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Sunday, 16 December, 2018

Premier champs Man City have scope for improvement in Europe

The 2005 Champions League winner thinks Pep Guardiola's side set the standard

Raheem Sterling has flourished under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City
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Half an hour of madness may well have cost Manchester City their tilt at Champions League glory last season but, with lessons learned and improvements made, I expect Pep Guardiola to get it right this time.

Twice a Champions League winner as manager of Barcelona, Guardiola failed to add to that collection at Bayern Munich but he is poised to complete the hat-trick with City.

This is potentially the most wide-open Champions League for years with question marks over one or two of the bigger names and cases to be made for bigger-priced teams such as Liverpool, but City look absolutely ready to take that next step.

The point about Guardiola is that he improves players and improves teams. We’ve seen that with Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane and we should see it again with Aymeric Laporte and Riyad Mahrez. Under Pep’s wing they will get better as players.

Guardiola is the master of learning from previous flaws, so that catastrophic start to their quarter-final tie at Anfield where they found themselves 3-0 down to Liverpool after 31 minutes will have been logged by the City chief. He’ll be absolutely primed to avoid that type of outcome once again.

You need a lot of good fortune to win the Champions League – a decent draw in the knockout stages helps and injuries naturally play a big part in deciding who goes furthest. The competition doesn’t really start until February because City and all their biggest rivals should still be involved after the group stage.

But right now City look as good as any team in Europe, and better than most, and they will only get stronger.

They are the pick of the four Premier League teams, but I expect all of them to qualify for the last 16.

The draw has been kind to Manchester City and Manchester United, but less so to Tottenham and Liverpool. Even so, English clubs now understand what’s needed to succeed in Europe and all four should make it.

Liverpool have to believe in themselves after what happened last season when they did wonderfully well getting to the final. To fall short against Real Madrid, specialists in that type of occasion, is absolutely no disgrace.

There is now a belief running through Anfield that Liverpool will be consistently challenging for Champions League glory but I’m concerned that if they don’t win it this season they may not be contenders again for years to come.

It’s very rare, once-in-a-lifetime stuff, that a club is blessed with a front three of the calibre of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah. Each of them is a genius, each has special skills, all three can score goals, and they just click unbelievably well as a trio.

What they achieved last season was extraordinary, to the extent that nobody was even talking about Philippe Coutinho's sale to Barcelona, which was supposed to be a catastrophe.

Mane, Firmino and Salah stayed fit, scared defences to death and scored goals. They are a manager’s dream.

But they won’t be together forever. Perhaps this is the last season when they are all at Anfield if some big money is thrown down next summer.

Yes, there are a lot of exceptionally talented frontmen out there, any of whom could do well at Anfield, but there are no guarantees.

Mane, Firmino and Salah have quality in abundance and if they are broken up it could take a while for Liverpool to recover.

So rather than celebrate last season’s near-miss as Liverpool arriving in the big time, I’d be a bit more concerned that time is running out for their golden trio to shine in the same side.

Didi's Diamonds
Manchester City to win Champions League
6-1 Sky Bet
Atletico Madrid-B Dortmund straight forecast in Group A
6-4 Sky Bet
Lokomotiv Moscow to qualify from Group D
13-8 bet365
Manchester City-Shakhtar Donetsk straight forecast in Group F
100-30 Betfred, Coral, Ladbrokes
Manchester United to win Group H
11-4 bet365, Betway
All four English teams to qualify for last 16
Accumulator pays 2.78-1 Betway

No margin for error for Schalke in open section

I’m sure Bayern will qualify from Group E – although I wouldn’t suggest backing them at short odds – but I’m less confident about Schalke and Hoffenheim.

Hoffenheim's squad is short of numbers and they found European football tough last term. They were undone by Liverpool in the Champions League qualifying stage and then finished bottom of their group in the Europa League.

Schalke, a distant second behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga last season, have got off to a shocking start with three straight defeats.

They find themselves in the most open group of the lot, Group D, alongside Porto, Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow. It’s deja vu for Porto, who were in the most competitive section last term as well, also alongside Turkish and German opponents.

Porto are favourites but in a group as open as this, where you can make a case for all four, I’ll take the big price about Lokomotiv.

It takes a good team to win the Russian Premier League and Lokomotiv are stronger again with Benedikt Howedes added to a defence already featuring the excellent Vedran Corluka.

Dortmund have started the season fairly well under new management and will get better, so take them to follow Atletico Madrid out of Group A.

As for Bayern, there were clear indications that standards had dropped off under Carlo Ancelotti so the intensity should have returned under Niko Kovac. That hard work may well pay off although injuries are already biting with Corentin Tolisso, Kingsley Coman and Rafinha sidelined.

Mourinho could trump Ronaldo in group stage

Manchester United's 2-1 Premier League win at Watford was hardly hold-the-back-page stuff but watching Jose Mourinho celebrate at Vicarage Road on Saturday told me a lot.

We have all been critical of Mourinho’s daft press conferences but his body language after the win at Watford – the hugging of staff, applauding the fans – smacked of someone who is desperate to succeed and who knows he’s under pressure.

That could be a turning point for United. Watford were going well and United had to dig in, so maybe their season starts now. They could be massive value to win Group H.

Juventus look way too short. Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo has arrived to a fanfare and Juve have responded by getting off to a flying start in Serie A. But at the age of 33 will he be able to inspire his new team the way he sparked Real Madrid? I’m not so sure.

United, and Mourinho in particular, were under the spotlight throughout 2017-18, but if there’s one thing the Portuguese is good at it’s winning big games in Europe. It was no surprise to me that they qualified for the knockout stage as group winners. I fancy the same thing will happen this time.

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They are the pick of the four Premier League teams, but I expect all of them to qualify for the last 16
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