake in enormous sums in broadcast deals while other leagues have struggled more acutely from the financial impact of the pandemic.
Right now England’s elite have very few peers in Europe, especially with Barcelona’s dramatic decline resulting in them dropping into the Europa League, ending a run of 17 consecutive appearances in the Champions League knockout rounds.
The Premier League has almost become the ultimate level of competition for them.
Writing in The Times of London this week, Jonathan Northcroft lamented feeling “the loss of that sense that a higher level of football existed beyond domestic competition.”
It is possible to argue that Bayern Munich are currently the only side from outwith the Premier League who look genuinely capable of going all the way in the Champions League, with a team that has changed little since they won it in 2020.
That said better is surely still to come from Paris Saint-Germain and their superstar attack, while Real Madrid, coached by such a wily old campaigner in Carlo Ancelotti, cannot be dismissed.
“There might be more intense teams than us, others with more quality, but we have lots of quality, lots of experience and lots of commitment,” said Ancelotti this week.
PSG could be drawn against Liverpool in what would be a mouthwatering confrontation, or they could be come up against a familiar recent foe in Manchester United, which would mean another showdown between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, because of the nature of the draw, Sporting Lisbon, Inter Milan, Benfica and Red Bull Salzburg are the teams who stand the greatest chance of being drawn to play Liverpool, City or United.
None of them should strike fear into the Premier League giants, even the Italian champions.
Chelsea, meanwhile, could face a heavyweight tie against Bayern or Real. Ajax and Lille are the only other potential rivals for Thomas Tuchel’s side.
Spain remains the most successful country across the last two decades in the Champions League, and despite Barcelona’s demise, La Liga still has three teams in the last 16.
Italy, France and Portugal each have two representatives, while the Netherlands and Austria have one, and Bayern are the only German survivors in the knockout phase, just the second time that has been the case across the last 13 years.
Manchester City (ENG), Liverpool (ENG), Ajax (NED), Real Madrid (ESP), Bayern Munich (GER), Manchester United (ENG), Lille (FRA), Juventus (ITA)
Paris Saint-Germain (FRA), Atletico Madrid (ESP), Sporting (POR), Inter (ITA), Benfica (POR), Villarreal (ESP), Salzburg (AUT), Chelsea (ENG)