Premier League juggernauts preparing to invade Europe
Background photo: Diario de Madrid, CC BY 4.0
Fans of European Leagues sound like Claude Juncker. The EU Brexit negotiator spends most press conferences repeating how UK citizens overvalue themselves. Similarly, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga enthusiasts insist Premier League followers have an inflated sense of importance. The 2018/19 season may finally give English football facts to support their view. The possibility exists for an all-England Champions League final.
Although he's been cast to the side, Liverpool and Tottenham owe thanks to Pep Guardiola for dragging them kicking and screaming into the contemporary game. A 106-goal, 100 point Premier League season demanded a response. The North Londoners and Merseysiders provided one.
Liverpool showed huge determination to attain City's level. Meeting the Reds was always a nightmare for the Citizens but Jurgen Klopp, who has Pep's number as a manager, built a squad to deconstruct the Sky Blues' dominance. Liverpool spent a combined £163.98 million on Allison (£56.25m), Naby Keita (£54.00m), Fabinho (£40.50) and Xherdan Shaqiri (£13.23m). The results are coming. They are 10 points better than their overall last season with just four games to go, neck and neck with City in the title race.
Despite their inferior league form, not including Tottenham is a sin. Spurs are a silent killer. On paper, City was favoured to advance before their Champions League quarterfinal clash. Forty-three minutes into the first leg, Harry Kane was lost for the season. Despite that, Spurs weathered City's relentless pressure, took their chance on the counter and on set pieces and escaped with a ticket to the semifinals on away goals. Despite spending no money on transfers in the summer or winter windows, Tottenham dispatched a squad Transfermarkt values at £1.2 billion. With a B.
Both clubs answered Guardiola's challenge by going where he hasn't as Manchester City boss, beyond the Champions League quarterfinals. To advance the case for English supremacy on the continent, the two sides must go further.
Spurs take on an Ajax side also rising above their station. The Dutch giants dispatched Real Madrid and Juventus in the first two knockout rounds. Mauricio Pochettino acknowledged their success, labelling his squad the underdogs. Even without Kane, he has the quality and experience at his disposal to defeat Erik ten Hags young side. The tie with City suggests his team also has the heart.
Liverpool face the ultimate test in Lionel Messi and Barcelona but match up well with the Catalans. Liverpool came close last season, losing to Real Madrid in the finals. The summer acquisitions were made with returning and succeeding as much as to deal with City in the Premier League. That said, Lionel Messi promised the Camp Nou a Champions League title after failing to escape the quarterfinal round in the past three tournaments. The question is whether they will let up having cleared the hurdle. They've paid the price for doing so in the past, however. The Reds can't count on receiving anything less than the Blaugrana's A-game.
Guardiola's effect on the Premier League doesn't end there. Chelsea and Arsenal also sit poised to make the Europa League an all-England affair.
The Gunners have Unai Emery to thank for their success. Arsene Wenger's successor has the Emirates side back in the Premier League top four. He also owns the secondary UEFA competition, having won it three times in succession as Sevilla boss. He faces a familiar foe in Valencia in the semifinals. If he can add a fourth Europa League trophy to his collection, he will seal his place in the Arsenal dugout and restore the Gunners' lustre.
Maurizio Sarri never won a trophy in Serie A despite transforming Napoli into an attacking threat and title contenders. Similarly, he's come up short with Chelsea to this point, with no answer for the Manchester clubs. He made the EFL Cup final where he was undone by his own keeper as much as City, losing on penalties after Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United outplayed his Blues in the FA Cup Fifth Round. Going into the season's final four games, Chelsea sit outside the Champions League places on goal difference following a weekend in which all four teams in that race all lost.
In the Europa League quarters, Slavia Praha surprisingly gave the Stamford Bridgers all they could handle. Sarri must prepare his team for a much more difficult test in Eintracht Frankfurt. The Bundesliga side possess an imposing attack featuring Lukaa Jovic, Sebastien Haller and Ante Rebic. Jovic holds down second place behind Olivier Giroud on the tournament's scoring chart with eight goals to the Frenchman's ten. Haller is fifth on five goals.
For all that, it's winning that matters. The four Premier League clubs will be written off as pretenders unless one or two come away from Europe with silverware. This isn't horseshoes. Almost doesn't count. Either get the job done or be forgotten. That's just how it is.