Champions League knock-out stages: English clubs have plenty of reasons to be fearful – but don't rule them out
Former Arsenal striker Thierry Henry believes Atletico Madrid could be the team for his old club to avoid in the draw
When he was asked on Wednesday night which team Arsenal would be best served avoiding in the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League, their former striker and all-time leading goalscorer Thierry Henry picked out Atletico Madrid, currently dividing the two traditional powers at the top of La Liga.
As a pundit on Sky Sports it behoves him to try to be interesting and with Arsenal also potentially facing Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, the immediate assumption is that Atletico are the best of a, well, bad lot. Perhaps Henry was taking the opportunity to show off his knowledge of European football, but the record of Atletico bears up to examination.
A team that have been threatening for some time to make an impact in the senior European competition and have developed for two years under Diego Simeone – a relatively long spell in charge at that club – Atletico were one of only three teams undefeated in the group stages. The other two were Real Madrid and Manchester United. Atletico's group was an easier ride than those won by their Madrid rivals or the one which Barcelona came through, but even so.
David Moyes was at Atletico on Wednesday night to observe the quality of a club mired in debts and third-party ownership but still capable of signing talent that the best in Europe want. He was there to look at, among others, Koke, also known as Jorge Resurreccion Merodio, who would, at the very least, lend himself to a terrace adaptation of a certain Stone Roses song.
Henry compared the Atletico of 2013-14 to the Arsenal of 2005-06. "That year we were drawn against Real Madrid in the second round," he said. "Everyone from Madrid was laughing and saying they were happy with the draw. But we beat them, and then everyone from Juventus was saying the same thing when they drew Arsenal in the next round."
That notion of the English team as the underdog, one that was a theme during Liverpool's triumph in 2005, is prevalent again this year. Only the Bundesliga, other than the Premier League, has seen all its competing clubs in the Champions League group stages reach the knockout round and yet none of the four English sides, for different reasons, rate among the most obvious to win it.
United and Chelsea have both won their groups despite looking the most fragile domestically of late. As for Arsenal and Manchester City, they are obliged to take a deep breath and contemplate a second-round tie from one of the elite category of non-English group winners.
Unlike the brief spell of English dominance that peaked with the all-Premier League final in 2008, the league's influence has gradually waned in Europe. Chelsea have won the Champions League since, but they did so in 2012 as outsiders – unfancied and, for all their courage at times, playing an unflattering, short-termist defensive style.
Last season was the low-water mark of recent years, when City and Chelsea fell at the group stage, before Arsenal and United's exits in the first knockout round. This season, the levelling-out of English football has contributed to an engrossing Premier League. In European terms it has contributed to a greater feeling of vulnerability about the English sides.
City's win over Bayern Munich was a hint that they could finally be ready for a big result in the knockout stages. "No one wants to play Man City, I wouldn't want to play Man City if I was in the Champions League right now," Henry said. "They got killed before for not going through in the Champions League. And now people are having a go at them for going through. They have 15 points and finished second. They did well."
Arsenal's run of form this year began with their away victory over Bayern in the second leg of their Champions League elimination in the competition in March. Since then they have lost just five games in all competitions. "The belief, they have again, knowing that they can beat any team at any moment," Henry said.
"The game against Bayern Munich, away from home, did a lot for them. Knowing that they can beat the champions – they didn't know it at the time – away from home, and [beating them] well, did a lot for the team. Since that game, everything changed."
As group winners, United and Chelsea have the prospect of a kinder second-round draw. There is a one-in-five chance that Chelsea could draw Galatasaray and see themselves up against that old lion of theirs, Didier Drogba, whose last act at the club was winning the Champions League in 2012. You get the impression that is an outcome both would sooner avoid.
Other than 2008, the other three English triumphs in the modern Champions League have been characterised by a tendency towards the chaotic and the unexpected. Of those three, the United triumph in 1999 was the least surprising but even that required the most dramatic twist at the very end. This time, the English again approach the knockout stages with low expectations, and that lurking possibility that they could spring a surprise.
Grouped together: How Premier League teams have fared
This season is only the second in the last five campaigns in which the Premier League has had four representatives progress from the Champions League group stage.
Season/No of teams qualified/Where they reached
2003-04 3/3/Arsenal (QF), Chelsea (SF), and Manchester United (R16)
2004-05 4/4/Arsenal (R16), Chelsea (SF), Liverpool (W), Man United (R16)
2005-06 3/4/Arsenal (F), Chelsea (R16), Liverpool (R16)
2006-07 4/4/Arsenal (R16), Chelsea (SF), Liverpool (F), Man United (SF)
2007-08 4/4/Arsenal (QF), Chelsea (F), Liverpool (SF), Man United (W)
2008-09 4/4/Arsenal (SF), Chelsea (SF), Liverpool (QF), Man United (F)
2009-10 3/4/Arsenal (QF), Chelsea (R16), Man United (QF)
2010-11 4/4/Arsenal (R16), Chelsea (QF), Man United (F), Tottenham (QF)
2011-12 2/4/Arsenal (R16), Chelsea (W)
2012-13 2/4/Arsenal (R16), Man United (R16)
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