EPL clubs not yet ready to conquer Europe

FORGIVE the Euroscepticism, but this column is not yet buying the idea that the EPL is about to reclaim the Champions League.

With all five members of this season's enlarged contingent topping their respective groups at the halfway stage, it has been an encouraging start. Performances, too, have been a bit more Euro-savvy.

But talk of Old Big Ears being about to return to England is a tad premature. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the hype that used to accompany the England national team at big tournaments until one too many embarrassments convinced even the wildest optimist that they really are rubbish.

It will be six years next May since Chelsea rather fortuitously beat Bayern Munich on pens in their own back yard – a time when broadcasting revenues have put the Prem into a financial league of its own.

Ironically, those riches have coincided with a steady decline in the appearances of EPL clubs at the business end of the tournament.

Bad karma for the Greed is Good League? Nah - just that form is cyclical. English clubs did not make the best use of their windfall; nor have they had the right managers. But the main reason for the fallow period is that three of their rivals have enjoyed simultaneous golden ages.

Barcelona, Real Madrid and, to a lesser extent, Bayern have boasted historically great sides – and not allowed anyone else a look in.

Fergie had gone, Arsene Wenger should have, Mourinho came and went. But now most of the game's top bosses are in the EPL with Mourinho back again and Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte top-notch additions.

With this amount of expertise and cash, the EPL was bound to make more of an impact, but it has still taken time for the new maestros, their recruits and ideas to bear fruit. We know all about Mourinho's second season.

Pep, too, has needed one to learn the ropes.

Conte didn't but hasn't had the backing he deserved, while this is Klopp's first season in the elite competition with Liverpool. And you have the emerging Mauricio Pochettino who has joined the top table.

As it stands, all should qualify for the last 16 so five representatives from one country is sure to test UEFA's rule that they should be kept apart. Whether they can test Europe's elite is another matter.

This week the voices suggesting they could were not those of shrill English patriots but the managers themselves. Pep thought his Man City side were "perfect", while Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri felt they were level with Barcelona and Real Madrid. Pochettino said his Spurs proved they could live with the champions.

Of the five, City's performance was the most exciting, Spurs' the most solid.

For half an hour, it looked as if Napoli, the team with the best record in Europe, were going to go the way of Stoke, Watford and Crystal Palace.

At their coruscating best, City are beginning to resemble Barcelona but then they allowed the Serie A leaders to boss the second half and were hanging on at the end.

But the Pep effect is all too apparent. To those who say anyone could manage if they had £220 million to spend every summer, the players doing the business are primarily not the new signings.

Three – Benjamin Mendy, who looked the best buy of the lot but got injured, Bernardo Silva and Danilo – have hardly played. Kyle Walker is good going forward, not so good as a defender while Ederson is a huge upgrade on Claudio Bravo.

But it is the improvement in the likes of Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Leroy Sane, who now belong with the enduringly brilliant Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Gabriel Jesus, that has made the difference.

Yes, they look like champions-elect but English champions – they're not quite at the Real/Barca level yet.

Spurs are far better defensively and showed they are more than just "a Harry Kane team" in sharing the points with Real. Even so, they had to thank Hugo Lloris for a couple of world-class saves.

Unrecognisable from the Euro bunnies of last season, you can see why Kane would appeal to Real – he'd surely score more than Karim Benzema.

Under Mourinho, United were never going to scale the celestial heights of previous visits to Benfica. Both teams are shadows of their former selves but if genius once did what it must in the form of George Best and Eusebio, talent did what it can.

The Special One would have had trouble getting Best to wear shin pads, let alone track back! But lesser mortals did and produced a solid away performance without stinking out the Stadium of Light as much as they had Anfield.

It should be said here that even the legends – Fergie, Shanks and Cloughie – were not above occasionally settling for a point/draw away in Europe.

Chelsea again displayed their new-found vulnerability, surrendering a 2-0 lead but should still qualify thanks to Atletico only drawing at Qarabag. Liverpool enjoyed themselves at the hands of the competition's minnows but winning seven away never hurts confidence.

Spurs will be an altogether different prospect on Sunday and we should know an awful lot more about both teams by the end of it. And Spurs have United and Real again after that.

But Europe's Big Three are showing signs they are past their peak – even Ronaldo is looking mortal – and there's PSG to worry about too. Brexit or no Brexit, English clubs are going to have a big say in Europe soon, but they may have to wait another season.