After the season long slog through the group stages, UEFA’s competitions are reaching the sharp end now, where they really begin to get interesting. That’s especially so for some of the English clubs, where historically defining moments beckon for a number of them.
By Dave Bowler
If you’d have consulted the odds on Sbobet back in August 2021, if picking a team to win all four trophies – Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup – was your bet of choice, Manchester City would surely have been the favourites.
But coming into the final straight of the final two months of the season, only Liverpool can now complete that quartet – and how appropriate it would be if the city of The Beatles was first to achieve the Fab Four.
As recently as six weeks ago, the Premier League was looking a closed book, with Manchester City seemingly romping away with it. But Liverpool have won their games in hand and, with City dropping five points in the last few weeks, Klopp’s men have gradually reeled them in, such that the deficit is a single point.
The League Cup already in the trophy room, a domestic clean sweep is now looking a real possibility, something that would mean the world to Liverpool supporters who were denied the chance to properly celebrate that first Premier League title two years ago by the pandemic.
Their hopes of the quartet of titles will have been significantly raised by the results of last week’s European draw. While nobody within the inner circle at Anfield will be foolish enough to underestimate Benfica, but with the second leg at home too, they could hardly have come out of the hat in better shape.
Bayern Munich, their likely semi-final opponents will, of course, offer a sterner test, but picking and choosing is not really an option when you reach the last four of the Champions League.
For Manchester City, it is winning that competition that now defines not just them, but Pep Guardiola too, especially in the wake of last year’s final defeat to Chelsea. It is 11 years since the man revered by many as the best coach in the world last won the Champions League, and for all their riches, it is a title that has stubbornly eluded City too.
Winning it is the final stamp that a club requires if it is to be truly regarded as being among the elite, but City will need to do that hard way. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are the Kryptonite to Guardiola’s approach to the game and if they come through that examination, then Chelsea or Real Madrid stand in their way to the final. It’s an undeniably tougher path than Liverpool’s to the final, which might also play into the Champions League fight.
The Europa League is every bit as intriguing, for something very significant is happening at the London Stadium – the Olympic Stadium as was. When West Ham moved there from Upton Park, there was much controversy over them being all but gifted the nation’s state of the art venue, and with good reason.
Equally, the Hammers’ fans were not best pleased at being uprooted from their spiritual home, the ground of Moore, Hurst, Peters, Brooking, Bonds, Devonshire and all, and transplanted to new surroundings by owners they at best distrusted and at worst despised.
The truce that now exists between fans and owners remains uneasy, but the last two seasons have given evidence that a new West Ham is being born, the one that always had the potential to arise from that stadium move, however painful it was.
For once installed there, the Hammers have every possible advantage – a huge, cheap stadium, potential for generating vast revenue and the inbuilt bonus of being more attractive to global talent by being situated in the capital.
Few would have bet on David Moyes being the man to deliver it but it would be a harsh football supporter – or a Sunderland fan – who would begrudge him this redemption after the way he was so summarily tossed aside by Manchester United. He has built an impressive side over the last couple of years, and West Ham’s ability, so far, to hold on to their best players offers real promise for the future.
The Yarmolenko storyline of the last week has added the necessary feelgood dimension to the tale and there is genuine hope among West Ham fans that they might overcome Lyon and make it through to the last four and an encounter with, perhaps, a vulnerable Barcelona.
If they could do that, their stature in the game – and among future possible recruits – would genuinely move onto a new level where, whisper it, they could go properly toe to toe with their London rivals in future. And that’s without even winning the whole thing and gaining entry to the Champions League. Imagine that…
Even the Conference League offers explosive possibilities, for Leicester City could carve out their next piece of history in a decade that, frankly, would appear to be simply ludicrous in a novel or a screenplay.
Go back to 2012 and they were finishing ninth in the Championship, since when they have won promotion, achieved an apparently impossible escape from relegation, won the Premier League, won the FA Cup and played in the Champions League. Perhaps the Conference League might look like a consolation prize – Brendan Rodgers admitted he had no idea what it was when they were placed in it – but you can guarantee he knows all about it know.
There are some big names and strong looking sides still in the competition, but if the Foxes could navigate their way beyond PSV Eindhoven, on to the final and even win it, that would be up there with the Premier League title win, another defining moment for a club that seemingly never takes a backward step.
The European games will, as ever, present a thrilling climax to the season, one that will define the very future of a number of clubs. You can bet on it.