European football returns this week, and though the individual highlight may well be the look of distaste on Alexis Sánchez’s face as he comes to terms with Europa League football on Thursday, before that England’s new big five get the chance to establish their credentials in the Champions League.
No other country has five representatives in the competition, not even Spain or Germany, and it is tempting to wonder whether the Premier League really deserves such prominence when actual results in Europe have been generally disappointing in the last few seasons. Yet Manchester United cannot be faulted for taking the Europa League seriously, something English teams have not always done, and though the rather plodding progress towards success in an unmemorable final seemed the upper limit of José Mourinho’s ambition last season the club have not stood still since.
A combination of summer strengthening – more than £100m on Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic – and improved performances from last season’s captures Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have ensured a promising start to the domestic season for United and they now look equipped to compete with the best in Europe.
That is not to say Mourinho and his players will be the most successful English side in this Champions League edition, but they probably will not be the first out either. Aside from the uplift in confidence since finishing six points behind Arsenal last season United find themselves in a relatively forgiving group, as do Liverpool.
Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham are drawn against more illustrious opponents, with the two London clubs facing the stiffest challenge and Spurs in particular tasked with finishing above the holders in Real Madrid and quarter-finalists last season in Borussia Dortmund. Given what happened last year, and Spurs’ continuing acclimatisation to playing at Wembley, it would not be an enormous surprise to see Mauricio Pochettino’s side stutter again.
The time to prove otherwise is on Wednesday, when Spurs begin their Champions League campaign with a “home” tie against Dortmund. Win that and they would have more than the Wembley monkey off their back, it would represent a European statement that could be followed up. Drop points, on the other hand, and a familiar scenario would begin to reassert itself.
There is no reason why this talented Tottenham side should not make progress in Europe, except that perhaps more than any other member of the English quintet there appears to be conflict within the club about what the season’s priorities should be.
All Premier League clubs in Europe have to make their own compromises on this issue, the top end of the domestic league is far too competitive and unrelenting to allow anyone to take their eye off the ball in order to concentrate on their travels in midweek. Indeed it is permissible to speculate whether even Manchester United would have made such regular visits to Champions League summits had the home front been as difficult to dominate as it is at the moment.
With at least five credible title contenders in the Premier League it is a tall order for anyone to succeed at home and abroad – even Pep Guardiola and his well-resourced Manchester City side ended up empty handed last season – and for a club such as Spurs, frustratingly close to a first table-topping finish in over half a century, it is easy to see how Europe can be a distraction. That is not to say Pochettino and his players are dismissive of Champions League commitments, just that they will be naturally wary of putting the cart before the horse.
It could be argued that Liverpool, without a title in 27 years, are in a similar position, though the key difference is that European football is something of a passion on Merseyside, and, despite the domestic drought, the club saw Champions League success as recently as 2005. Liverpool are past masters in Europe and it usually shows when Champions League football comes around.
Any supporter would tell you the priority is the Premier League, and Jürgen Klopp would doubtless agree, but it never feels like that on European nights, especially at Anfield. What Liverpool almost always have going for them in Europe – it might be best to draw a veil over what happened under Brendan Rodgers at Real Madrid three years ago – is desire, belief and a powerful conviction that history can still be made, all of which adds up to a motivation few opponents can match. Klopp is the perfect manager to reinforce the club tradition. Liverpool will always be respected in Europe simply because they respect Europe so much.
Chelsea, as runaway English champions, ought to be able to make an impression in Europe, even if Atlético Madrid will act as an uncomfortable reminder of what has gone wrong since Antonio Conte switched formation to win a title in his first season. The Italian clearly made a mistake in telling Diego Costa his time was up, and since then a few more have followed, most notably in missing transfer targets such as Lukaku, Fernando Llorente and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The result, particularly with Eden Hazard out injured, is a squad that looks too thin to battle on two fronts, and like Guardiola, who does not have a thin squad, Conte will have to decide at some point what he feels is his best route to success.
Had City managed to land Sánchez on the last day of the transfer window they would theoretically have boasted a squad capable of overcoming any challenge, though anyone who has witnessed Guardiola’s side in action knows that it does not always add up to the sum of its parts. Sánchez did not come in any case, and neither did Jonny Evans, and over the course of a season the old failings in defence could prove more significant than the luxury of an extra striker.
City will be a force at home and in Europe, though they still look more of a work in progress than genuine candidates to finish on top in either.
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