They usually say that the fun in the Champions League starts when the knockout stages come around.
This season’s round of 16 has given us a real taste of what could potentially be lying in wait for the rest of the competition. The last few weeks of knockout football have served up more than we would’ve expected at this stage, with an almost greedy expectation of more to follow.
As the draw for the quarter finals took place, the Premier League’s representation at this stage is a healthy one – all four of the teams that qualified for the competition are still in contention for Europe’s top accolade, the trophy with the big ears that has eluded England’s grasp for the last six years.
That was Chelsea’s smash-and-grab penalty shootout win over Bayern Munich in 2012, the last time an English side had the honour of being crowned Europe’s number one team. At the time, there only seemed to be one winner yet glory found its way to London via Didier Drogba. The last time all English sides made it to the quarter finals was in 2009.
Since Chelsea’s triumph, only Liverpool have reached the final – a 3-1 loss last season to Real Madrid, who had reached their fourth final in the same time – which is a damning statistic for a league that boasts competition and balance, title races and top four battles.
No one really seems to care about all of that when it comes to Europe – it’s either you win it or you don’t, to be remembered as the crème-de-la-crème or to be cast aside with the others in an abyss of ifs, buts and maybes.
The latter is where the Premier League has been for some time. It’s difficult to think that a league that has had a number of top-level managers has had to wait this long to have a really good crack at this. Yet, it’s not difficult at the same time when teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have been so inconsistent recently.
Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool pounced on German frailties and swiped away fears of playing in front of The Yellow Wall or within the Bavarian battlefield. The same goes for Manchester City, who weren’t leaving anything to chance against Schalke, seven heaven and all.
For United, the odds were firmly stacked against them. Having lost 2-0 to Paris Saint-Germain at home, scoring three away from home – even with a Neymar-less Parisian side – needed a collective belief not seen for a large part of the season. And as they flexed their muscle and brought Paris to a standstill, the same goes for the other English sides going forward.
At this stage, there’s the possibility of having three Premier League teams in the last four. There’s also the possibility of having just one, would be tragic having been so excellent in all of their away encounters in the round of 16. Yet this time around, those away fixtures will count for more than ever.
If United can somehow find a way past Barcelona, this would mark a remarkable return to glory for a team that has been lost in the wilderness for what seems to be a very long time. The same can go for Liverpool, who will fancy their chances against an FC Porto side they beat 5-0 on aggregate in the round of 16 last season.
That would make it two semi-finals in a row, with either United or Barcelona left standing in their way. You can imagine Jurgen Klopp drumming up his players behind the scenes as he maintains a calm, modest figure in front of the cameras.
For Spurs, this is unprecedented territory. They’re starting to dine with the elite and don’t look out of place. Yet coming up against City could make them feel very much alienated. At least they don’t have to deal with a rampant Juventus or Barcelona, but City are as determined as anyone to make this their year.
And to believe that Pep Guardiola hasn’t won the competition since 2011 makes it even more of an incentive. It’s what defined his philosophy in those final wins against United, and what almost led to ridicule at Bayern, so this year would feel like a statement victory.
The real statement, however, may be that the Premier League is back, and Europe should take notice of their rise from the ashes. For so long, it had been the likes of Madrid and Barcelona being praised for their longevity at this stage.
Now, the English sides have a chance to redeem themselves for their barren spell.