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English clubs bite back in Champions League

© AFP / by Tom WILLIAMS | Manchester United's Marcus Rashford (3L) celebrates his goal during their Champions League match against Benfica in Lisbon on Ocotber 18, 2017

LONDON (AFP) - 

After several years in the doldrums, English clubs have returned to the fore in the Champions League with a succession of attention-grabbing performances.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur top their respective pools at the group phase's halfway point and all are currently unbeaten.

It is five years since Chelsea last brought the European Cup back to England, but the early show of force has sparked hope of an enduring resurgence.

"It's not too early to say the tide is changing," said Phil Neville, a European champion with United in 1999, on BBC Radio 5 Live.

"The performances alone are saying that. We could get two or three clubs into the quarters or semi-finals.

"I think the fear factor is coming back. We're taking control of games and I think the whole of Europe are starting to think English teams are powerful again."

Between 2005 and 2012, England produced eight Champions League finalists and three champions in Liverpool (2005), Manchester United (2008) and Chelsea (2012).

In 2007, 2008 and 2009, three of the four semi-finalists hailed from the Premier League.

But since Chelsea's backs-to-the-wall triumph over Bayern Munich in 2012, only two English teams have reached the last four -- Chelsea in 2014 and Manchester City in 2016.

This season's upturn has occurred despite United manager Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea counterpart Antonio Conte criticising the Premier League for not changing the fixture schedule to help English clubs.

Steven Gerrard, who captained Liverpool to European glory in 2005, believes England's representatives have benefited from "kind groups".

Yet several of the English teams have already come through daunting assignments.

Spurs came away from defending champions Real Madrid with a creditable 1-1 draw on Tuesday, with City defeating in-form Serie A leaders Napoli 2-1 on the same night.

- Clear playing identities -

Chelsea were disappointed to drop points in a hectic 3-3 draw with Roma on Wednesday, but they had previously snatched a 2-1 win at Atletico Madrid, beaten finalists in two of the past four seasons.

Unlike last season, the English clubs are all benefiting from the fact none of them have new managers at the helm.

Conte, Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are respectively in their second seasons at Chelsea, United and City, with the latter two clubs having made particularly impressive starts to the season.

Mauricio Pochettino has drilled Spurs into one of the slickest teams in Europe in his three years at the club, while two years under Jurgen Klopp's stewardship have turned Liverpool into a highly dynamic team.

All five clubs now have clear playing identities and they are also reaping the rewards of significant investment in the transfer market.

Spending by English clubs dwarfs outlay in Europe's other major leagues, fuelled by the Premier League's massive television rights deals, and the results can be seen on the pitch.

City had £150 million ($197.3 million, 167.2 million euros) of new recruits on display against Napoli, even without injured £50 million left-back Benjamin Mendy.

Romelu Lukaku, a £75 million recruit from Everton, led the line for United in their 1-0 win away to Benfica, with £58 million record signing Alvaro Morata fulfilling the same role for Chelsea against Roma.

"The last few years have been a bit of a transition (for the English clubs)," said BT Sport pundit Rio Ferdinand, who lifted the Champions League trophy with United in 2008.

"Now money has been spent and it's coming to fruition for them. The teams are starting to form a bond together."

While Liverpool, who thrashed Maribor 7-0 on Tuesday, are in a tight group, the last 16 is now in sight for their Premier League counterparts.

Should they all advance to the quarter-finals -- something that only City and Leicester City have managed in the past three seasons -- Europe will really sit up and take notice.

by Tom WILLIAMS

© 2017 AFP