After the 4-0 win over Juventus - a club who have won nine of the last 10 Italian titles - the view from Stamford Bridge looked especially cheery on Wednesday morning. Progress in their defence of the Champions League title had been assured by Chelsea’s demolition of Juve. Twenty-four hours later, the road map ahead looked encouragingly familiar.
Manchester City also flexed their muscles, with a consummate victory, coming from behind, against Paris Saint-Germain, the French league-leaders. Like Chelsea, City had reversed the outcome of the previous meeting - Juventus beat Chelsea in September, when PSG defeated City in Paris - and produced the sort of performances that would normally be described as ‘complete’ until it was remembered that it was achieved without signature players available. Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku is still coming back from injury; City picked holes in PSG without Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden or Jack Grealish involved.
The same applies to Liverpool’s statement victory over Porto, a fifth victory out of five in a Group B that had looked the toughest of all the first-round match-ups. The 2-0 win at Anfield was accomplished with several regulars rested or unavailable. When the back-up talent is blessed with the sort of technique Thiago Alacantara applied to score the opening goal, there can be confidence that theirs is a squad that can compete on several fronts.
For all three English clubs, the European front may look the kindest when the draw for the first knockout round is made next month. This is shaping up as an unusual Champions League by recent measures, and potentially a straight road for the Premier League superpowers into the last four provided they avoid one another until then.
Champions League team of the week
It is very plausible none of Barcelona or Atletico Madrid - winners or finalists twice each in the last decade - will even feature in the last 16. Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig definitely will not. Villarreal and Sevilla, the last two winners of the Europa League, are at risk of not making it out of the group phase of this Champions League.
All of which points to a radical shift from the monochrome make-up of the later phases of the 2020-21 edition. Last season, there were four Bundesliga clubs in the last 16, four from Spain’s La Liga, four from the Premier League and the only Italian club to have stumbled were the soon-to-be Serie A winners, Internazionale. PSG were the sole French presence, and Porto the one club from outside the so-called ‘top five’ of domestic leagues.
By the second Wednesday of this December, there could easily be three Portuguese teams through. Lisbon’s Sporting already are, for the first time in 12 seasons, having overwhelmed Dortmund 3-1 on matchday five. They joined Dutch club Ajax, whose impeccable record - they beat Dortmund twice in their five wins out of five - is accompanied by the astonishing register of striker Sebastien Haller. The ex-West Ham forward has scored nine times in the group phase. He had never played Champions League football before September.
Benfica could muscle Barcelona out of the last 16. They trail them in the group, but Benfica need only better Barcelona’s result on the last matchday to overtake them. And who wouldn’t rather be in Benfica’s shoes, at home to Dynamo Kiev - who can only finish bottom of the group - than Barcelona’s? Barca must travel to Bayern Munich, who inflicted 3-0 and 8-2 wins on Barcelona the last two times they met.
Porto need only a point at home to Atletico, who were beaten at home by AC Milan on Wednesday, to go through, while RB Salzburg are ready to supply extra novelty to the last 16. They need only draw with Sevilla to progress at the Spanish club’s expense.
“The Champions League is unforgiving,” sighed Atletico Madrid head coach Diego Simeone after a third European game on the trot on Wednesday, leaving the champions of Spain bottom of Group B.
Even for Real Madrid, Champions League winners three seasons in a row until 2018 and who may be the only Liga club in the last 16, it looks unforgiving from here on. They, PSG and Manchester United can survey a field of some maverick outsiders and believe their pedigree gives them edge. But they must then acknowledge that there are also four very clear favourites - City, Chelsea, Bayern and Liverpool.