BARCELONA, Spain — And then there were two. So much for the Premier League planting its flag deep in the Champions League landscape by claiming at least half of the eight quarterfinal berths for this season’s competition.
For the first time in Champions League history, five English clubs made it through the group stage to contest the round of 16, but only two — Manchester City and Liverpool — survived to fight another day on the road to the May 26 final in Kiev.
Tottenham were eliminated by Juventus and Manchester United humbled by Sevilla before Chelsea were sent spinning out of the competition by a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona on Wednesday. In fairness to Antonio Conte’s team, few gave Chelsea much hope of making it past Barca, who showed just why they are the favourites to win the Champions League again this season.
But when the draw for the round of 16 was made last December, the bullish view from within the Premier League was that at least four of England’s top clubs would make it to the final eight. There was even a hope, if not an expectation, that the Premier League would provide both finalists for the first time since Man United defeated Chelsea to win the European Cup in Moscow in 2008.
It may still happen, with City and Liverpool both capable of beating any opponent on their day, but the exits of Spurs, United and Chelsea may just offer a timely reminder that Europe’s superpowers have yet to be knocked off their perch by English football’s best teams.
Furthermore, this is the stage where the Champions League gets serious and City and Liverpool are about to discover that. If they are to fly the flag for the Premier League all the way to Kiev, there are some seriously strong clubs to overcome. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich will not be weighed down by an inferiority complex against City or Liverpool and all will expect to beat whoever they come up against.
It will be a step up from FC Basel for Man City and for Liverpool, who coasted into the quarterfinals with a 5-0 aggregate win over FC Porto. But because of the huge wealth of the Premier League and the money lavished on players by its biggest clubs, a distorted view of European football has begun to emerge within the English game.
Juventus were widely written off after being held to a 2-2 first-leg draw at home to Spurs, but their experience in the competition proved crucial as they progressed to the last eight with a 2-1 second-leg win at Wembley.
United, meanwhile, discovered that their expensively assembled squad counted for nothing against a Sevilla outfit with much smaller resources. Sevilla simply devised a smarter game-plan, one honed during their three successive Europa League-winning campaigns, and beat United with a classic European smash-and-grab raid at Old Trafford.
For all of the money in English football, it cannot buy game management, nous and experience at the highest level and the second legs of the round of 16 have highlighted the Premier League deficit in those areas.
Man City, under Pep Guardiola, are perhaps England’s best hope of success in the Champions League this season, but they remain relative novices in this competition. Will they be able to overcome Real, Barca or Bayern over two legs or in the final?
And while Liverpool are a club steeped in European tradition, their route to the last eight has been nothing short of a meander through the backwaters of the competition. Their true strength and prospects can only be gauged when they come up against a genuine powerhouse.
English clubs are certainly getting stronger after a particularly fallow period in the Champions League in recent years. Since Chelsea became the last English team to win the competition in 2012, the Premier League has only had had six representatives in the quarterfinals. During the same period, La Liga has had 19, with the Bundesliga providing 10.
Only Barca, Bayern and Real have won the Champions League since Chelsea in 2012, so their accumulated wealth of experience and belief in this competition cannot be under-estimated. The English clubs are dragging themselves back off the canvas but their naivety among the elite is why they continue to fail when they are expected to succeed.
City were guilty of such naivety and complacency when going out to Monaco in last year’s round of 16, while United and Spurs suffered because of similar failings this time around.
Are City and Liverpool really good enough and, more importantly, smart enough, to beat the likes of Real, Barca and Bayern this season? That is the real issue for the English clubs and we are about to discover whether they really can live up to the hype or if this is destined to be another season of disappointment.