Matchday six of this season’s Champions League arrived with uncertainty about the future that the English clubs faced in the competition. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United all needed a good result to progress, whilst Manchester City had qualified but were unsure whether they would go through as group winners or, as they normally do, as runners-up.
There was the chance at the start of play that there could only be one English team in the last sixteen of the competition, a statistic that would have been damning for English football.
As recently as 2012, Chelsea were crowned European Champions, but since then the competition has been dominated by teams from Germany and Spain, with an all German final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in 2013, and an all Spanish tie in 2014 between Atletico and Real Madrid. Juventus made the final last season, but were convincingly beaten by Barcelona, who won their fourth European Cup in 9 years.
So how did the English teams fare, and what does it mean for them now?
City were the only English club that had qualified prior to matchday six but there was still the matter of who topped the group to decide. Juventus came into the week top of the group, having beaten City in Italy on matchday five. But last season’s finalists lost 1-0 away to Sevilla on Tuesday night, meaning a win for City would clinch top spot.
After a good start, David Silva put them 1-0 up, but Borussia Monchengladbach turned the game around and led 2-1 at half time. It looked like being a frustrating night for City at the Etihad but two goals in as many minutes from Raheem Sterling, as well as another four minutes later by Wilfried Bony gave them the 4-2 win they needed to win group D.
What this means is that City can look forward to a draw that means they will avoid the majority of the big boys. They have tended to falter in the second round as they come up against the likes of Barcelona but the kinky teams they can come up against in the last 16 are Dynamo Kiev, Gent, PSG, PSV, Roma and Benfica.
Although that list includes a couple of potential banana skins, it is a lot kinder than the draw they’ve faced before. This could be the year City go further than ever in the competition.
Jose Mourinho led Chelsea out against his old club knowing that a point would be enough for his side to go through. The players he selected for the game did the job, and more, with a 2-0 win that assured top spot for the Stamford Bridge club.
The Champions League has been a welcome distraction for the Blues this season as their efforts in the league have been disappointing to say the least. They may have to win Europe’s elite competition to have a chance of competing in it once again next season, but they are the only English side left in the competition that have done exactly that before.
Coming top also means a reprieve from the possibility of facing the really big boys in the next round, although they could still come up against Benfica, Juventus or PSG, with PSV, Roma and Gent also potential opponents. Mourinho and Chelsea will fancy their chances against any of those six teams though, especially if they can get their form consistent again by February.
The Gunners always make it through to the last sixteen, but this season looked like, potentially, being the first time in seventeen years that they would fail to do that.
Arsene Wenger’s side had already lost away to Dinamo Zagreb, before an appalling defeat at home to Wednesday’s opponents Olympiacos. They did however manage to beat Bayern Munich and Zagreb 2-0 and 3-0 respectively at the Emirates, but those results came on either side of a 5-1 mauling against Bayern Munich in Germany.
It meant they needed to win by two clear goals, or win by scoring three or more away to Olympiacos to qualify behind Munich. In the end they made it seem pretty simple, with Olivier Giroud bagging a hat-trick as they ran out 3-0 winners in a very impressive display.
It means the Gunners are through, and as Bayern were in their group they won’t play the German giants in the next round, but they could still come up against Spanish super clubs Real Madrid or Barcelona, as well as Atletico Madrid. Wolfsburg and Zenit St Petersburg perhaps look like more favourable ties.
The most disappointing result for the English clubs was for Manchester United. Of the four British clubs in the competition this season, United had won the competition three times more than the rest of the clubs put together, but their rich history in the tournament meant little and they have now dropped into the Europa League.
United went into the week knowing they just had to match PSV’s result. The Dutch side played host to CSKA Moscow whilst United travelled to Germany to take on Wolfsburg.
The simple fact was that a win would see them through, yet PSV won 2-1 and United slumped to a 3-2 defeat. This means that, despite a huge outlay in transfer windows and massive expectations, United will be playing their European football on Thursday nights in the New Year.
It means the prospect of coming up against former player Gary Neville and his Valencia team, but it is still a failure for the Red Devils.
So, who is going to win the competition?
Some high profile clubs have dropped out of the tournament this season, with Porto, Sevilla, Bayer Leverkusen and of course Manchester United all dropping into the Europa League.
It is still hard to look past the trio of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona for the Champions League crown, and Arsenal’s lack of squad depth along with Manchester City’s lack of experience in the latter stages may hinder them. Chelsea perhaps represent the best chance for an English club to win the famous trophy, and it would be hard to rule out Juventus, Atletico Madrid and PSG.
But judging by the quality of their side, this could be the year that a team retains the Champions League trophy for the first time, with that being the result if Barcelona win it – something that is surely very possible this season.