Premier League desperate to end a decade of Champions League failure
The 2017-18 Champions League will be won in Kiev, Ukraine -- the first time the competition's finale has ventured that far east since a decade ago, when Manchester United and Chelsea played out a 1-1 draw in Moscow before the former triumphed on penalties.
That felt like the Premier League's high-water mark; not only were its two best sides competing for the right to be the best in Europe, it was also the year when the Premier League overtook La Liga in UEFA's coefficients system to be considered, officially, the best league around.
Since then, the performance of Premier League clubs has been distinctly underwhelming. Manchester United twice reached the final, where they were defeated by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, while Chelsea somehow managed to defeat Bayern Munich on penalties having been outplayed for 120 minutes.
But even that now seems like a distant memory, and things have become even worse in the subsequent five years. Since 2012, only four times has a Premier League side reached the quarterfinals of the competition -- Manchester United and Chelsea in 2013-14, Manchester City in 2015-16 and Leicester last year. Chelsea and City reached the semis, but none have progressed to the final. Spain has contributed six of the 10 finalists in that time, with Germany and Italy providing two each.
Reasons for the English underperformance have been debated at length, and there's significant evidence that suggests the competitiveness of the Premier League, with multiple sides in with a chance of winning the title each season, genuinely harms its clubs' ability to compete in continental competition.
But it is, frankly, time to stop making excuses. The Premier League now generates staggering levels of wealth, its major clubs have been spending huge sums in the pursuit of glory and it can now also depend upon -- by a distance -- the most exciting set of managers around.
This season, meanwhile, English clubs have an obvious head-start for simple mathematical reasons -- Manchester United won the Europa League while finishing outside the top four, and therefore join Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham as contenders this time around, the first time the Premier League has had five teams entering the group stage. It's about time someone stepped up.
Mourinho, United built for Europe
The best-equipped team appear to be Manchester United. Although they lack the attacking spark of Manchester City or Liverpool, their defensive record this season -- and, indeed, over the past three years -- is excellent. Jose Mourinho is a manager built for knockout competitions, and his record of reaching the Champions League semifinals is outstanding.
Mourinho's team selection for the draw this weekend at Stoke City was interesting. Whereas Mourinho previously fielded Nemanja Matic as the sole holding midfielder with Paul Pogba moving forward from deep, this time the Frenchman was pushed forward with Ander Herrera coming into the side alongside Matic. This is likely to be Mourinho's Champions League formation, at least in big games, and will depend upon sporadic counter-attacking down the flanks.
United's weakness is at left-back. Daley Blind has been found wanting in terms of pace, and Matteo Darmian tends to stick too tightly to his opponent, opening up space for the opposition's overlapping right-back. But otherwise this side genuinely seems to offer everything required for a team going deep in this competition, and an easy draw means United should top their group and get a favourable second-round draw.
Defence a question mark for Manchester City
Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are more difficult to deduce -- although they're clearly capable of outstanding spells of football, as they demonstrated this past weekend in a 5-0 victory over Liverpool, their defence is prone to mistakes. Keeping clean sheets isn't necessarily a key to success -- Real Madrid kept just one in 13 games on their way to retaining the Champions League last season -- but City never seem far away from complete meltdowns and conceding multiple goals.
Centre-backs Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi are far too impetuous, getting dragged into challenges in high and wide positions, while Fernandinho is a fine all-round footballer but still doesn't appear entirely comfortable as the lone holding midfielder behind Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva.
Questions persist, too, about Guardiola's system. He has generally used a 3-5-2, so far, with De Bruyne and Silva playing pinpoint balls for Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero, but top-class opposition will counter-attack into space down the flanks. City might be a better side than United, but are perhaps less suited to knockout football, when avoiding defeat -- rather than winning games -- is key.
Will conservatism hurt Conte, Chelsea again in Europe?
On paper, Chelsea should be considered one of the tournament favourites as the reigning Premier League champions, but there are two question marks about Antonio Conte's men. First, how will they cope with the added physical demands of European football after a season spent concentrating solely on domestic competition? Second, how does Conte fare in Europe? He has had only two previous experiences in the Champions League, with Juventus, who were soundly beaten by Bayern in the quarterfinal stage of 2012-13 and then failed to get out of the group the following campaign.
That seems likely to be something of an anomaly, however. Conte remains an excellent tactician, and his use of the 3-4-3 system, while now very much a fixture in the Premier League, might catch out opposition less accustomed to playing against that formation in Europe.
Conte seems likely to be cautious, however, particularly in midfield where Tiemoue Bakayoko will be favoured over the more creative Cesc Fabregas as N'Golo Kante's midfield partner. Davide Zappacosta, another new signing, provides a more defensive alternative to Victor Moses. Perhaps the major question is at the heart of the defence; Chelsea protected their back three excellently last season, but in one-against-one situations, both Gary Cahill and David Luiz can be exposed.
Can Liverpool's attack compensate for their defensive shortcomings?
Another side with a questionable defence are Liverpool, particularly in light of their capitulation against Manchester City. Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip are both excellent defenders on their day -- but once again, can be exposed all too readily.
While Jurgen Klopp's love of gegenpressing works effectively as both a defensive and an attacking tool, creating rapid turnovers in advanced positions. It has negative impacts, too: If the midfield is bypassed, opponents are allowed too much time between the lines to pick through balls. The problem with fatigue, too, has been well-documented.
But Liverpool are a stunning attacking force. Roberto Firmino dropping deep from a No. 9 position, combined with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane sprinting in behind from out wide, brings to mind the Barcelona side of 2010-11 in style, if not ability. They'll be excellent on the break away from home, while Liverpool's record at Anfield in this competition tends to be excellent.
Wembley, tough draw stand in the way of Spurs
But perhaps the most intriguing English side in this competition are Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur. They, compared to the other four English sides, are unquestionably underdogs -- built on a fraction of the budget and dealt by far the hardest group stage draw, too.
Pochettino, however, has built a cohesive and harmonious side capable of nullifying the opposition's threat through both pressing and good organisation, as well as transferring the ball into attack quickly and effectively. There are questions about the lack of speed out wide in this system, but Tottenham are capable of controlling the centre of midfield and depending upon the trio of Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Harry Kane for opportunities in the final third.
Playing at Wembley remains a big hindrance, however, and this week's contest against Borussia Dortmund feels like a huge game -- against their probable rivals for qualification, it's an opportunity for Spurs to mark their territory in Europe, and end the "Wembley hoodoo."
A big result this week, and Tottenham could launch the Premier League's best assault on the Champions League for years.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.