This week’s Champions League matchups mark the end of the group stage phase of the competition with all fans and teams awaiting the draw for the knockout stages. Amongst the teams awaiting their fate in the draw are all the Premier League clubs that qualified for the competition. While it’s a little early to know how they will fare later on in the competition, their performances so far in the Prem can shed some light.
Having every Premier League club qualify for the knockout stages is a truly remarkable achievement and shows why at this moment in time, the Prem is the best league in the world. With four clubs preparing for the next round, each will face different strengths and weaknesses within their squads as the knockout stages get closer. The four clubs being Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.
Chelsea have been solid, despite one loss, and much like their Prem campaign, they have done this without some key pieces. The current holders of the trophy should like their chances in the knockout stages, but they may not have the same ceiling as last year.
Just as in the Prem, Chelsea are a solid attacking team, but their truly remarkable feature is their defense that is seemingly unbeatable. Conceding the lowest number of goals so far this Champions League run, the backline of Antonio Rüdiger and Thiago Silva, along with a rotating door of third defensive partners, have been world class with Rüdiger developing into one of the best defenders in both competitions. Thomas Tuchel’s defense first approach has paid dividends during his tenure as Chelsea manager.
For Chelsea, what will take them to great heights will be getting Romelu Lukaku back to full health and fully integrated into the offense. At the end of the day, Lukaku’s form and health will decide Chelsea’s chances, as the world class goalscorer that they brought in this summer will be able to dictate games on his own.
While not totally the same Chelsea side of last year, this is still a dangerous team that will give any team fits. With Lukaku likely being the determinant for this side, it all comes down to how he will perform for Chelsea to win the trophy.
Liverpool, off a disappointing Champions League run last season, have gone ahead and achieved something remarkable, winning every group stage game. Despite some bumps in their Prem campaign, Liverpool looks dominant and it doesn’t matter whether they are playing their full team or rotating, they are a very difficult side to break down.
Year after year, Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp has proven to be an incredibly balanced team with a superstar offense partnered with a lights out defense. Both in the Prem and Europe, Liverpool’s duo of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané are among the best on Earth in scoring and remain a threat to any backline. Virgil van Dijk returning to full health has allowed for Liverpool’s defense to return to being one of the best in keeping out the goals.
The only real area that could be improved upon for Liverpool is finding some players, within their team or the next transfer window, to help ease the goalscoring load on Salah and Mané. Any Liverpool fan will not overemphasize the importance of Bobby Firmino as the pivotal link between the midfield and forwards, but it would aid them to have a pure goalscorer off the bench.
When comparing them to the other Premier League clubs, it does seem that Liverpool is the most complete team in Europe with a stout defense being mirrored by a deadly attack. Having already won the trophy a few years back, it’d be safe to bet that Liverpool’s goal will be final or bust.
Manchester City still look very much like the side that reached the final last year with many of the core winning concepts still there. Pep Guardiola’s side still looks to be the favorites for the league and will go far in the Champions league, but how far is still unclear.
Much like Chelsea, defense is king for City being top, or near the top, in both competitions. The defensive pairing of Rúben Dias and Aymeric Laporte may be the best defensive duo in the world, with the two complementing each other’s skillsets perfectly.
City’s biggest issue is the formation and play of their front three, as at times, it seems like chaos with one player always struggling. Bernardo Silva has stepped up to be the main offensive threat, but depending on the pairing on the wings, there is a lack of support. Jack Grealish has been a dud so far and when he plays, it takes away space and support for Raheem Sterling or Phil Foden to aid Silva.
While City are an incredible defensive team, the issue that will determine their chances in the next stage will be their offense. It is tempting to predict that they will go back to the finals, but teams like Bayern Munich or Chelsea will likely be too much for them to handle.
Manchester United are a total wild card, they can go from stone cold one week to terrifyingly exciting and it will all come down to new manager Ralf Rangnick to navigate. On paper United have a spectacular team, but it seems like their ceiling is the lowest amongst Prem clubs.
The stars are there for United, with Cristiano Ronaldo still playing at an elite level and Bruno Fernandes being one of the best creators in both England and Europe. While he has been out for most of the season, Raphaël Varane should help bring veteran leadership to a weak and inexperienced backline.
Meshing all those pieces together has been the biggest issue for United with the team not being elite on either side of the ball. On the offensive side, the team is too reliant on Ronaldo bailing them out and this was the same issue at Juventus and what ultimately sank them these past two years. Outside of Varane shepherding this team to become elite defensively, the defense seems to be too fractured to stand against an organized offense.
Amongst the English teams, United have the most problems and the lowest ceiling with the round of sixteen likely being where their season ends. Unless there are some big changes in the transfer window, it will be difficult to envision United going far.
Each English team will have to deal with their own set of issues, as they look to build on some impressive achievements in the group stage. As the Premier League season continues to grind on, it will be interesting to see how league play will shape the destiny of some of these teams in the Champions League.
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