The Premier League has never been stronger – Nat Phillips channelling the spirit of Franco Baresi proves it

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  • Franco Baresi
    Italian association football player
The Premier League has never been stronger - Nat Phillips channelling the spirit of Franco Baresi proves it - GETTY IMAGES
The Premier League has never been stronger - Nat Phillips channelling the spirit of Franco Baresi proves it - GETTY IMAGES

If you stayed up past your bedtime on Tuesday night you are probably feeling depressed about the state of English sport this morning. Let us pretend instead we turned off the television at a sensible hour, went to bed without the radio on and scrubbed the word “Gabba” from our minds forever. Silly word anyway.

Pride is available closer to home in the Champions League. With a game to spare, two in Liverpool’s case, all four English sides are through to the knockout rounds. This is not a rare occurrence in recent history. In three of the past five seasons, all of the English group stage teams have made it through.

It is the manner in which it has happened this time which suggests these are unusually high times for English football. There has not been a greater show of the Premier League’s strength since the European Super League extended an invite to Spurs.

Liverpool’s 2-1 victory against Serie A leaders AC Milan meant they took the maximum 18 points from their six group games, the first time an English team has ever done this. Theirs was supposed to be a group of death, completed by Portuguese league leaders Porto and the perennially awkward Atletico Madrid. All have been swatted aside and Milan were seen off on their own noisy patch home by a team of mostly reserves and kids.

It was an insultingly easy night for Liverpool at the San Siro, typified by a moment in the second half. In the 68th minute, with Milan finally spluttering into life, a loose ball pinballed off Ibrahima Konate to Phillips in the box. Two Milan players smelt blood and closed in. Phillips did what any fifth-choice centre back would in the circumstances: a beautiful Cruyff turn which simultaneously orphaned the children of the chasing Milan men.

Phillips then strode out into safety towards the centre circle, cool as anything, and played a neat pass to Divock Origi. “It’s really ridiculous,” said his manager Jurgen Klopp afterwards. He was correct. It was a moment of grace, easy flair, and calmness, Phillips channelling the spirit of Franco Baresi on the pitch he once called home.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was apparently also on that pitch but entirely upstaged by the fifth-best forward on Liverpool’s books. Divock Origi turned in his usual reliable performance and scored a crucial goal. His well-taken header after some wacky goalkeeping from Mike Maignan further cemented his place as a Liverpool cult hero, a player who seems to know his limitations but can be relied upon whenever called. You would love him in your squad.

By the end of the evening, Klopp saw it fit to throw on two actual children in Max Woltman and Conor Bradley, combined age of 36, freshness of face absolutely sickening to older viewers. Again, this was the Italian league leaders, not a pre-season friendly against Phil Neville’s Miami Soccer Franchise.

It is not just Liverpool dominating giants of the European game. Juventus, to put it politely, are in a rebuilding phase. There was still something eye-catching about Chelsea’s 4-0 demolition of them last month, not least because Juve had won their first meeting 1-0.

Manchester City looked far better than supposed coming force Paris Saint-Germain in their two games against them and were unfortunate to lose in the first one. They lost behind closed doors to Leipzig on Tuesday but had already clinched top spot in their group.

Perhaps most tellingly when considering the current quality of the Premier League, crisis-stricken Manchester United have also done enough to reach the knockout round. They welcome Young Boys to their home on Wednesday evening - let’s hope they’ve downloaded Fortnite - knowing a draw will put them top.

Clearly the knockout round is the real quiz in the Champions League, and there have been plenty of examples of English teams failing to capitalise once there. Four teams went through in the pandemic-disturbed 2019/20 Champions League but three were gone in the round of 16 and City lost in the quarters to Lyon.

Three from four qualified in 2016/17 but Arsenal have not dared to show their face in the competition since their 10-2 aggregate humbling to Bayern Munich, Man City lost to Monaco and Leicester were undone by Atletico Madrid in the round of 16.

But this year’s tournament is shaping up more like 2018/19, the high point of modern English European football. Tottenham, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs all went through their groups then made up half of the quarter final teams before an all-English final between Liverpool and Spurs. With City or Chelsea stepping into the role of Spurs, who would bet against a similar outcome this season?

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