They both went out and, while Chelsea – ousted at the group stage – went on to win the Europa League, pundits and fans took this as another sign that the Premier League was no longer as strong as it once was.
But this term, all four English sides have made it to the knockout stages, two as group winners, and two as very unlucky runners-up to last season’s finalists.
It just goes to show how people tend to overplay the odd dodgy season in what is, after all, a Cup competition.
It also goes to show how the influx money that improved other teams from other countries can also have an impact on a Premier League that had been the big draw in Europe for the last decade or so; the new TV money and improved sponsorship deals have made the Premier League super-competitive again, and the top teams are reaping the rewards in Europe.
After the group stage draw, I tipped all four to sneak through. Arsenal were my biggest concern due to the difficulty of their group, but I fancied them to make it and they did – just.
Of all the four English teams to reach the last 16, Manchester City look the best equipped to mount a sustained challenge.
While United and Chelsea won their relatively easy groups, they are anything but convincing at the moment and as a result I don’t see either of them winning it. They do not have what it takes to beat the very best over two legs, although topping their groups means they could well avoid such teams until the quarters.
City and Arsenal may have come second, but both were able to beat last year’s finalists Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, away from home. They will therefore fancy themselves getting results anywhere.
Mentally there have been so many implosions that you’re just waiting for them to unravel. They seem more solid, more confident, but until they follow it through we can’t call them contenders for anything.
They were a disappointment last night – Napoli have emerged as contenders in recent years but they are a team in transition and have been shipping goals, conceding 12 goals in their previous five matches. The match was there for the taking but Arsenal were very negative and seemed hampered by the knowledge that they needed to lose 3-0 to go out.
Perhaps that scenario limited Arsenal; maybe they had an eye on playing City at the weekend, which could prove vital in the Premier League shake-up. Either way, Arsenal will not get over the line against one of the top teams if they play like that.
And a top team lies waiting for them – any one of the Spanish teams, plus Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. What a horrible prospect. The best they can hope for is Atletico Madrid, who are just the kind of difficult, nasty team that can get at Arsenal.
City also have a tough draw – replace Bayern with Dortmund and you have a similarly intimidating prospect. But the thing about City is that – despite their inconsistency away from home – they have the ability, the squad and the variety of player to score goals anywhere, against anyone.
And that away hoodoo may well have been brought to an end against Bayern. The effect of beating the European champions in their backyard, having been two goals down, cannot be underestimated. City will be buzzing with confidence, and you can see them taking that through to the next rounds.
It appears that, after 18 matches, City have finally got the hang of the Champions League.
Still, for all their improvement, I don’t really see either winning the title. Bayern are just so far ahead of everyone that I can’t look past them, certainly with regards to reaching the final.
Bayern have so much variety in their play – they can pass you to death, hit you on the break, go direct, slow it down, speed it up, and they have depth everywhere.
Of course they can be beaten in a one-off match – which is why they aren’t a total shoo-in to win the trophy – but over two legs you just feel they would have too much for anyone, particularly with Barcelona slipping back a bit in the last year or so.
There isn’t a team or style of game Bayern can’t play. They can cope with everything and are the benchmark for teams like Arsenal and City.
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