Power shift: Challenging times in Europe for England’s elite

For a time there, it seemed as though the Champions League might just become an exclusive contest between the powerhouses of the Premier League.

Liverpool’s dramatic defeat of Milan in Istanbul in 2005 established a trend that threatened to turn European football on its head. In eight seasons, eight English clubs reached the final and, whilst not all those campaigns had a successful conclusion, it hinted at a dominance that has never come to light. Liverpool did it in 2005, so too Manchester United in 2008 and Chelsea in 2012 but truth be told, an English triumph in Lisbon next summer seems unlikelier than ever.

There has been a clear shift in power in recent times. Barcelona, European champions on three occasions since 2006, remain a formidable force but, with Bayern Munich threatening to establish themselves as the team to beat and Paris St Germain’s spending capabilities knowing no bounds, Champions League dreams might just be that for England’s top clubs, who can no longer hope to have everything on their own terms.

Bayern – rampant under Pep Guardiola’s expert tutelage – put Manchester City’s qualities into context in their recent encounter at the Etihad. The post-match focus, rather inevitably, was on Joe Hart’s monumental mistake, but Arjen Robben’s assertion that the match had been ‘easy’ for a side determined to retain their title could prove far more damaging in the long term.

Manuel Pellegrini’s team should have enough to emerge from Group D, which given Bayern’s powers, never offered the other three clubs anything other than a scrap for second place. Given City’s inexperience and the fast-growing gulf between England’s elite and Continental football’s finest, it might just prove to be a stay of execution. City’s odds of reaching the final might stand at 8/1 but they’ll have their work cut out. You can get the same odds on Arsenal. It seems a safer bet.

Finalists in 2006, Arsene Wenger’s team find themselves in a difficult group, with Rafael Benitez’s Napoli, last season’s finalists Borussia Dortmund and Marseille to overcome. The Premier League leaders have made an impressive start, however, winning their opening two matches and putting down a marker that makes their ambition clear.

The Gunners are seasoned campaigners at this level of course, and their experience should give them quite an advantage. Marrying managerial nous off the pitch with inspiration on it – Mesut Ozil’s arrival has had a transformative impact – Arsenal appear best equipped to spearhead England’s challenge this season. United, winners in 2008 and runners-up in 2009 and 2011, can point to a pedigree that cannot be overlooked, but the Sir Alex Ferguson effect cannot be underestimated.

In David Moyes, United have a fine manager but the Scot lacks his predecessor’s experience in Europe. Like Arsenal, the Red Devils lead their group. Unlike Arsenal, their domestic efforts point to frailties that could undermine all their efforts. Beaten three times in the Premier League already, United do not look equipped to challenge Bayern or Barcelona and although a 13/2 shot to reach another final, Moyes’ men must tighten up.

United are 2/1 to be eliminated at the Last Sixteen stage. Considered alongside Chelsea at 5/2 to be the English club likeliest to go the furthest in the competition, United appear a better bet at this stage. Chelsea might be the most recent English winners, Roberto di Matteo’s side beating Bayern on penalties in 2012, but Jose Mourinho’s team have not made a convincing start this time around. Losing at home to Basel wasn’t in the script and, although Chelsea are in third place in the Premier League standings, their limited options in attack continue to cause concern.

Like all the English clubs, Chelsea should escape their group, but progressing far beyond that point looks like a tall order at this stage. Bayern and Barcelona – with PSG coming up fast on the rails and Real Madrid, the nine times champions, never a team to be taken lightly – will ensure that the Premier League elite have a major challenge on their hands. It remains to be seen which, if any, of England’s finest can rise to it.