After last season’s all-English final, could we be treated to more Premier League success in the Champions League this season?
Current holders Liverpool are flying high domestically right now, while Manchester City’s disastrous attempt at winning a third title in a row could see them turn their focus to European success.
MORE: Liverpool approach global superstar over ambitious transfer as he stalls on new contract offer
2012 winners Chelsea can never be ruled out, and neither can two-time European Champion Jose Mourinho, now in charge of last season’s beaten finalists Tottenham.
Here’s a look at the state of each PL contender as we approach the start of this season’s knockout stages…
Great defence, great midfield, great attack, great manager, on a relentless winning streak domestically, full of confidence, intimidating Anfield atmosphere.
If there are any, we’re yet to see them this season. One possible issue is that they’ll see ending their thirty-year wait for a league title as a bigger priority than winning a seventh Champions League, so might not be that focused, but a 22-point lead at the top of the Premier League table means they can probably afford to relax on that front.
Hard to pick one here, but based on this season we’ll go for Sadio Mane. In tight games against Europe’s elite, you need a player who can provide that moment of magic, and Mane has arguably overtaken Mohamed Salah as that man for Liverpool this season.
Last 16 opponents
A potential banana skin draw in the form of Atletico Madrid. While Diego Simeone’s side have not been at their very best this season, they seem to have the knack for doing well in this competition, having defied the odds to reach two finals in the last six years. On their day, their strong defence and incredible work ethic means they can beat anyone.
On paper, one of the greatest squads in the game, with world class options in attack in particular. They also have a master tactician and two-time Champions League winner in Pep Guardiola.
Dodgy defence since Vincent Kompany left, with that feeling of invincibility just no longer there. On top of that, they seem to bottle it on this stage, having never really enjoyed a good run in the competition at any point since their takeover in 2008.
Sergio Aguero probably remains the genuinely outstanding player in this side, and one who can influence big games against the best opponents. It’s not quite happened for him in this competition, but perhaps this will be his year.
Last 16 opponents
They’ve not been too lucky here, drawing Real Madrid, who you may remember have won four of the last six finals. They might not be as good as they were a couple of years ago, but unlike City they are Champions League specialists, and surely favourites to progress through this tie.
A bit of an unknown quantity due to their rookie manager and largely youthful squad. People may take them lightly, and expectations probably won’t be that high. Like in 2011/12 when they won the competition, they could perhaps use this to their advantage as they seem to relish being underdogs on this stage.
That said, there are a lot of weaknesses in this side and it’s hard to really see this youthful group of players replicating what the 2012 side did. That team may not have been the strongest Chelsea side of recent times, but it still had experienced winners like Frank Lampard, John Terry and big-game specialist Didier Drogba in it. There is simply no one at that level or arguably anywhere near it in this current squad.
N’Golo Kante is a player who would surely walk into any other starting XI in Europe. The Frenchman’s world class box-to-box work helped Leicester City secure an unlikely Premier League title triumph in 2016, perhaps he can pull something similar out of the hat for Chelsea in this season’s Champions League.
Last 16 opponents
A Bayern Munich side who started this season a little poorly, but who look improved since changing their manager. Unfortunately for Chelsea’s rather suspect defence, Robert Lewandowski has been in absolutely lethal form all season and could enjoy himself a lot over these two games.
In Jose Mourinho, they have a two-time Champions League winner who knows how to master these tricky two-legged affairs as well as anyone. The experience of reaching last season’s final should also serve these players well.
Well, Harry Kane being injured is not at all helpful. Apart from him, it’s hard to see where the goals, or enough of them anyway, are going to come from. Their league form has also been far more patchy this season than in previous years, suggesting this group of players may have come to the end of their cycle.
One man they can rely on for inspiration is Son Heung-min, who remains a joy to watch for Spurs and who really stepped up for them in their run to the Champions League final last season.
Last 16 opponents
RB Leipzig, who will be no pushovers, but who also look like one of the easier teams to be facing at this stage of the season. Timo Werner will be a threat, and they play some fine football, but overall Tottenham have the quality to see them off over two legs.
Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s hard to look beyond Liverpool as English football’s best hope again in this competition. The only thing stopping Jurgen Klopp’s side is themselves – will they be focused enough as they go for glory in the Premier League? Will they finally get tired after performing at such a high level for such a long time? Will they come up against Napoli again (just one win against them in four meetings in this competition this year and last)?
Looking around at the rest of Europe, it’s fair to say Real Madrid and Barcelona are not what they once were, which should give Liverpool and perhaps the other English sides hope. That said, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain have world class squads and surely cannot go on under-achieving at this level forever, while Borussia Dortmund’s exciting young side might be Ajax-like dark horses in this season’s edition of the competition.