Which Premier League club is best equipped to win Champions League?
The Champions League round of 16 kicks off on Tuesday, and ahead of the return of European club football's elite competition, ESPN FC is asking -- and answering -- a series of "burning questions."
In this penultimate article, Michael Cox assesses the chances of the three remaining Premier League clubs to claim Europe's biggest prize this season.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE BURNING QUESTIONS
- Hunter: Can Real Madrid successfully defend the trophy?
- Horncastle: Is this underachieving Juventus' biggest test yet?
- Marcotti: Will a previous winner manage another triumph?
- Cox: Which English club has the best chance of glory?
- Honigstein: Are Bayern Munich ready for another title?
In light of the latest bumper television deal for the Premier League, one of the questions raised has been, given the imminent resumption of the Champions League, if English clubs have such a huge competitive advantage, why aren't they performing better in Europe?
English clubs dominated the middle of the 2000s in the Champions League: for three consecutive seasons between 2006-07 and 2008-09, they provided three of the four semifinalists, although they failed to turn this into consistent trophy victories. Since then, there's been a sudden, sharp decline.
In truth, English football hasn't produced a seriously outstanding side since Manchester United's winners in 2008. Sir Alex Ferguson's side were well beaten in finals in 2009 and 2011, while the Chelsea side that won surprisingly in 2012 was, like Liverpool in 2005, not even among the top four sides in England, let alone Europe.
This season, however, feels like a decent chance for an English club to succeed, because Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, who face Paris Saint-Germain in the first knockout round, are the best Premier League team since the United side of seven years ago.
It's hardly difficult to work out why they've done so well; after last season, when they reached the semifinals, they addressed serious weaknesses by adding Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa to their squad.
Filipe Luis, Loic Remy and Didier Drogba also came in last summer, while Juan Cuadrado arrived last month, and Nemanja Matic is available, having been cup-tied for the knockout stage last season. Chelsea simply have better players now and are also a compact, resilient and genuinely exciting unit.
They also have a manager accustomed to winning in Europe, which is another key reason why English clubs have struggled recently. The mid-2000s run of success featured European winners in Mourinho and Rafael Benitez and introduced a new level of discipline and tactical awareness into the Premier League, which started with their own sides.
Chelsea and Liverpool seemed to play out tense, tight tactical battles every season, and that filtered through into Arsenal and Manchester United, their rivals in the "big four." The Arsenal runners-up of 2005-06 were unlike the versions we have seen since, in that they kept 10 clean sheets in a row during that competition, while Manchester United's counterattacking performances also displayed a maturity previously lacking in Europe.
Mourinho's second coming won't have such a significant impact on English football overall, but Chelsea now look well-equipped to win the European Cup and, perhaps, in some style. This isn't something usually associated with Mourinho's sides, and the strange thing about his European Cup record is that he's won the competition with, arguably, the two weaker of the four teams he's coached.
His Porto of 2004 were magnificent, but nevertheless underdogs throughout, while Inter in 2010 weren't particularly fancied, either. When in charge of sides like Chelsea and Real Madrid, who have been expected to perform well, Mourinho has underachieved.
This might be a mere coincidence, though it could be indicative of Mourinho's general approach to big matches. He prefers to be cautious, defensive and counterattacking, even when his side is capable of playing good football. Therefore, reserved teams suit him well -- he could never have "parked the bus" with Real Madrid as he did with Inter.
It might sound ridiculous, too, but Mourinho actually needs another European Cup win to maintain his reputation as an outstanding coach. When he won with Inter, it was his second triumph in six complete seasons (one with Porto, three with Chelsea, two with Inter), an outstanding record.
The Portuguese has also been unlucky at other times, with semifinal defeats to Liverpool, courtesy of a debatable Luis Garcia goal in 2005 and on penalties two years later, as well as another shootout defeat with Real Madrid at the hands of Bayern Munich in 2012.
Now it's two from 10, which is certainly still an impressive record, but one that is not quite as convincing. Mourinho will find it particularly frustrating that he failed to record landmark European Cup victories with both Chelsea and Real Madrid, money-laden clubs that demand success.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's dream was always Europe's main trophy, and so it must be a huge source of irritation for Mourinho that a manager as inexperienced as Roberto Di Matteo recorded their debut triumph in 2012, rather than him.
Meanwhile, his objective at Real Madrid was La Decima. Not only did he fail to bring a 10th European Cup to the Bernabeu, but his successor, Carlo Ancelotti, immediately succeeded.
Chelsea can't shoulder the responsibility for promoting English football entirely, however, and both Manchester City and Arsenal must step up, with Liverpool already eliminated.
City are the better side and Manuel Pellegrini has excelled by taking Villarreal (2005-06) and Malaga (2012-13), two unfancied sides, to the latter stages of this competition in the past. Still, it remains to be seen whether City have the tactical discipline and intelligence to outplay the competition's best sides, starting with Barcelona in the last 16.
Their pivotal players are substantially more useful in the hustle and bustle of the Premier League -- Sergio Aguero can use his acceleration in behind the opposition, Yaya Toure can drive forward from midfield and Vincent Kompany can step out from the defence and win possession quickly. In tighter, more tense European games, these qualities aren't so revered.
Arsenal, who face Monaco next, should be equipped for a good run. Their 2-0 counterattacking victory over City last month was the type of disciplined performance they haven't regularly produced over the past half decade, and Arsene Wenger's recent adoption of a 4-1-4-1 formation harks back to that memorable run to the final of nine years ago.
The Gunners' organisation without the ball has generally been good, and the counterattacking speed of Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil could be devastating in away matches. Still, to win the competition, Arsenal must advance past the quarterfinals to feel they've done themselves justice this year.
Yet it's difficult to shake the belief that Mourinho's Chelsea are England's best chance of success this season, in terms of both quality and style. Mourinho and Chelsea seem inextricably linked, yet they've won the European Cup apart, and never together.
Another league success looks assured, but another European Cup is this season's true objective for the Stamford Bridge club.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.