At the start of the season, when Real Madrid brushed aside Barcelona with frightening ease in the Spanish Super Cup, and when they schooled Manchester United with a lesson in dominant football, it looked like the only reason not to back Zinedine Zidane’s team for Champions League glory this season was the fact that they’d already won two in a row. No team could win three on the bounce, surely. Not these days.
Just a few months later, that scenario has changed markedly. There is now a shadow of doubt over every top team in Europe in a way that we’re not really used to.
Barcelona’s good form to start the campaign is impressive, but their victories haven’t been overly convincing: they look like they could fall into a slump at some point, though conversely this could be their tough patch negotiated expertly before the real form begins.
Juventus, Bayern Munich and Chelsea are all sitting in second place in their groups, as well as Real Madrid, showing that they’re not totally on it just yet this season either. Napoli, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid are all in severe danger of exiting the competition in the group stages.
And then there’s Paris Saint-Germain, who have been imperious this season, but can a team with 35-year-old Thiago Motta as their only viable option in the holding midfield role really win the Champions League? You can also add to that the apparent in-fighting going on between Neymar, the Brazilian contingent, and the likes of Edinson Cavani in the PSG dressing room.
That’s not to write most of those teams off. With the exception of Atletico and Dortmund – who would need miracles in order to progress – all we can say is that there’s a lack of form around Europe. But form is temporary, and we all know the class of player the top European giants have at their disposal.
But then you look at the English clubs, who are all performing well in the Champions League this season, and all of them are in with good shouts of qualification – it’s only a matter of whether they finish top or second in their groups.
Probably the only team in Europe who don’t have question marks over their performances so far this season in any competition is Manchester City, but in a way, they’re the biggest question mark. Although it wouldn’t seem too over the top to proclaim them as the best team on the continent this season on form and performances, the question to be asked is if they can sustain it. With injuries to John Stones and Benjamin Mendy, that form could dissipate. If it does, we’ll learn a lot about the spirit in the squad which, if Snapchat is indeed the best indicator of such things, looks pretty good at present.
And yet, a season is a long time to spend playing football the Pep Guardiola way, and Champions League form could suffer in the spring.
The team you might not want to write off in Europe, however, is Manchester United. Dipping form in the Premier League seems to have been helped out by the return of Paul Pogba and the ominous comeback of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who doesn’t have a Champions League medal despite winning pretty much everything else in club football.
The lack of ambition and defence-first football they’ve shown in their highest-profile over the last few weeks has been widely criticised, but over the course of a long season that might not look so bad. They are still alive in the Premier League title race, or at least to the extent that there still is a race. But over the two-legged affairs in the Champions League knockout rounds, you get the feeling that United’s approach will be formidable.
Sure, in the three big games they’ve played this season, they’ve won one, drawn one and lost the other. Chelsea beat them, but that was at Stamford Bridge and only 1-0: in a Champions League knockout round first leg, we’re talking about a decent result. The same can be said for a 0-0 draw at Anfield against Liverpool. And the victory was at home.
It would be naive to suggest that these were good results on the basis that they’d be decent Champions League results. After all, we’re making the case that knockout competitions are different to league games, and these are the games which mean United are suddenly eight points behind City.
But when you look at all of the clubs around Europe at the moment, and look at the states in which they find themselves, you start to wonder if English clubs have the best chance of actually winning the competition this year. And if City are so far ahead in the league, does that mean Jose Mourinho will sack off the domestic competitions in the Spring once again in order to focus on Europe? And if he does that, United may not seem like the team to beat, but actually beating them could be another story.