EPL five can storm Europe

The Sundaily |

THE messier the Brexit, the grander the entrance. Or so it seems for the Premier League clubs in Europe.

As their political counterparts grapple with the complexities of departure, the EPL's five representatives have found it surprisingly easy to progress to the Champions League knockout phase. Reaching Kiev for the final in May is not beyond the realms.

No less than four have topped their respective groups while Chelsea look every inch dark horses in second place in theirs. It is a powerful and overdue return to the last 16 after several years in the wilderness.

Yes, the TV cash is kicking in and the EPL has many of the best managers, but a good part of the reason is that Europe's football masters have been a lot more accommodating than their politicians.

The Big Three of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern are but shadows of their erstwhile dominant selves, although Bayern are getting their act together again under that wise old Treble-winner, Jupp Heynckes.

But Barca are missing Neymar and with Luis Suarez lost without him, the MSN is currently reduced to a solitary M. But when that is Lionel Messi, you can't rule them out.

Real are finding that Old Father Time is finally catching up with Ronaldo, injuries (or is it hypochondria?) with Gareth Bale while a lack of tactical know-how is finally finding out Zinedine Zidane.

The collective decline of this establishment trio has been sufficient for both the rich new kids on the block, PSG and Manchester City, to be ahead of them in the betting. The French side are favourites with City second and only then come the erstwhile aristocrats.

If either PSG or City prevail, it will no doubt be seen as an historic turning point when new money beat old money, but it is a lot more complicated than that.

It didn't happen when Chelsea won it in 2012 – the Big Three reasserting themselves to share the next five trophies between them. And those other traditional power houses, Liverpool, Manchester United and Juventus, are all in with a shout.

The easiest conclusion you can come to at this stage is that it has never been as wide open – no bad thing for a tournament that is all too often accused of being a closed shop.

So, can an English side win it? City look the most likely and that shock loss to Shakhtar may have actually done them a big favour. Pep Guardiola experimented and the new boys did not cut the mustard.

He now knows that he has a brilliant team but a brittle squad – one not strong enough to win on the several fronts on which he is fighting. He is more likely than ever to go into the transfer market in January with the price of Alexis Sanchez having risen by £10 - £20m overnight.

Jonny Evans may also come in as temporary cover at centreback as Eliaquim Mangala really does not look even League One material.

Other disappointments were Ilkay Gundogan, Danilo and Bernardo Silva who did not look fit to carry the jockstraps of the men they replaced. Youngsters Phil Foden and Tosin Adarabioyo were way out of their depth.

But if Pep gets the players he wants in January, City could be contenders to return to the Ukraine for the final.

The same "if" applies to Liverpool too, as for all their attacking brio and recent clean sheets, they simply cannot win a trophy without another defender and must hang on to Philippe Coutinho.

If Virgil van Dijk comes and the Brazilian stays, they will fancy their chances against anybody.

More laundry skills would be handy but their attack can be quite breathtaking as we saw against Spartak. And when you look at the respective defences arrayed against them you'd fancy Messrs Mane and Salah to find a way through.

United may be able to succeed with their existing squad assuming they don't suffer any more serious injuries. They may have to beat City on Sunday to win the League but, like Chelsea, could be dark horses for the Champions League as they boast attributes no one will relish facing – physical strength and speed on the break.

Jose Mourinho gives them that winning mentality and they possess one or two players who can also do something special.

You can see Zlatan Ibrahimovic playing a key role and Paul Pogba will have to maintain this season's work-rate. The enforced rests he keeps having may be a blessing for later in the campaign.

Ironically, the team that has looked the most "European" of the lot has been Spurs who couldn't even get out of the group phase last season. But their performances against Real and Dortmund suggest they have learned very quickly although domestic form also indicates a potentially dangerous lack of depth to the squad.

The perception is that Chelsea are not as strong as they were, but they haven't gone away either. And they have done this before – more recently than any of the others. Much will depend on the draw of course, but an English winner of the Champions League is by no longer a pipe dream.

• Bob's latest book, Living the Dream (about billionaires meeting British football), is available at Borders', Popular, MPH and Kinokuniya bookstores.

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