When Antonio Conte said at the start of the week that English clubs had a great chance of Champions League success this season he was possibly trying to gloss over a less than favorable draw that left Chelsea with the unenviable task of advancing past Barcelona. The draw was generally kind to English clubs, though Tottenham may beg to differ, and in pitting Real Madrid against Paris Saint-Germain it guaranteed the removal of at least one of the favorites at an early stage.
A couple of days later when the Chelsea manager was next seen in public he was making the valid point that Manchester City seem to be running away with the Premier League title and acknowledging the fact was not being negative or defeatist, just realistic.
“It is hard to keep thinking positive when one of your competitors has won 15 games out of 16 and drawn the other,” Conte said after Chelsea’s impressively comprehensive win at Huddersfield.
There had been a worry that throwing in the towel after Chelsea’s fourth defeat of the season at West Ham may have led to a slump in confidence and an unwanted fifth defeat following quickly on its heels, though in the event Conte’s players were as focused and workmanlike as anyone could have wished. “We are playing well, we are in a good patch,” Conte said. “We have won seven of our last nine matches but, although we will keep trying, I think this season one team is going to prove very difficult to stop.”
The obvious thing to say here is that now Conte knows how all his rivals felt last season, when Chelsea were the ones putting together a 13-match winning run that lifted them into an unassailable position at the top. City, though, have just beaten that record, and the way they have been playing – and scoring – suggests that by the time the Champions League resumes in the new year the Premier League title race may be over as a contest. A one-horse race with the winner home and hosed. A non-event in terms of a run-in, with merely the three places below the champions for the rest of the field to fight over.
No one would particularly object to this scenario, because City have been playing so well, but if events do pan out in that way it would make the Premier League look a little like those continental ones we have become so fond of knocking. The ones where you can predict the winners from the word go. The ones where the other decent teams do the sensible thing and concentrate on European advancement instead of flogging themselves unnecessarily in the domestic league.
In other words City could be doing English football a favor by taking the heat out of the title race for a season. If you were Tottenham, for instance, what would your best course of action be? Would you be trying to bridge an 18-point gap in a concerted attempt to catch City and restore some of the early season optimism that this could be Spurs’ season in the league, or would it be more practical to pin your hopes on overtaking Arsenal and Burnley to keep on course for a Champions League placing and conserve most of your energy for putting up a good show against Juventus in February?
Chelsea, faced with an equally tough tie and coming to terms with four league defeats before their title defense is even half run, seem to have little choice but to do the same. Conte appears sad that events have slipped out of his control so quickly, perhaps because it was pointed out so often during the last campaign that having no European involvement was a massive advantage to Chelsea, but a lot of things could be put right were the club to eliminate Barcelona and stride confidently into Europe’s last eight.
Obviously City are favorites for the FA Cup as well, so just as obviously we are going to spend the rest of the season talking about a possible treble
Liverpool, Manchester United and City were handed ostensibly easier ties and will be reasonably confident of reaching the last eight. Anything can happen over two legs from that stage on, not least the possibility shading into probability of English clubs meeting each other, and remarkable as it would be to have a wide selection of Premier League sides in the later rounds it would be more remarkable still were none of them to be preoccupied with the title race. City through being so far in front, the rest through being so far behind.
While this may appear far-fetched and wildly premature, it is a situation not unknown in other countries. Sir Alex Ferguson regularly accused Italian clubs in particular of giving up on their league in order to concentrate on the Champions League, and it is hardly going out on a limb to suggest Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool may see a clearer path to the shiny stuff in Europe this season than at home where they are already miles off the pace.
The only snag from the point of view of Liverpool, United, Spurs and Chelsea is that City will form a considerable obstacle in Europe too. Pep Guardiola’s side have proved unbeatable in the domestic league thus far, over two legs against English opposition they might be approaching impregnable. Yet this is football, it is not yet Christmas, and nothing runs exactly like clockwork. By virtue of City drawing Basel, and PSG picking up Real Madrid, City’s Champions League odds were cut on Monday, which means at this early stage Guardiola’s side are favourites for both competitions. Obviously they are favourites for the FA Cup as well, so just as obviously we are going to spend the rest of the season talking about a possible treble.
That is the theory, anyway. The reality is that a treble cannot happen if City do not progress beyond the third round of the FA Cup, and quite gloriously they have been drawn against Burnley on 6 January. Never mind the Merseyside derby a day earlier, all your FA Cup romance is right there at the Etihad. The two wealth extremes of the Premier League brought together, a silky smooth team against a stubborn, spiky one. It will be a tough task to stop the City juggernaut in its tracks, at home but it could be the case Sean Dyche has merely been warming up for the main event by guiding his team into the Champions League bracket. Everyone still likes City, though possibly not as much as a Cup upset, and Burnley make extremely engaging underdogs.