Before Liverpool stormed to victory in the Champions League final in June, there was a spell where English football seemed off the pace of Europe’s elite.
Spanish teams, namely Real Madrid, dominated the world’s most prestigious club competition with Los Blancos winning three consecutive titles and four in five years. Only rival Barcelona stopped them winning five on the bounce.
However, former England international Michael Owen, who played for Real Madrid for a season, believes that after years of playing catch up, Premier League clubs — Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea — will be the teams to beat in this season’s tournament.
“I think the English game is just stepping ahead of the Spanish game,” Owen told CNN Sport’s, Christina MacFarlane. “I would still be going with an English team to win the Champions League again this year.”
Owen’s prediction comes off the back of one of the most tightly fought Premier League campaigns in the competition’s history.
Both Liverpool and eventual champion Manchester City set new standards during a quite remarkable campaign in which Jurgen Klopp’s team finished second despite losing just one league game.
Credit for the quality shown by both teams must lay at the feet of both Liverpool boss Klopp and Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola.
The 48-year-old Guardiola, in particular, has created a team capable of dominating any opponent around the world, reminiscent of his miraculous Barcelona side that dominated European football for so long.
However, despite its Premier League domination over the last two seasons, City has its sights set firmly of European glory — something that has avoided Guardiola since he left the Nou Camp in 2012.
“If Manchester City and Liverpool could do a deal they would switch it around,” said Owen, speaking about the trophies both clubs won respectively last season. “They are both cravings what each other have got.”
Liverpool will open the defence of its title away to Napoli on Tuesday whilst Manchester City travel to Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk Wednesday.
Meanwhile, last year’s beaten finalist Tottenham will begin its campaign against Olympiacos and Chelsea hosts Valencia.
Real Madrid’s dominance over?
Owen started his career at Liverpool, bursting onto the scene as a fresh-faced 17-year-old with speed to burn and an unrivalled eye for goal.
Scoring 158 times in 297 appearances for the Reds, Owen established himself as one of the greatest players in the world and wrote his name in the history books by winning the Ballon d’Or in 2003.
It was an accolade that instigated a move to Real Madrid and an opportunity to play alongside the famed Galacticos — joining the likes of Luís Figo, Ronaldo and David Beckham at the Bernabeu.
However, the current Real squad is a pale shadow of its former self, with boss Zinedine Zidane tasked with rebuilding an ageing team without the talismanic Cristiano Ronaldo it had depended on for so long.
“Real Madrid relied on him a lot when they won it,” added Owen, referring to Ronaldo and Real’s previous Champions League domination.
Madrid faces an exciting tie against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday, a game which will see two of the most valuable soccer clubs in the world go head to head.
Bankrolled by Qatari ownership, PSG is the dominant force in Ligue 1 but the project was always meant to reap rewards in Europe — a feat that has no far looked beyond the Parisian club.
To make matters worse, star man Neymar — who seemed desperate for a move away from the French capital — is now having to rebuild his relationship with the fans.
“I expected more from PSG for many years,” Owen said. “They’ve got all the money, all the players. They don’t tend to be able to gel together and go on a serious run.”
‘Magic happens’ at Anfield
With both of his former teams known for their prowess in European competition — Liverpool has six European titles while Real Madrid has a record 13 — Owen thinks the Reds are most likely to add to its collection this season.
In addition to a forward line which has blown away defences for the last two seasons, and a defence marshalled by Virgil van Dijk — Champions League defender of the season — Liverpool possesses something which makes them a truly “great knockout side.”
“They’ve got one thing that nobody else has got — and that’s their home ground,” Owen said, referring to the 54,000 capacity Anfield Stadium.
“Magic happens at that ground, something happens. I don’t know why or how but it’s ingrained in that ground. So no matter what the score is, if you go to Anfield as a second leg then you are in for it.”
There is a wealth of evidence to back up Owen’s claim, not least last season’s miracle match against Barcelona.
Blown away by Lionel Messi et al in the first leg, Liverpool completed one of the great Champions League comebacks to win the match on its way to winning the trophy.
Group of death
It was the second consecutive year that the Catalan club threw away a seemingly unbeatable lead. In 2018, it was AS Roma who defied the odds at the quarterfinal stage.
Barca now faces a tricky path to the knockout stages of this season’s tournament after being drawn in the “Group of Death,” alongside Borussia Dortmund, Slavia Prague and a resurgent Inter Milan.
Despite its fragility on the European stage in recent years, Owen still believes Barca will be favourites to progress from the group by taking advantage of slipping standards in the Bundesliga.
“I think Inter Milan can be quite a strong team this year,” Owen said when asked who would miss out on qualification from Group F.[Dortmund] are a very good team, a lot of experience in the Champions League but German football is just not, I don’t know … Bayern Munich is wobbling a little bit at the moment and not doing so well in the Champions League. Of course, they are still winning the Bundesliga so it might be a reflection of the German league having a slight dip.”
Barcelona will face Dortmund in its first group game on Tuesday.