Uefa’s premier club tournaments get underway in earnest this week and no fewer than seven English clubs will be vying for continental glory this season.
Liverpool and Chelsea were the recipients of last year’s prizes. Jurgen Klopp’s men lifted their club’s sixth European Cup crown (second in the Champions League era) at the expense of Tottenham Hotspur, while Maurizio Sarri ended a very brief Stamford Bridge tenure by hoisting the Europa League trophy.
As things stand, the Blues are not in a position to defend their hard-fought title on the count of qualifying for the Champions League, but that could be altered if Frank Lampard’s youthful side are dumped back into the competition they seemingly escaped from.
And that is the name of the game from now until early December: qualifying for the knockout phases. The aforementioned champions of Europe, Manchester City, Spurs and Chelsea begin in the world’s most prestigious club competition with Manchester United, Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers playing on Thursday nights.
With games coming thick and fast, being able to compete on more than one front will be paramount. So, expect to see these clubs entering rotation mode. That aside, much has often been made of nursing hangovers from midweek European games, which got us thinking, who has been dealt the most difficult hand after playing a continental match? We’ve ranked their fixtures starting with the most comfortable.
Fixtures: Liverpool H, Southampton A, Burnley A, Crystal Palace H, West Ham H (Man City A week before), Bournemouth H (Everton A week before).
There’s something of a bright new dawn in west London as the Kings of King’s Road are finally tapping into their esteemed youth set-up. Yes, the transfer embargo placed on them played a pivotal role but no question the presence of club legend Frank Lampard at the helm is a more contributing factor.
They’ve started the season promisingly and find themselves in a Champions League group that could go any way. Ajax – who came seconds away from reaching last season’s final – Lille and Valencia are evenly matched, throw Chelsea into the mix and then all bets are off.
Of the septet, their challenges after a night in Europe seem the most straightforward. For starters, they only meet one fellow ‘big six’ member and that’s against Liverpool at home, days after entertaining Valencia at the Bridge. They do, however, face champions Man City prior to visiting Los Che in late November.
Fixtures: Leicester City A, Brighton & Hove Albion A, Liverpool A, Sheffield United H (Everton A week before), Bournemouth H (West Ham A week before), Wolves A.
Progress for Spurs is winning the Champions League outright now that they’ve danced in the big time. Mauricio Pochettino, though, would likely concede last time out was a mere aberration and the natural order will resume for this season.
Hence why many are backing the Lillywhites to finish behind Bayern Munich in Group B, with Olympiacos and Red Star Belgrade battling for the coveted third-place spot. Returning to domestic duties is relatively kind to the north Londoners, whose only challenge is travelling to Liverpool after hosting Red Star but there’s still a five-day gap.
However, what could become problematic are those long flights back from Serbia and Greece, the latter being first up. After taking on the Greek giants on September 18, there’s an away league trip to Leicester City on the following Saturday and when they get back from Belgrade, they host Sheffield United – again, a Wednesday to Saturday turnaround.
Fixtures: Aston Villa H, Bournemouth (Man Utd A week before), Crystal Palace H, Leicester City A, Norwich City A, Man City H (West Ham A week before).
It could have been so different for the Gunners, whose wait for a second major European accolade enters its 27th year. Unai Emery, the Europa League master, finally tasted a defeat in that competition’s final.
Victory would have secured the fifth-best placed English team a Champions League berth for this season, alas, they must again contend with playing on Thursday and then Sunday, which can be a psychological nightmare. Their group is also fascinating; Eintracht Frankfurt, Standard Liège and Vitoria Guimaraes will give Emery’s men something to think about, but they must fancy themselves to reach the next round.
As for their Premier League travails following their Europa League focus, they welcome Man City late on in early December, though ahead of entertaining Standard Liège there’s a Monday night game at Old Trafford.
4. Man Utd
Fixtures: West Ham A, Newcastle A, Norwich City A (Liverpool H week before), Brighton & Hove Albion H, Aston Villa H, Everton H (Man City A week before).
Speaking of the Red Devils, they’re back playing Europa League football. Chaos once again reigns at the Theatre of Dreams, meaning no one can guarantee their fate in the upcoming months. Grabbing a seat at European football’s high table for next season is a must this campaign.
How they go about it remains the question. Man Utd famously qualified for Champions League football by winning the Europa League in Jose Mourinho’s first season but do they possess the quality to do so now? Astana, AZ and Partizan await them first, with long haul trips to Kazakhstan and Serbia a major concern. When they get back from duelling with Partizan, it’s straight on to Carrow Road, though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men face Liverpool before visiting Belgrade and after coming back from Astana, they entertain Aston Villa.
After three consecutive away trips after Europe, their forthcoming matches will all be at home, although before the final group match against AZ at Old Trafford, there’s a small matter of contesting a Manchester derby in the champions’ backyard.
Fixtures: Crystal Palace A, Man City A, Newcastle A, Aston Villa H (Arsenal A week before), Sheffield United H, Spurs H.
Of the sides representing England in Europe this season, no one is under the least amount of pressure than Wolves, who are embarking on a journey their fans could have never envisaged. Their reward for being the Premier League’s ‘best of the rest’ was qualifying for the Europa League, in which they’ve done elegantly well so far – most explicitly in their play-off win against Torino, another side that pulled up trees last season.
Nuno Espírito Santo is under no illusions, though. He knows the West Midlands club are modest compared to many sides around them, but with quality international stars at his disposal, they should hold no fear, even if they’ve not started their domestic season well. Sporting Braga, Beşiktaş and Slovan Bratislava will all provide their very own unique challenges.
Dealing with the Thursday-Sunday turnaround is another conundrum they must solve, especially as many of those Wolves players have no experience of regularly playing three games in a week. Looking ahead, they visit Arsenal before welcoming Slovan Bratislava in early November. However, before that, Wolves play on the road at Man City after returning from Istanbul, which could turn out to be a week of truth. A very early test of whether they’re ready or not.
Fixtures: Chelsea A, Leicester City H. Spurs H (Man Utd A week before), Man City H, Brighton & Hove Albion H, Watford H.
Everyone is coming for Liverpool’s throne. Klopp’s all-conquering team have contested the last two European Cup finals and few will bet against them from making it three on the bounce. The Reds strength is familiarity; there’s been no major overhaul in the summer, which cannot be said for their rivals with many yet to gel and create a cohesive force like the European champions.
Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg and Genk are the first obstacles for the Merseyside giants who should come through unscathed but with them being top dogs, it’s a scalp everyone craves having. A trip to Naples is the first call and once back in Blighty, the Premier League’s only 100% side meet Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the first of three consecutive challenging games.
However the next two – Leicester City and Spurs – are at home, but ahead of visiting Genk, they must stop at Old Trafford. After waving goodbye to Genk after their game at Anfield, the “mentality monsters” will then receive Manchester City for a mouthwatering, top of the table clash.
7. Man City
Fixtures: Watford H, Wolves H, Aston Villa H, Liverpool A, Newcastle A (Chelsea H week before), Arsenal A (Man Utd H week before).
Ah, the English champions who are yet to make a big noise in Europe, though not for the want of trying. Guardiola, a two-time European Cup-winning coach at Barcelona, must be determined to reach another final with his last coming at Wembley in 2011 – for all their riches and seemingly powerful team, City have disappointed, especially when you consider sides who have been built for less going deeper in recent seasons.
That being said, there’s a chance of putting things right or doing better. To begin with, they find themselves in an uncomplicated group (minus the travelling) which also features Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb and Atalanta. It should be first place or bust, however, some of the fixtures after playing in Europe make for interesting reading.
Liverpool away days after playing at the San Siro (where Atalanta are calling home in Europe this term) precedes a Man Utd-Arsenal sandwich, with Dinamo Zagreb away being the filling. City, given who they are, can have no excuses but after seeing their defence minus Aymeric Laporte, maybe there are a couple of surprises on the horizons.