It has been some time since English football felt so good about itself in the Champions League, but this week seemed different.
The three seasons from 2006-7 to 2008-9, when three English clubs made up the semi-final draw, have felt like distant days as Real Madrid and Barcelona have carved up the competition and Premier League clubs have struggled to reach the latter stages.
Only Manchester City have reached the semis in the last three seasons.
On Tuesday, City dished out a 4-0 thrashing of Basel, a performance transcended by Liverpool’s 5-0 pulverising of Porto the following night. Perhaps even more impressive, and particularly when taking into consideration they were two goals down in nine minutes, were Tottenham in coming back against Juventus for a 2-2 draw.
Italy’s serial champions, twice finalists in the last three years, are a gold standard of a team’s development, tough as teak, painstakingly organised by a canny manager in Massimiliano Allegri.
But once Tottenham righted themselves in Turin, they almost overran Juve, the speed of their movement and presence of thought making their opponent look leaden-footed, as well as long in the tooth.
Tottenham played with intensity and a spirit of adventure, as did City and Liverpool. In each case, there appeared little intention of clinging to a solitary away goal ahead of defending it in next month’s home leg. For too long that has been English clubs’ failing formula for success.
Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp ask players to press as hard as possible, as far up the pitch as possible.
Juve, Basel and Porto were caught cold, driven to distraction by the chasing they were receiving, unable to settle into a rhythm.
Of course, doing that may not be so easy against the continent’s real big players – Barca, Real, Bayern Munich perhaps – teams who have their own coping mechanisms to deal with opponents who chase them down, and the benefit of the best players on the planet.
Meeting such opponents will be the truest test of how far English football has come. It was as long ago as the 2011-12 season that Barcelona last lost to an English team in the Champions League knock-outs: Chelsea in the semi-final when a 2-2 draw in the Nou Camp took a team coached by caretaker boss Roberto di Matteo to the final.
Though Manchester City beat Barcelona 3-1 in last season’s group stage, they have suffered a 12-5 aggregate to the Catalans in six meetings. Arsenal, meanwhile were pumped 5-1 on aggregate in the last 16 of the 2015-16 season.
Chelsea’s 2012 triumph was the night of John Terry being sent off, Branislav Ivanovic being told by Sky’s Geoff Shreeves in a post-match interview that he would be suspended for the final and Gary Neville having a “goalgasm” when Fernando Torres scored a breakaway goal in the 92nd minute.
If that feels an age ago that’s because it is. On the continent, things swiftly moved on.
Chelsea’s success that night, and their eventual claiming of the trophy, the last for England, in Bayern Munich’s own stadium came through an attritional hanging on for grim life against opponents who were technically superior.
That golden night in Munich, Liverpool’s ride to victory in Istanbul in 2005 under Rafa Benitez, and even Manchester United’s run to winning the 2008 competition, which included the fielding of Park Ji-Sung as an auxiliary left-back at Barcelona in the semi-final to hold out for a goalless draw and the same in the return after an early Paul Scholes winner, all followed a defensive blueprint that eventually stopped working.
Can such tactics still be successful in the Champions League when the evidence of recent years is of teams dripping with attacking talent dominating the competition?
Jose Mourinho and Manchester United seem unlikely to give it a try.
Sucking up all an opponent could offer before striking on the break was heavily favoured by Mourinho during his imperial period. It was fundamental to winning the Champions League with Porto in 2004 and Inter Milan in 2010.
Indeed, his greatest ever tactical triumph, the moment he was probably at his apex, came in denying Barca and Guardiola in 2010’s semis when Inter conceded 86.4 per cent of possession in the second leg.
On Manchester United’s return to the last 16, few would predict that Mourinho will ask his team to set about Sevilla next Wednesday in the style of Liverpool in the Estadio do Dragao. Last season’s Europa League campaign was hardly high on attacking thrills and spills.
Only twice of their seven matches beyond the last 16 did his team score more than one goal.
Digging for victory was the strategy and against mediocre opposition, too.
United do not have the players to equal the intensity of Tottenham, Liverpool or Manchester City, with Nemanja Matic a static central midfielder and Paul Pogba hardly the most committed to defensive duties. For pressing an opponent to be successful, every player in a team must commit to the chase.
The manager must also be committed, but Mourinho never boarded the bandwagon of possession and pressing that followed Guardiola’s successes with Barcelona, maintaining the methods that have won him multiple trophies.
If United are to emulate the success of their English peers in the Champions League, they will try to do it the old way.