We’re halfway through the group stages of the Champions League and the Premier League are yet to receive their usual dressing down by the media. Well, Manchester City are sure to get an earful in the next couple days after the loss to Barcelona but we’ll get to that later.
As things stand Arsenal, Leicester City, Tottenham and Manchester City are all in a decent positions to progress from the group stage. Leicester are, of course, the surprise of the bunch with three wins out of three. The last time all English teams made it out of the group stages was the 2013/14 season in which Chelsea made it to the semifinals and Manchester United made it to the quarterfinals. A similar return wouldn’t be too disappointing given the respective pre-tournament doubts about Leicester and Tottenham.
Right now the most likely opponents, meaning those in first or second in each group, are Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Besiktas, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Monaco, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, FC Copenhagen, Juventus and Sevilla. Other teams within touching distance in third place include Borussia Mochengladbach, Benfica, Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and Lyon. Admittedly, it is easier to see who will progress after four rounds but even that isn’t a given. The Premier League clubs wouldn’t face each other in the Round of 16 regardless of position or seeding given they are from the same league and who knows what form they or their opposition will be when the tournament returns next February. While the current standings means each team would face some unwanted opponents should they reach the knockout rounds, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and Atletico Madrid stand out, it would be hard to fully count them out for a variety of reasons.
Leicester have, as expected, benefited from being a top seed as champions of the Premier League and were put in a manageable group. While their domestic form leaves little to be the desired, Claudio Ranieri’s side has produced some professional performances their first time on the European stage. Progression is expected at this point and there’s a high probability they will be seeded again after finishing first. As ESPNFC’s Iain Macintosh pointed out, the club’s focus on European football is admirable but a Champions League trophy to follow-up last season’s Premier League is out of the question. Leicester could certainly compete with many of the teams still in with a chance of progression but their preseason losses to PSG and Barcelona are indicative of what would occur should they face the elite. A soft draw could lead to a Cinderella run but this side’s inexperience and lack of real quality in midfield will be their undoing. That’s not the case for Tottenham.
With two home games remaining, Tottenham could very well end up first in what is currently a very tight group. Even if they don’t, their intensity and quality will be enough to unsettle any of their more illustrious opponents. Spurs want to join the elite in the Premier League and part of that will be showing they can compete on multiple fronts. Mauricio Pochettino’s squad now has some decent depth even if they don’t have the Champions League experience of Arsenal and Manchester City. Last season’s Europa League run will be beneficial despite the disappointing end and Spurs will hope to do one better than their London rivals.
Arsenal seem to be benefitting from finishing second last season and thus having a higher seeding in the draw. Funny how that works. Paris Saint-Germain, especially this work in progress version, aren’t the most daunting nouveau-riche side to face. If the Gunners don’t pull their usual deer in the headlights performances away against Basel and Ludorogets then the home game against PSG should decide first place. Oh, what a day that would be. This Arsenal side look a lot more focused and efficient up front with Alexis Sanchez leading the line, again, no surprise there, and they may finally get over the Round of 16 hump. We hope. It may come down to how tight things are in the Premier League race in February but this is the trophy missing from Wenger’s cabinet so Arsenal will be expected to give it their all.
And lastly, Manchester City.
The 4-0 loss to Barcelona was a blow, especially when coupled with Borussia Mochengladbach’s win over Celtic, but it’s not the end of the world. Were it not for Fernandinho’s slip and Claudio Bravo’s horrendous decision the game would’ve played out differently, and there may even have been talk of Manchester City finally becoming elite. That didn’t happen but they are on the way there. City finally has a manager to make the difference on this stage in Pep Guardiola. If he continues to get his tactics right as he did against Barcelona, and the players can cut out the mistakes and step up their game, then City have the best chance of the English quartet. A draw against Barcelona at home and win against Mochengladbach in their next two games and second place is all but assured. Of course, those aren’t the targets to set but the minimum needed. This team wouldn’t be huge underdogs against the elite like their fellow Premier League sides.
There’s no telling what’s in store for any of these teams with the group stages not finished but anything can happen. Of course, they could render all the above thoughts useless by failing to progress in the tournament but the odds do seem in their favour. Arsenal and City will expect to progress further given their experience and the quality in their squads. Both Tottenham and Leicester can revel in the fact that they are lesser know quantities, as much as can be in this digital age, and can use that to their advantage.
It’s unlikely that more than one of these teams will make it to the semifinal but stranger things have happened. The Champions League its still in infancy but these might turn out to be a good season for the Premier League clubs.