John Brewin: English force in Europe is the strongest in a decade

After a chaotic night of twists and on Tuesday, John Brewin believes Premier League clubs are in their ‘rudest health’ in ten years…


Once the dramatic twists were completed and Liverpool and Tottenham had negotiated their way through to the Champions League knockouts, Tuesday night ended with the English Premier League looking in its rudest health for some time, a decade in fact.

Five made it through last year but this time around, the English bloc features two very possible winners in Liverpool and Manchester City. And pretty decent outliers in Spurs, plus whatever the Manchester United soap opera might bring.

All while none of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich look like the forces of recent years.

That last-minute save from Alisson Becker from Napoli’s Arkadiusz Milik was a moment hearts propelled into Anfield mouths but it also indicated why Liverpool’s credentials have been strengthened since last season’s wild ride to the final.

Would Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius have made such a stop?

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This was what £67m can buy you. And ahead of Alisson, marshalling the defence, Virgil van Dijk is the defender every club with designs on major honours requires.

When Jose Mourinho moans and groans about the quality of defenders he must work with at United he has someone like Van Dijk in mind.

The patience shown by Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool’s suits in watching and waiting for the Dutchman before paying £75m in January now appears some of the best transfer business done in years.

There was a school of thought, one loudly expressed by Gary Neville, that Liverpool should chuck in the Champions League to concentrate on the Premier League. But by Tuesday, it was too late for that to be viable.

Losing to Napoli would have been a disaster for the club’s esprit de corps ahead of such a vital month of domestic football. And especially if Alisson had not made that save.

Milik scoring when Sadio Mane had missed a hatful of chances would have been a bitter psychological blow just at time Liverpool have taken the whip hand from Manchester City.

Dropping into the Europa League and stepping on the Thursday-Sunday treadmill in which Liverpool would probably play their matches after City would also have been problematic.

Instead, the stars are beginning to align for Klopp. Mohamed Salah’s goal was the latest denial of the idea that last season was a never to be repeated one-off for the Egyptian, while Andy Robertson, another of last season’s breakout stars, was at his Roadrunner best in hounding Carlo Ancelotti’s team.

Yet, even if only Alisson was different from the team that lined up in Kiev for last season’s final, this is a different Liverpool, less relentless but much more durable.

There are a few theories as to why Liverpool have changed, one being that Zeljko Buvac, Klopp’s erstwhile right-hand man, was the rhythm section behind the heavy metal football.

Another is that energy is being preserved for later in the season where previously Liverpool have flagged at the turn of the year.

Whatever, it is proving a hugely successful formula; no Liverpool team in history has started a league season as well as the 2018-19 model, and the Champions League is there for later.

And there is improvement to come. Naby Keita is yet to show his best after some niggling injuries and Fabinho is still to adapt to the pace of the game, to regenerate a midfield in which Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum can lack drive and creativity beyond the solidity they exerted on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Tottenham’s ambitions for this season are a little less lofty; the top four looks a limit of ambitions for now. The club is in a holding pattern.

They remain in temporary accommodation and spiralling new stadium costs meant they could not spend on their squad.

Although, Lucas Moura’s late equalising goal at Barcelona was a signpost to the spring and the bright future that awaits.

Making the last 16 swells the coffers and may even provide a grand opening in February or March for the toilet seat-shaped 62,000 capacity structure set to be their new home.

The recovery that Mauricio Pochettino’s team has made from losing its opening pair of group games has galvanised a group of players that had looked leggy after the World Cup.

Negotiating the hurdle of Barcelona with a 1-1 draw in the Nou Camp is significant even if Lionel Messi made only a belated sub’s appearance.

Avoiding the Europa League keeps the Pochettino regime on an upward curve. There was nothing “Spursy” about Tuesday night’s holding of nerves.

Instead, it was a show of the resilience that threatens to make English football the dominant force in European football.

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