Paul Stewart column: Football fans should enjoy English clubs’ European resurgence

For the first time in 10 seasons, four teams from one country will compete in the last eight of the Champions League.

Friday, 15th March 2019, 7:00 am
Virgil van Dijk heads home at the Allianz Arena as Liverpool became the fourth English team to win through to the Champions League quarter-finals
Virgil van Dijk heads home at the Allianz Arena as Liverpool became the fourth English team to win through to the Champions League quarter-finals

Liverpool’s victory over Bayern Munich in the last 16 means England will now provide four of the teams in today’s quarter-final draw, with Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham the other Premier League sides still competing in the biggest club tournament in the world.

It brings back memories of the 2000s and the two successive seasons when England provided four quarter-finalists, along with six finalists in five years and two winners – Liverpool in 2005 and Manchester United in 2008.

But is this season’s repeat a sign of England’s resurgence on the biggest stage?

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England’s best era of the Champions League came in the mid 2000s. In 2007-08 and 2008-09, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United all reached the quarter-finals.

At least one English team reached the final over five consecutive years from 2004-05 to 2008-09 and in seven seasons out of the eight until 2011-12, with Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea all winning and losing at least one final and Arsenal also losing.

The past six seasons, though, have been somewhat disappointing for English sides, the only finalists being Liverpool last season.

During that period Spain has dominated, with three Spanish teams in the last eight in each of the past six seasons.

A Spanish side has won each of the past five Champions Leagues, Real Madrid with four and Barcelona the other. Seven of the past 10 finalists have been Spanish, with Atletico Madrid losing twice.

But Real Madrid’s three-year reign is over, ended by Ajax in the last 16, which prompted the return of Zinedine Zidane as head coach this week.

Since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus, the Galacticos of Real have looked a different team and have never recovered, so Barca are the only Spanish side in this season’s last eight.

Only the Premier League has ever had four quarter-finalists, with Italy last having three in 2005-06 and Germany never having more than two.

How are the English sides equipped?

English champions Manchester City are the bookmakers’ favourites to win the Champions League this season.

This is the third time in four seasons they have been to the last eight and Pep Guardiola is equipped to win this trophy, having done so twice with Barcelona.

City have won six of their eight Champions League games this season, including a 6-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk and Tuesday’s 7-0 thrashing of Schalke.

Sergio Aguero is averaging a goal every 70 minutes in the tournament this season, with five goals in five games.

Liverpool are hoping to go one better than last season when they lost to Real Madrid in the final.

Since then they have replaced goalkeeper Loris Karius with one of the world’s best, Alisson.

They have become more solid at the back and brought in almost £100m worth of midfielders in Fabinho and Naby Keita.

The five-time European champions have won at crucial stages this season, managine the 1-0 win against Napoli they needed to progress from the group stages, then beating Bayern Munich 3-1 in Germany on Wednesday, a great result, after drawing the first leg at home.

Manchester United are a team reborn under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, securing a 3-1 win at Paris St-Germain with an injury-hit team to go through on away goals.

The 1968, 1999 and 2008 champions became the first team in European Cup history to overcome a home first-leg deficit of two goals.

Some of United’s missing players have started to return, so they should grow stronger and Solskjaer has Champions League pedigree.

Tottenham have shown good progress year on year in Europe, going out in the group stages in 2016-17 and the last 16 last year. But this time round they beat then German league leaders Borussia Dortmund 4-0 on aggregate to reach the quarter-finals.

Spurs have shown battling qualities this season too. They were 12 minutes from going out after four games but then scored twice against PSV to stay in the tournament, going on to beat Inter Milan and drawing against Barcelona to go through.

And they are finally expected to be in their new stadium before the quarter-finals.

Is there a downside to this English success?

England manager Gareth Southgate believes the success of Premier League sides in the competition this season could hinder the national team’s chances in June’s Nations League finals.

The Champions League final in Madrid is just five days before England play Holland in Portugal on June 6, which I guess will bring up the age old question of club or country – certainly it will for the national team manager.