It might be later rather than sooner but England will still leave Europe

After Manchester United began their Premier League campaign with three wins on the trot, 10 goals scored and none conceded, one of the club’s most distinguished old boys was invited to add his voice to a swelling chorus of popular and critical approval. 
It might be later rather than sooner but England will still leave Europe

This was based on the notion that, with his new look side not only up and running but even beginning to dazzle, Jose Mourinho was finally set fair to consign the grey years of Moyes and Van Gaal to the past.

But Roy Keane wasn’t quite ready to play ball.

“Well, they have had a good start but who have they beaten?” he countered. “Swansea... West Ham... Leicester. Yeah. I hope that answers your question.”

And just in case anyone missed the point, United promptly

reinforced Keane’s scepticism by only going and blowing that perfect start in their very next match, conceding twice in a 2-2 draw away to Stoke City.

Just as Chelsea’s shock opening day defeat to Burnley did not, in fact, mean that the champions and their manager Antonio Conte were in

terminal meltdown, so United’s all-guns-blazing opening salvo did not, as it turns out, mean we were witnessing the birth of the new Premier League invincibles.

In the same cautious spirit, then, it’s probably advisable to refrain from plunging the old life savings on an English club winning the Champions League this season for the first time in six years and only the third time this century. (Curiously, and in a striking antidote to international football’s ‘English disease’, those three wins since Man United’s last minute smash and grab job in the Nou Camp in 1999 —

Liverpool in 2005, United in 2008 and Chelsea in 2012 — were all secured in penalty shoot-outs).

Still, if it’s statements of intent you’re looking for, four of the five Premier League representatives certainly delivered in their opening group games of the 2018 competition this week, with Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Spurs between them

scoring 16 goals and conceding just the one.

The exception to the English goal rush was at Anfield, of course, where two would have been a more than acceptable contribution from Liverpool had they not rather spoiled the effect by generously allowing an often infuriatingly tentative Seville to weigh in with a brace themselves.

The game, and the result, was an almost absurdly precise realisation of all those ominous predictions based on the glaring lop-sidedness of Jurgen Klopp’s team. When Mane or Salah get on the ball with green grass in front of them, Liverpool are simply irresistible, the red shirts pouring forward like fire engines racing to a blaze.

And, yes, had Firmino not struck a post from the penalty spot in the first half, Seville might well have struggled to get back into the game. But while the home side had seven out of 24 attempts on target and Seville had only two, the key stat is that they managed to score from both.

That’s just the latest damning indictment of a porous Liverpool rearguard which must have the faithful gnawing on their scarves even as it ensures their team are fast turning into the neutrals’ faves — a guaranteed source of thrills as well as spills.

Feyenoord’s defence looked even more suspect as Manchester City took them to the cleaners in Rotterdam but with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva at the top of their game, and Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus shaping up to be a potent double act, a return of four goals and, perhaps of even more significance, a clean sheet away from home against the Dutch champions, suggest that Pep Guardiola’s team are entitled to hope for something more rewarding this time than last season’s high-scoring exit at the hands of Monaco in the round of 16.

While there was an almost routine quality about Manchester United’s 3-0 defeat of Basle and Chelsea’s 6-0 demolition of Quarabag, the same could not be said of Spurs’ 3-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund at Wembley.

With Real Madrid in the same group, it was commonly agreed that Spurs faced the toughest task of all the English sides to claim a qualifying place for the knockout stages. But they got off to a great start with that impressive win over the German club with whom, it’s pretty safe to say, they’ll be fighting for second place in the group. Not that Spurs had it all their own way against an accomplished Dortmund side, and in particular they could count themselves extremely fortunate that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a perfectly legitimate goal for the visitors flagged offside.

But that they were able to pull off this Wembley win even in the absence of one of their key men, Dele Alli, was a notable achievement while, in another brace from the relentless Harry Kane, there was further evidence to back up manager Mauricio Pochettino’s post-match claim that he “one of the best strikers in the world”. Kane, as Spurs fans never cease to remind everyone, is one of their own, which is another reason to welcome this throwback forward’s

deserved position in the European spotlight at the end of a week in which PSG will feel they got their silly money’s worth with Neymar and Mbappe joining Cavani (and the luckless Lustig) on the scoresheet, as Celtic were put to the sword at Parkhead.

No surprise there, of course, since only the most hopelessly romantic could have imagined that the special Celtic Park atmosphere might somehow be enough to compensate for the huge disparity in class between the two teams.

Still, even in the face of such relatively modest opposition, there was enough telepathy in how the visitors’ stellar front three worked their magic to make you feel that this could indeed be PSG’s year, though we’ll be in a better position to judge when they host Bayern Munich in a mouthwatering match-up at the end of the month.

Perhaps the best news to emerge from the first round of games was the uplifting confirmation that there is indeed life in Barcelona after Neymar, just as there was life there before him.

With his sensational performance against Juve, Messi one again proved that he is still, simply, the greatest player in the world.

Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Lewandowski… even the mere mention of those names is a reminder of how much ground the self-styled ‘greatest league in the world’ has still to make up on the biggest guns (and wallets) of European football before dear old Blighty can

entertain serious designs on ending its Champions League drought.

My early hunch is that Man City will come closer this year — but not close enough.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

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