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Sunday, 16 December, 2018

Premier League powerhouses can conquer Europe

Man City and Liverpool should fear nobody

Real Madrid lift the Champions League trophy following victory over Liverpool
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The Champions League has become the pinnacle of footballing excellence and the 2018-19 edition looks the perfect opportunity for the Premier League to become top dogs once more.

English teams have struggled to make an impact in recent seasons - Chelsea's surprise success in 2012 is their only triumph in the past ten years - but their financial power will tell eventually and Manchester City and Liverpool look ideally placed to lead the charge.

There was a time when the Premier League representatives resembled loadsamoney characters, barging into an exclusive club shouting their mouths off about having the best league in the world without the ability or grace to match their lofty claims.

All the gear but no idea if you like. Now there is a plan.

High-class managers such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have been lured to England and with many of Europe's elite clubs in flux the superior stable environments in Manchester and Merseyside could be key.

City's two Champions League attempts under Guardiola have ended in frustration as they lost gung-ho battles with Monaco and Liverpool at the last-16 and quarter-final stages respectively. But this season's group draw with Hoffenheim, Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon gives the Premier League champions an ideal platform to reach the knockouts again.

Records galore were broken by Guardiola last season as City romped to Premier League glory, hitting 100 points and reaching a consistent level of brilliance which makes them worthy Champions League favourites.

Kevin De Bruyne's summer injury may be of long-term benefit if they get him back fresh for the key stages of the competition and they often dominate midfield battles through the Silvas, David and Bernardo. The blistering pace of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling should offer the kind of counter-attacking threat which is crucial in two-legged ties settled by the away-goals rule.

Their often-criticised rearguard is no worse than the defences of the majority of their market rivals as the game has evolved to such an extent that attack is clearly the first form of defence. There were an average of more than three goals per game in last season's Champions League in a total of 401.

Liverpool scored 41 of those, excluding qualifiers, more than any other side, as they reached the final in thrilling circumstances and Klopp's outfit have the potential to go one better despite a tough draw alongside Paris St-Germain and Napoli.

Their strengths remain the same with a devastating front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, although crucially the Reds have gone big in making investments to improve their weaknesses, most notably in goal.

Salah's early substitution in the final defeat to Real Madrid was a telling blow and yet Liverpool were still well in the game until Loris Karius made two horrendous errors, while the other goal was a once-in-a-lifetime effort from Gareth Bale.

Liverpool were not far away from a sixth European Cup and with Alisson signed as a significant upgrade between the sticks it could come 12 months later in Madrid.

Virgil van Dijk has improved their defence immeasurably since signing in January and Fabinho, a big-money arrival from Monaco, is seen as a shrewd tactical influence who may be of more benefit in the Champions League than the Premier League.

Threats are everywhere in the Champions League and the obvious place to start is La Liga, seeing as Spain have provided the last five winners and two runners-up in that period.

Real Madrid have collected four of those titles, all with the aid of Cristiano Ronaldo, whose sale to Juventus leaves a seismic hole in their attack for new boss Julen Lopetegui to fill.

There has hardly been a tsunami of change at the Bernabeu despite the departures of Ronaldo and boss Zinedine Zidane, but a summer without a Galactico arrival to replace Ronaldo has left Real vulnerable.

They have also had plenty of good fortune in their hat-trick of triumphs.

Madrid's arch-rivals Barcelona will always have their backers with Lionel Messi in their ranks but only once in the last four years - when they were champions in 2015 - have the Catalans gone beyond the quarter-finals.

That was with the dream team of Messi, Neymar and a peak Luis Suarez up front and Andres Iniesta pulling the strings in midfield. Neymar and Iniesta have gone and Suarez, 32 in January, has scored a total of four goals in the last two Champions League campaigns.

This may be a season too early for Ousmane Dembele, Malcom and Arthur to stamp their authority on the Champions League, while coach Ernesto Valverde needs to work out Philippe Coutinho's best position.

Will he play wide or is he Iniesta's midfield replacement? There are pros and cons to each but there are also doubts over Valverde's ability as Barca lost a 4-1 first-leg lead to Roma last season amid a chaotic night where Gerard Pique was seen questioning their tactics.

Slow-starting Atletico, who will host the final, may be of more interest.

Antoine Griezmann has remained loyal amid interest from Barca and Diego Simeone can still call upon the services of Diego Godin and Jan Oblak as well as a raft of new signings including Thomas Lemar and Rodri, who is seen by many in Spain as the new Sergio Busquets.

The Europa League winners, however, will struggle to keep up with teams who are pushing the attacking boundaries.

Juventus, for so long Europe's defensive benchmark, have blown a fortune on becoming a more offensive power with the arrival of 33-year-old Ronaldo representing a fascinating gamble in a bid to land their first European Cup since 1996.

The Old Lady were the big summer market movers and the gamble gathered pace when defender Leonardo Bonucci returned to the club.

Where everyone will move to accommodate Ronaldo is a tactical conundrum for Max Allegri to solve and the betting has already fully reacted to the transfer, leaving little wriggle room for those just entering the market.

At around the same price a stronger case can be made for Paris St-Germain's three-pronged attack of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and teenage World Cup superstar Kylian Mbappe. 

That Paris front three is a thing of beauty and yet the French outfit have refused to address their problematic and crucial midfield area.

Lassana Diarra is one possible defensive anchor but new boss Thomas Tuchel is toying with the idea of using centre-back Marquinhos as his number six which is far from ideal.

Keeping the egos in check won't be easy for Tuchel, who like Real Madrid's Lopetegui and Niko Kovac at Bayern Munich, is in his first campaign steering this kind of corporate juggernaut.

Former Eintracht Frankfurt chief Kovac is unlikely to be tested in the Bundesliga and will be judged by the results in this competition but Bayern have barely spent a Euro this summer and standing still in the Champions League usually means going backwards.

Tottenham were even more stagnant in the transfer market and Manchester United were nowhere near as busy as Jose Mourinho wanted, leaving both short of the standard usually required to win a tournament of this magnitude. 

However, in the year when Britain is due to leave the EU there may not be a Champions League exit for all of England's finest.

Manchester City
2pts 6-1 Sky Bet
1pt 14-1 Sky Bet

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With many of Europe's elite clubs in flux the stable environments in Manchester and Merseyside could be key
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