As the UEFA Champions League heads into the final round of matches in the group stage of the competition, there’s a mixed picture for the four competing English clubs.
Man City and Spurs guaranteed their places in the next round following Matchday 5, while Liverpool and Chelsea each missed out on the opportunity to progress with a game to spare.
The last round of results also leave open the curious possibility of Liverpool missing out on qualification despite going into their final game as group leaders, and of Chelsea topping their group despite currently being outside the top two.
Such a scenario is not entirely unrealistic, with Chelsea knowing that a win against Lille, by far the worst performing team in the group, will be enough to see them through. And should Ajax win in Valencia, Chelsea will only need a draw to qualify.
Liverpool need a similar outcome, and go into the final match knowing that a defeat will all but lead to elimination from a competition they won last season.
Only once previously have the defending champions been knocked out at the group stage, and Liverpool would have been desperate to avoid their Champions League fate being dependent on securing a positive result away to RB Salzburg, a team who caused many problems for the Liverpool defence in the teams’ previous meeting in October.
With Genk appearing to be the weakest team in the group from quite an early stage of the competition, it was always set to be a three-way battle between Liverpool, Napoli and Salzburg.
And while results in Liverpool’s first games against their main two challengers placed them at an immediate disadvantage should their placing against either team have to be decided based on head-to-head record, the Reds could have ensured progression as group winners had they beaten Napoli at Anfield.
Instead, the two dropped home points mean that the holders face a difficult game in which they’ll have to be at their very best in order to get the necessary result.
Not that Man City have been particularly impressive, despite guaranteeing top spot. Big wins at home to Atalanta and in their opening game at Shakhtar saw City at their best, but other matches have been far from straightforward and Pep Guardiola’s side will need to perform much better in the knockout round if they’re to compete for the one missing trophy during the Spaniard’s time as manager.
And the other Premiership club to progress, Spurs, are still doing things which have become rather common in the last couple of years. Since November 2017, Spurs have lost four times in the Champions League when leading, and drawn three further games after holding an advantage – including a 2-2 away to Olympiakos earlier this season after establishing a two-goal lead.
However, over the same two-year period, Spurs have also avoided defeat in six games during which they were losing, including three separate recoveries from a deficit of two goals – most famously in last season’s semi final away to Ajax.
Having conceded eight times in Jose Mourinho’s first four games at Spurs, it may take time before his team achieve the kind of solid defence which many of his successes have been built on, but the evidence suggests that Spurs games will be anything but boring.