With the conclusion of the group stages of both the Champions League and Europa League this week, it only seemed appropriate to take a look at how all the English clubs have performed so far in Europe. Some teams have struggled to maintain a high class performance in both the league and Europe. While others have flourished in both competitions. This review will only focus on the teams that qualified for the group stages of each tournament.
On the surface this looked like quite a tough group for Arsenal, the outstanding fixtures for them being the games with PSG. But for the 17th consecutive season, Arsene Wenger’s men qualified for the next stage of the Champions League. They even managed to top the group, and went through the entire qualification process unbeaten. The last time they did this was when they made the final of the competition in 2006.
While the draw in Paris would be considered a good result for Arsene Wenger, there would have been more disappointment with the 2-2 draw in the return game at the Emirates. Although the visitors were the superior side, Arsenal should feel aggrieved that they didn’t convert more of their chances, and that they allowed a 2-1 win to slip through their hands thanks to an Alex Iwobi own goal.
While there 6-0 drubbing of Ludogorets at home, should be considered business as usual, with an impressive Mesut Ozil hattrick capping a good evening for the Gunners, it was perhaps the return leg in Bulgaria that showed the fighting spirit in this Arsenal team, that they have been accused of lacking in the past.
Within the first 15 minutes Arsenal found themselves 2-0 down to the unfancied side, however goals from Granit Xhaka and Olivier Giroud brought the game back from the brink before half-time. The game looked to be heading for a draw, before Mesut Ozil scored one of the goals of the competition. Ozil, who had also provided the assist for Xhaka’s goal, was a picture of composure as he ran through on goal, chipped the keeper and cut inside two defenders before slotting in from close range for a dramatic winner.
This type of resilience is something Arsenal have been accused of lacking in previous Champions League campaigns, and if they are to shake off their 2nd round hoodoo, then this alongside the form of key players like Ozil, and Alexis Sanchez will be key for them.
Final Grade A – Arsenal were impressive in the group stage this time, where in previous years silly slip ups have cost them points, and ultimately the top spot in the group, this time round they seem to have learnt from these mistakes. The only slight issue being they didn’t beat PSG, and you expect Arsenal will face better opposition than them, if they are to progress in the Champions League. The fact that they could end up playing Real Madrid next, will not dampen Arsene Wenger’s mood at having the team qualify top. Arsenal have 2 world-class players, that could carry them to the latter stages of this competition. They shouldn’t fear whoever they get in the next round.
In their debut season in the Champions League, Leicester City were able to match some of the heroics that carried them to the Premier League title last season. You could argue that out of all the English teams, they had perhaps the group all the others would’ve liked the most, but this still wasn’t an easy task for Leicester to navigate.
However, they took like a duck to water to European competition, often at the expense of their league form, as they won their first 3 games in the competition, and 4 in total. There opening 3-0 win against Club Brugge was particularly impressive
The Premier League champions displayed a maturity and composure that suggested the potential they had to go on and do well in the competition, and to compete at the elite level of European club football. Riyad Mahrez, scored 2 goals and scored a free kick that was worthy of some of the greats that have graced this competition in years gone by.
They also topped the group, based off the back of their home form. Played 3, won 3 only conceding 1. They actually confirmed their place in the next round with a game to spare, in their last home game with a 2-1 win over Club Brugge. While there away form was won 1, drew 1, lost 1, it was the final game and their only loss of the competition so far, that was the most alarming. Already suffering domestically, Leicester were stuffed 5-0 by Porto. This was the heaviest defeat any English club has ever suffered in the Champions League.
While it should be noted, Ranieri rested a number of key players for the game, Leicester couldn’t even manage a shot on goal during the game. This was a stark reminder for Ranieri and his men, that the Champions League isn’t a fairy-tale. Depending on who Leicester draw in the next round, and where they sit in the league, Ranieri may face some difficult decisions in February.
Final Grade A– For a first go in the Champions League, Leicester did very well. The fact that they topped the group and confirmed this with one game to go, should be applauded. They also didn’t grind out results, and 4 wins and a draw is the type of form some of the bigger, more seasoned clubs struggled for in this year’s group stages. But the loss to Porto, can’t be overlooked, such was the capitulation. However, they are a team perfectly suited to the challenge of winning over two legs. While it hasn’t been evident so much in the Premier League so far, Leicester remain highly tuned at breaking quickly, staying compact in defend and grabbing a goal or two even when they are on the back foot.
City were forced to go the route of qualification in order to get to group stages of the Champions League. They comfortably managed to secure their passage with a 6-0 aggregate win over Steaua Bucharest. But the Champions League proper was one of the reasons that the City hierarchy had appointed Pep Guardiola, despite being Semi-Finalists last season, and losing to eventual winners Real Madrid, City have never really been able to crack the Champions League so far.
They started well with a 4-0 hammering of Monchengladbach at the Etihad Stadium, before becoming unstuck against Celtic. Before playing Celtic, teams were paying City far too much respect, and not getting in their faces. This changed at Celtic Park, 3 times Celtic took the lead against City, but they were pegged back each time. The game finished 3-3, and gave the rest of the Premiership a game plan for how to play against Guardiola’s team.
The double header with Barcelona brought Guardiola back to the club where he had won the European Cup/Champions League 3 times before (Once as a player, and twice as a manager) However his return to the Nou Camp didn’t quite go the way he would’ve hoped, as his team suffered there heaviest ever Champions League defeat, losing 4-0. City were actually quite competitive, until ex-Barca player, Claudio Bravo lost his mind, and was sent off for handball. The one thing that Guardiola has failed to replicate since leaving Barcelona is Lionel Messi’s talent, and his former protégé scored a hattrick.
The return match with Barcelona was probably the game that carried them over the line for qualification, as they inflicted Barcelona’s only blemish in the group by winning 3-1. This was a win achieved with all the Guardiola hallmarks, in a blaze of attacking football, passing, movement and a willingness to take on the best without forsaking his principles. However, they limped over the finish line, with 2 1-1 draws with Celtic and Monchengladbach, leaving City finishing second in the group, but enough for qualification.
Final Grade B– City made it to the next round of the Champions League, and for Pep Guardiola that will be the main thing that he will point to. City are still not quite Champions League royalty, and this showed throughout the group stages. But Guardiola knows what it takes to win the Champions League after guiding Barcelona to victory in 2009 and 2011, and Manchester City will take huge encouragement from beating Barcelona. But they never kicked on from this, perhaps they are saving their best form for the knockout stage, where they will play one of Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Monaco, or Napoli. All teams who will feel City are beatable.
Tottenham have spent the better part of the last 5 season trying to make their second appearance in the Champions League, finally after a tremendous league campaign last season they made it to only the second Champions League appearance. However, while their maiden voyage in the competition had dream nights in the San Siro, and trips to the Bernabeu, this run ended with a whimper.
One of the criticisms of Spurs Champions League run this year, was the switch to playing their home games at Wembley Stadium. While this made financial sense, it may have cost Spurs in the long run. In the 3 games they played there, they lost 2 and only won their final game, in what was a meaningless affair against CSKA Moscow.
The players were adamant that playing at Wembley wasn’t an issue, but other teams have come unstuck when playing under the arch in previous games. There was also the issue of Spurs resting players in Champions League games, to be fresher for the league games. Which begs the question, why would Mauricio Pochettino rest players, to try and qualify for a competition, he’s resting players in?
Away from home Spurs didn’t fare much better, with their only win coming also against CSKA. They lost to eventual group winners Monaco 2-1, and could only manage a draw with runners up Leverkusen.
There were few highlights for Spurs in the group stages this season, they were blighted with injury problems throughout the group stages and at times were missing key men Harry Kane, and Toby Alderweireld both missed games for Spurs. Although there first win at Wembley will have instilled some confidence in the North Londoners, ahead of another Europa League campaign, this is not Mauricio Pottechino would have envisioned when Spurs lined up against Monaco at Wembley back in September.
Final Grade D – There is no hiding the fact that Spurs struggled in this year’s Champions League. They were poor throughout, and what is most disappointing is the fact that they have such a talented group of players, that should be plying their trade in Europe’s premier competition. There win against CSKA at Wembley will give them the confidence they need to move forward in the Europa League, and you would fancy Spurs to do well in the competition. But a move away from Wembley is a must.
For most Manchester United fans, and you wonder if the manager feels the same way, this is a competition they do not really want to be in. Despite some good performances in the group, particularly at home, they have struggled in the league to replicate the form they have seen at times during the group stages. But this is a group, with the talent available at United, you would’ve expected them to qualify top from. They have finished 2nd, and find themselves unseeded in the next round of the draw.
United’s away European form has been a problem since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. United had failed to win any away game in Europe since November 2013. This trend continued in their opening 2 away games to Feyenoord, and Fenerbahce, losing 1-0 and 2-1 respectively.
At home this was a different story, with both sides being hit for 4 at Old Trafford. The win 4-1-win over Fenerbahce was notable for a Paul Pogba double, which included a 20-yard screamer from outside the box. A goal from united old-boy Robin Van Persie, was also applauded around the ground. While the victory over Feyenoord saw Wayne Rooney bag the record for most European goals by a United player. The Red Devils captain scored his 39th European goal for the club when he clipped the ball over Brad Jones from Zlatan Ibrahimović’s perfect through ball.
This game was also the coming out party for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who displayed all the qualities that saw him shine so brightly for Borussia Dortmund in this competition last year. Sandwiched in between these games was a rather drab 1-0 win over Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford, and finally breaking their European away record, with a 2-0 win over Zorya, in a game which saw Mkhitaryan score his first goal for the club.
Final Grade B – United have qualified, and for Jose Mourinho this may represent his best chance at gaining a Champions League spot. United’s league form has suffered as a result of playing in the competition. But when they have turned it on, they have looked assured, and like a team that could go far. Putting 4 past Fenerbahce and Feyenoord is testament to this. Mourinho will also know his squad has the qualities to go on and do very, and despite not being seeded in the draw, there will be few teams Mourinho will fear.
Southampton will be bitterly disappointed not to have made the next stage of the Europa League. If not for Maya Yoshida header that went inches wide, in the dying seconds of their game with Hapoel Beer Sheva, they would have qualified for the next stage.
Southampton stated well beating eventual group winners Sparta Prague 3-0 at St Mary’s. But a goalless draw away from home at Hapoel Beer Sheva, in the long run probably cost them qualification. It was a game where they had their chances, and on reflection they will know that a win in this game would have set them on their way to the next round of the Europa League.
They followed this up with a double header against European giants Inter Milan. While this was a club that was playing in League 1 7 years ago, they didn’t turn up to the San Siro for the view. They took the game to Inter, and were desperately unlucky not to come away with something in the game.
The return game at St Mary’s was a rabid atmosphere, and despite Inter scoring with their first shot on goal, Southampton battled back with Virgil van Dijk hooked in to level as Saints improved after the break. And they claimed all three points after Yuto Nagatomo’s own-goal howler. The Inter defender, under little pressure, allowed Tadic’s left-wing cross to bounce off his thigh and loop over his keeper Samir Handanovic.
But a loss away at Prague, and the aboved 1-1 draw, when all they needed was a scoreless draw with Hapoel Beer Sheva ensured that the Saints wouldn’t go marching on in the Europa League.
Final Grade C– Southampton will no doubt wonder what could’ve been. They were 12 minutes away from a second round spot in the Europa league, and they will roo the miss chances they had away from home at Hapoel Beer Sheva. A memorable win against Inter Milan, is proof that the Saints weren’t just there to participate. But an early exit must go down as a disappointment for Claude Puel and his team
By Rich Lee @RichLee2202