BIG WEEK FOR ENGLISH CLUBS TO PROVE THEIR QUALITY IN UCL
If 2015/16 was supposed to be the season when English clubs re-established themselves as a genuine force in Europe, there has been little evidence of a renaissance up to now. Ahead of the final group games of this year’s Champions League, Manchester City are the only Premier League side to have already sewn up their progression into the knockout phase, with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United all just a loss or draw away from elimination at the first hurdle.
When the draw for the first stage was made in late August, City were the member of the quartet who looked to have been handed the most difficult task. A home defeat to last term’s runners-up Juventus suggested that the two-time Premier League champions’ struggles on the continent were set to continue, but successive wins over Sevilla (twice) and Borussia Monchengladbach ensured that Manuel Pellegrini’s men wrapped up qualification with a match to spare. They are likely to finish as runners-up behind Juve, but the most important thing is that City have already booked their place in the round of 16.
The same cannot be said for their domestic rivals, who can scarcely afford a single slip-up in this week’s encounters. United arguably face the toughest task, with anything less than a victory at Wolfsburg likely to see them exit the competition at the first hurdle given that PSV are highly likely to overcome CSKA Moscow in the Netherlands.
The Bundesliga side have only lost twice at home in 2015 – to Napoli in the Europa League last term and Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal this – and know that a draw will be enough to see them through. United, in truth, should have had qualification wrapped up before now: taking only one point from their two clashes with PSV was a poor return that could cost them their spot in the round of 16.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have it all to do after losing three of their five group games. Finishing behind Bayern Munich was to be expected, but shock defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos in their first two outings left the Gunners facing an uphill battle to advance, even after an excellent 2-0 win over Bayern at the Emirates. Arsene Wenger’s men head to Olympiacos on Wednesday in need of a victory by either a two-goal margin or a one-goal margin in which they score at least three goals.
Chelsea stand the best chance of joining City in the second stage: a draw at home to Porto will guarantee the Blues a place in the knockout round. That, however, will not be easy, with Jose Mourinho’s former club defeating his current one at the Estadio do Dragao earlier in the campaign. Saturday’s loss to Bournemouth was a major setback after some positive results in November, and another defeat on Wednesday would intensify talk of a crisis at Stamford Bridge.
There is still plenty to play for as the group stage reaches its conclusion, with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea’s fates yet to be decided. All three may make it through and quell the fears – temporarily at least – that Premier League outfits are lagging behind in Europe; on an individual basis, though, it would be a massive underachievement were United, Arsenal or Chelsea, with their massive wage bills and top-class players, fail to make it into the last 16.