It’s mid-February, and you know what that means: The knockout stages of both European Football competitions, namely the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. Six English clubs remain in both competitions. Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea are England’s remaining representatives in the Champions league, whilst Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, and Liverpool are flying the English flag in the Europa League. All six teams all things considered do indeed have a fair chance when it comes to winning their respective competitions. Admittedly however, some more than others look more likely to achieve success and it’s my intention to examine each of the candidates individually, not only rating their potential chances of progression in both tournaments but also making a prediction on each individual side too as well.
UEFA Champions League:
For the first time in a long time, Arsenal have a good chance in this years Champions League. Arsenal haven’t advanced past the Round of 16 since they lost to Barcelona 5-3 (on aggregate) in 2010. In the following four seasons, they lost to Barcelona (again), Milan, and Bayern Munich (two years in a row), marking a consecutive four years in a row of tough draws to start their knockout rounds. However, this year Arsenal have seemingly pulled a lucky straw. They drew the weakest group winners, AS Monaco, on paper which looks like to a winnable tie. After the mega-spending we saw last year from the Ligue 1 club, it seems their billionaire owner has left them amid a divorce which has left him handing 4.8 billion dollars to his wife. Without the backing of their owner, Monaco have been forced to part with their biggest stars, with the likes of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao moving on to balance the books a little better and reduce their wage budget. Yet regardless of all that, Monaco impressively still managed to win Group C ahead of a strong trio of Bayer Leverkusen, Zenit St. Petersburg, and SL Benfica. While this is impressive, I don’t believe they’ll have enough to take down Arsenal over two legs. Arsenal are in their best form so far in the current league campaign and they don’t look like letting up. In their last eight league games, they have only lost once, when a Hurrikane struck. Monaco meanwhile have also been performed well in Ligue 1, especially in terms of their defence this season, at one point going eight games in a row with clean sheets. On the flip side, Arsenal’s attack has been rampant recently with Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud, and Santi Cazorla especially, all impressing. However I believe the run won’t last long and they’ll probably exit in the next round.
Prediction: Quarter Finals
Barcelona took them down last year and they’re in prime position to do it again at the same stage. Manchester City are looking down the barrel of a situation similar to Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day; living the same thing over and over. Every year since gaining huge financial backing from the Abu Dhabi United Group, Manchester City have been expected to qualify for the Champions League and really challenge in Europe’s biggest domestic football competition. And despite consistently qualifying, first Roberto Mancini and now Manuel Pellegrini’s side have failed to make any impact in the knockout rounds. The closest they have come was last year when Barcelona knocked them out at the Round of 16. Unfortunately for Manchester City, they have drawn the same opponent this time round too and whilst there is some confidence among the fans that this years result will be better, it’s equally as likely that it won’t. Barcelona are hitting form at the right time, winning every league game but one so far in 2015. A certain Lionel Messi is on fire, with eleven goals and six man of the match awards in seven appearances so far in this calendar year. Meanwhile, Manchester City seem to be stuck in a bit of a rut. Although they have been nowhere near horrific, Manchester City have currently at the time of writing only won three games out of a possible eight this year, losing to Arsenal and Championship promotion contenders Middlesbrough in the process. The Sky Blue half of Manchester also remain seven points behind Chelsea in the title race. With the two-legged clash set to take place over the next few weeks, taking into account Barcelona’s recent run of good form and Manchester City’s inability to match such standards, it should be again be another comfortable victory for FC Barcelona.
Prediction: Round of 16
Arguably favorites to win the Champions League outright, Chelsea will have high hopes this year. They drew a familiar opponent in Paris Saint Germain, whom they beat at the Quarter Final stage last year due to some late Demba Ba heroics. At the moment, Chelsea have earnt a seven point lead over second place Manchester City in the English Premier League and with their dominance showing no signs of stopping anytime soon, they will hope to continue their good form in Europe as well as domestically. Jose Mourinho’s side of late have however shown some signs of faltering, with their their 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane by cross-city rivals Tottenham Hotspur and another shock, this time against Bradford in the FA Cup proving Chelsea maybe are not as imperious as we once thought they were. In regards to PSG, they will be heading into the Round of 16 showdown off the back of a disappointing draw against Caen at the time of writing, in which several players fell injured and they let a two goal lead slip in the last few minutes. Personally, I therefore feel that Chelsea will go into the first leg full of momentum, brimming confidence with PSG on the complete opposite end of that spectrum. Chelsea should advance but this will only be their first step to Champions League glory. Their biggest challengers are undoubtedly the likes of Atlético Madrid, FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and current champions Real Madrid, who claim plenty of plaudits in their own right and all have an equal and genuine chance at winning the tournament. Yet for some reason, I really do believe Chelsea have the power to beat any of the previously mentioned teams and go onto to win the Champions League. Should Diego Costa keep scoring, Eden Hazard dazzling, Cesc Fabregas assisting and Nemanja Matic dominating, this Chelsea are a side we should all be closely watching.
UEFA Europa League:
Now onto the usually dreaded UEFA Europa League, recognised by many as ‘that tournament with smalller, lesser known teams from throughout Europe and consequent difficult travelling destinations’. This year though differently to previous seasons there’s the added incentive of a guaranteed Champions League place for the winner, making winning the Europa League a much more attractive proposition. And considering many of the teams that contest the Europa League are usually those which challenge for a place in the top four every year in many of Europe’s biggest leagues, this is an extremely coveted reward and adds real meaning to the Europa League, taking away some pressure domestically in regards to a successful league campaign, with the option to still make Europe through achieving success in the Europa League. But realistically, do any of our English sides have what it takes to last the distance and win the coveted trophy?
The Everton class of 2013/14 were a pleasant surprise, making a serious challenge for the top four under Roberto Martinez for the first time, playing great football, earning great results and generally overachieving in many people’s eyes. They had a group of talented players and it looked like the sky was the limit for them coming into the 2014/15 season. We all asked; how far could this Everton team realistically go? The answer sadly was a painful nowhere. Currently Everton are toiling in twelth place, currently only five points off a struggling Aston Villa who have acted this week to bring in Tim Sherwood in the hope of achieving Premier League survival. They’ve only won six league matches this season and have already conceded 35 goals, whilst last season they conceded 39 goals throughout a whole season! Have they struggled in the league? Massively. They should be challenging the top 4 right now. But domestic results don’t always reflect performances in European competitions and this is true for Everton. The Toffees topped a group that included VFL Wolfsburg (currently sitting second in Bundesliga), French side Lille and FC Krasnodar in decent fashion. In the Round of 32, they’re set to come up against a very beatable BSC Young Boys and will hope to leave behind their league struggles and regain the form they havve shown in Europe this year. I think will progress past the Round of 32 as they have enough quality to reach the Quarter Finals. But for me, that is where their run will end due to the sheer quality on show at that stage of the competition which I don’t think Everton will be able to match after a complacent season on all fronts.
Prediction: Quarter Finals
As one of the drop-outs from the UEFA Champions League, Liverpool failed to impress anyone in the UCL with their inability to qualify for the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Upon their return to the highest rated competition in European football, Liverpool were drawn into a group with current holders Real Madrid, giant killers FC Basel and the mighty Ludogorets Razgard. from Bulgaria. Liverpool won only once and were generally hugely underwhelming. They now have another difficult task handed to them; a Europa League date with Turkish side Besiktas who topped their group ahead of Tottenham Hotspur. Sitting pretty at the top of the Turkish Super Lig, Besiktas are certainly no push-overs and will it will be a tricky task for Liverpool to progress against such a strong side. After spending the money raised from the Summer sale of Luis Suarez to FC Barcelona, Liverpool consequently struggled for much of the first half of the Premier League season drawing comparisons to Tottenham under Andre Villas Boas following the sale of Gareth Bale for a world record fee to Real Madrid. However the have improved immensely in recent games and haven’t lost a league match since a 3-0 defeat at the hands of rivals Manchester United on December 14th of last year. Liverpool will come into their tie with Besiktas off the back of a 3-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur and will be confident in their own abilities to deal with the Turkish side. In my opinion, Liverpool remain one of the most talented sides left in the competition and should now be considered as one of the favorites to win the trophy outright. Although I don’t predict them as winners of the competition due to Brendan Rodgers intentions to maintain such a level of performance both in the league as well as Europe, that surely isn’t enough reason to count Liverpool out of the running, so watch this space.
Last but not least are Spurs and to say their season has been simply up and down would be an understatement. It seems every time they play, a sudden change in opinion follows dependent on the result, and then alters again following a change in circumstances. One week manager Mauricio Pochettino is considered a genius; the next he’s a fool for not substituting properly. One day Ryan Mason is full of grit and heart; the next he runs around like a headless chicken. You get the idea. This certainly is a group of talented players and sometimes *gasp* they even play like it. However, we’re often reminded that this is only Pochettino’s first season in charge and that the manager does infact need time. In the Europa League, Tottenham have not been great admittedly yet achieved the results they needed. But other than a 5-1 thrashing of Asteras Tripoli, remembered notably for a Harry Kane hat trick before going in net and ‘that rabona’ by Erik Lamela) Spurs haven’t dazzled on the European stage. Admittedly however, the London side have since impressed. Their clear personal motivation and high-work rate is exemplified through the effort the players put in on the pitch and never is there a moment where the players aren’t trying. You always feel the team is capable of pulling the rabbit out of the hat and doing much more than they currently have done. Okay, so they got a tough draw in Fiorentina but I personally believe Pochettino’s side are still the better team. Harry Kane looks to be in the form of his life with talks of an England call-up on the horizon, Christian Eriksen is pulling strings in the heart of midfield and Hugo Lloris is like a French acrobat pulling off stunt after stunt, save after save and making headline after headline. I would say don’t sleep on this team, as they’ll definitely be putting a decent effort in the Europa League – it’s clear Pochettino demands it. I predict a trip to Stadion Narodowy in Poland, the site of this year’s final, for this young Spurs team. They may fall short, but it looks set to be one hell of a journey anyway!
Article written by: @Tre_Archer_