USMNT roundtable: Key questions on USA’s failure

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The USA will not be at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Where did it all go wrong? ]

After their shocking and truly embarrassing defeat at Trinidad and Tobago in their final CONCACAF qualifying game on Tuesday, Bruce Arena and his players will now be ridiculed for the manner in which the USMNT choked as they only needed a draw at T&T to seal qualification to the World Cup.

We all know that didn’t happen and the U.S. will be sat at home next summer while the biggest party on the planet takes place.

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With that in mind, our writers here at Pro Soccer Talk got together to talk about where it all went wrong, the key moments in a disastrous qualifying campaign and what is next for the U.S. men’s national team.

[ MORE: What does this mean for the future? ]

Get involved in the comments section below in answering some of the following questions and either agreeing or disagreeing with our experts.

Joe Prince-Wright:
Nick Mendola:
Kyle Bonn:
Matt Reed:
Dan Karell:


Where did it all go wrong for the USMNT during qualifying?

Joe Prince-Wright: It was a long time ago but the 4-0 defeat at Costa Rica last November was incredibly worrying. It cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job and several players simply threw in the towel. That set off the warning alarms and despite big home wins against Honduras and Panama, there was also a sense that a bad display like the defeat at Costa Rica was in the USMNT’s locker. It surfaced on Tuesday against an under-strength Trinidad & Tobago and cost them dear.

Nick Mendola: The 2-0 loss to Costa Rica at home was rough, but it was the unsatisfying 1-1 draw in Honduras that spun it backward. Bruce Arena’s decision to turn away from Geoff Cameron in the follow-up to his first poor game in some time in favor of Omar Gonzalez led to three-successive questionable performances at the back (Yes, including the clean sheet win over Panama on Friday). Using Graham Zusi at right back was another questionable move, but at least Arena had the excuse that DeAndre Yedlin wasn’t fit.

Kyle Bonn: There’s too many places to point them out, but it started right at the beginning. Jurgen Klinsmann’s selection was all over the place, and his replacement went so anti-Jurgen that he became Jurgen. There were not enough kids called into the right places, and the ones that were brought up numerous question marks about their development and place in the team. With a lack of young talent in the right places, too many aging veterans were relied upon in places that they clearly could not be relied upon. Blame was placed in the wrong places while other glaring failures were allowed to repeat themselves on a game-by-game basis. The preparation on the road was poor, and the excuses abound.

Matt Reed: Look no further than the CONCACAF Cup in 2015. Matches against Mexico are never easy, especially in a big fixture like the one the U.S. faced here. Coming off of a poor performance at the Gold Cup just months before, this appeared to be the moment when Jurgen Klinsmann really started to lose his locker room.

Dan Karell: We should have known something was wrong after the first game of the Hex, when the U.S. lost 2-1 to Mexico AT HOME, a game they hadn’t lost to Mexico in more than a decade in World Cup qualifying. Jurgen Klinsmann got the boot after the next match, a 4-0 drubbing at Costa Rica but even under Arena, this team never did enough on the road and lost two games at home. Turn either of those 2 home losses to draws, and the U.S. is in the World Cup. Mentally, this team was too weak to deal with CONCACAF. Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico weathered the storm with no problems, no excuses. They’re moving on.


What was the biggest disappointment of the World Cup qualifying campaign?

JPW: Arena’s inability to be boring and just grind out points wherever he could. He should have been satisfied with a point at home against Costa Rica and the same on the road against Trinidad and Tobago. He was too gung-ho and at times seemed to get caught up in his own good press. Okay, Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and many will agree it was the right decision but Arena could’ve handled things a lot better and for a man of his experience his tactics in key games were simply naive. Choosing the exact same lineup at T&T, four days after they had beat Panama, was a mistake and will cost Arena his job and damage his legacy.

NM: No debut World Cups for Christian Pulisic, Matt Miazga, and Weston McKennie. I don’t think anyone expected the U.S. to make a run in Russia unless given a very favorable draw, but young players experiencing their first WC would pay dividends for some time. There’s always Qatar?

MR: It’s difficult to pinpoint one moment, but to have this team come out so flat against Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday night speaks volumes about where the USMNT is at. You can make all the excuses in the world, whether it be the lineup selection, short rest from playing on Friday or even the soggy pitch, but at the end of the day T&T had to play on the same field. It’s not about the fact that the U.S. lost. It was how they lost. A 19-year-old Christian Pulisic was by far the most hungry player for the American squad, and while that may be a blessing in the future, it’s not a positive sign in the present.

KB: The biggest disappointment is obviously not being able to get across the finish line given so many opportunities. SO many opportunities. A point here, a goal there, one fewer stupid mistake at the back would have resulted in qualification despite all the continuous missteps. The veterans played like rookies, and the lack of responsibility taken at every level left fans with palms to the air each turn.

DK: Failing to make the World Cup. It’s as simple as that. Everything else is gravy.


Should Bruce Arena be fired as coach and Sunil Gulati be out as U.S. Soccer Federation president?

JPW: Yep. Time to go. Arena had one job and didn’t deliver. Simple. As for Sunil Gulati, the upcoming U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election in February will be intriguing but if he remains it will not be a shock due to his ongoing 2026 World Cup bid and his close affinity to new FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Though he is now in a position where he is finally being challenged for the top spot after 11 years and his position now seems untenable after this huge failure. There has to be change, and a meaningful one, at the top of USSF. It simply has to happen.

NM: Yes, and almost certainly. Had the Yanks backdoored their way into the tournament, I may have advocated changing managers for the tournament, as Arena’s clear preference for his favorite MLS players and prejudgment of certain players is a non-starter. Gulati is slightly trickier, but not because there shouldn’t be a change, rather a concern that like FIFA we’ll see the same philosophy in a different suit. A significant change is needed, not a cosmetic plug-in.

KB: Arena was likely to leave after this World Cup cycle anyways, and he failed in his one objective, so yes clearly he should go. That’s obvious. Gulati’s position is a little more complicated, but ultimately he’s responsible for the business success of the federation, and missing out on the World Cup will cost this federation tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship, television rights, and future leverage and growth. He should go for that alone.

DK:  Bruce was heading out after the World Cup anyways so that’s a given at this point. We’ll see if he gets paid through 2018 or not but he shouldn’t be on the sideline for the USMNT’s next game, whenever that is. And on Gulati, I’m torn. I don’t really know how much the head of U.S. Soccer can do. Can Gulati or another figurehead leader get rid of the pay-to-play model that’s ingrained in our soccer culture? Ultimately, that’s one of the issues. As a federation, US Soccer is missing so many potential prospects for the National Team because they come from lower class backgrounds and can’t afford the fees to play club soccer. As such, they’re not identified and they slip through the cracks and miss out on a chance to represent our country and provide more competition to the first team, which got complacent. Perhaps Gulati’s successor will make better hires at the top – Gulati should be responsible for this and the back-to-back Olympics failures, plus the Hope Solo situation and CBA scandal with the USWNT – but the problem goes way deeper than the USMNT head coach and U23 coach.

MR: Bruce Arena wasn’t going to be with the U.S. past next year’s World Cup, barring the USMNT winning the tournament — which obviously isn’t possible anymore. He has to go. Don’t just look at the results. Listen to what he spoke about following Tuesday’s elimination. Arena is in complete denial about the state of the USMNT, as is Sunil Gulati, so it will be refreshing to see someone challenge the latter in the next election for USSF presidency. The USMNT has become entitled. As a soccer nation we’ve become entitled. The Americans need to bring in a manager that will humble the group of players within the squad and present a strong front by making each guy earn his roster spot instead of simply being handed it because of their name.


Would the USA have qualified for the World Cup if Jurgen Klinsmann was still in charge?

JPW: Quite simply: yes. I was never Klinsmann’s biggest fan but you can’t argue with his qualification record and setting the U.S. team up to defend and knowing their limitations. We always wanted more from the USMNT under Klinsmann and felt like it was attainable after the Copa America Centernario run and the Group Stage in Brazil in 2014. Now the U.S. is concerned about just making the next World Cup instead of trying to reach the last eight of the tournament. For all of his flaws, Klinsmann will be sat somewhere shaking his head wistfully thinking he could’ve at least got the team to Russia.

NM: Here’s my affirmative argument: Jurgen Klinsmann would have not thought for a second about not calling up Fabian Johnson from Borussia Monchengladbach nor would he have left Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron out of the Starting XI for three-straight matches (The first of which saw his introduction as a game-changing sub help provide a 1-1 draw in Honduras). Alejandro Bedoya would’ve also been used ahead of Darlington Nagbe, providing some help for Michael Bradley. Bonus comment: Bradley has been misused by both Klinsmann and Arena, but at least Klinsmann tried to buttress Bradley with center midfielders capable of the occasional hard tackle.

KB: HECK no. Klinsmann is still a large part of this problem. Not only the in-game managing and absurd squad choices, but the alienation of many within the federation and the arbitrary decisions at every turn. Klinsmann was likely fired too late, and he was not the man to take charge. It’s a shame, because at the time of his hire, he seemed the perfect candidate; a European with experience at a massive club who also has a special knowledge of US Soccer. Gulati went all-in on Klinsmann with no exit strategy, and that was the mistake.

MR: People bashed me for taking Klinsmann’s side throughout his time as manager, but is Bruce Arena’s second tenure really that much better than the German? At least Klinsmann was ballsy enough to get USMNT players out of their comfort zone. He scheduled matches against Germany, Holland and Brazil. He gave Pulisic his first opportunity, despite being 17 years old. Klinsmann challenged players to move abroad, which may not bode well for MLS-extremists, but in the end, that’s how American players will get better in the long-term. I can’t say for certain that Klinsmann would have led the U.S. to the World Cup because he surely lost some of the locker room, but he was the better fit to get the job done.

DK: No. I think it would have been worse. Imagine if the U.S. hadn’t pulled out the 1-1 draw at Honduras? I truly think with Klinsmann on the sideline they wouldn’t have won that game. Replacing him was the right thing to do. He had good ideas on how to improve scouting and the sporting structure in the federation, but his lack of instructions and playing players out of position ultimately was his downfall.


How much of an impact will the USA not being at the World Cup next summer have on soccer, overall, in the USA?

JPW: It is a massive blow for the sport. Casual fans and youngsters in the USA will not be paying anywhere near as much attention as they would’ve been if the U.S. was in Russia next summer. Long-term the impact should be small but it will be intriguing to see if the fanbase sticks with the USMNT in the next 12 months with no competitive games to play until the 2019 Gold Cup and Copa America. That is a long, long time to wait.

NM: The World Cup, like the Premier League, is a “gateway drug” for soccer fans young and old in America. There will be no Landon Donovan against Algeria this summer, no John Brooks against Ghana, no Jermaine Jones rocket versus Ronaldo’s Portugal, nor a Tim Howard octopus performance against Belgium. And let’s face it: There’s a majority of American sports fans who won’t tune into the tournament with any regularity while the Yanks aren’t a part of it.

KB: Massive. Revenue lost will be staggering, but also the failure to draw a pool of new fans is devastating. The World Cup is the only event that draws the casual soccer fan in this country, and missing out on exposing those fans to the sport and roping a collection of them in is an opportunity lost. It halts the growth of the sport in this country, one that had been gaining unprecedented steam. The damage is not irreparable, but it certainly lengthens the process considerably.

DK: I’m of the opinion that there are enough soccer fans in this country that it won’t be a huge blow. Fans will still come to watch their team in MLS, NASL, USL and thanks to the diverse U.S. population, people will still watch the World Cup, whether they root for Mexico or have ancestry with any of the other participating countries. Plus, Panama and Iceland are great stories, and great for them to make it to the World Cup. BUT, I do think it’s another missed opportunity to grow awareness of the sport more. Americans love nothing more than a chance to rally behind the national team (it’s why Americans go nuts for the Olympics even if they won’t watch track and field the rest of the time) and I know people who “discovered” the joys of soccer and the passion of the game after watching the U.S. play in the World Cup. U.S. Soccer is missing another chance to connect with those potential fans. That’s what will be the impact.

MR: For many casual fans, the World Cup is the only time in the U.S. where they’ll actually pay attention to the USMNT. Those are predominately those that will be affecting the attention placed on the USMNT until the next cycle. Barring U.S. Soccer doing something crazy like keeping Bruce Arena on as manager, I think soccer in America will be fine in the short and long-terms. It’s just the initial shock of missing out on the competition that has fans stunned.


What positives, if any, can come from this?

JPW: That U.S. Soccer leaders will hand the reins over to people with fresh ideas, but that is a long shot. It also reaffirms the need for young U.S. talent to try and break through at some of the top teams in Europe. Christian Pulisic should be the shining light for all that is achievable with U.S. Soccer in the dark times ahead.

NM: Nothing that outweighs even a small percentage of the bad, but if it convinces the next Alejandro Bedoya or Michael Bradley to stay in a competitive top league through their primes, that’s a start. A changing of the guard in U.S. Soccer would be a big and justified move but, as I said above, it can’t be a new body in Sunil Gulati’s suit.

KB: Nothing. There is no silver lining. Some will say the ability to clean house is a positive here, but that shouldn’t be necessary. That’s not a “positive” it’s a byproduct of a host of failures made necessary after those failures manifested as results. There is nothing to fall back on. Time for US Soccer to pick itself up off the floor.

MR: I think it comes back to the entitlement. To give another example, look at Brazil during the 2014 World Cup — which they hosted. The Brazilians were absolutely ripped apart for their performance against Germany in the semifinals. Think about that. Most countries would kill to reach the last four of the World Cup. The USMNT is in a similar boat now. Since 1986, the U.S. had reached the World Cup every cycle. Now is the time for the U.S. to realize — if they haven’t already — that they aren’t invincible. Hopefully U.S. Soccer brings in a manager that instills that truth upon the players.

DK: There are no positives from this. This is an abject failure, that a country of 300 million that can also rely on foreign-born players can’t find 11 players to beat Trinidad’s B team. Hopefully the leadership have a good think and can implement some changes that help the team in 4-8-12 years from now, but this is midnight on U.S. Soccer and is one of the sport’s darkest moments in this country. This is a failure and a disgrace.

 

Spurs “have the capacity” to win the Champions League

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We know. They just drew 2-2 away at Rochdale in the fifth round of the FA Cup. We know.

[ MORE: Dele Alli and the diving debate

But Tottenham Hotspur’s last 2-2 draw was much more impressive as they went to Juventus and outplayed the reigning Italian champions in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

Heading into the second leg at Wembley on Mar. 7, it appears that new signing Lucas Moura, who scored their opening goal against Rochdale on Sunday, is a fan of what he’s seen in his short time at Tottenham.

Speaking to reporters after his first goal for Spurs on his full debut, Moura has high hopes for his time in North London.

“I am 25 years old but I think I gained a lot of experience with PSG and I think I can help Tottenham. I think we have a lot of quality and a great structure and can arrive at the end of the season with a trophy. The Champions League is the most difficult cup but I think we have the capacity to win it if we always think in positives and always work hard,” Moura said, via the Guardian.

“We did a big game against Juventus away. It was a good result in Italy and I am sure we can do a good game with our fans and continue. It’s always important to win. Every player wants to win trophies, to make history and I am here to make history with my new friends, my new team-mates. I believe that because we have a lot of quality, a great structure – I am really impressed – and I think we can dream with the Champions League.”

Does Moura have a point? Aside from a weakened side struggling away at Rochdale on a freshly laid pitch, they’ve been superb in recent months.

And given the current form of Harry Kane and the entire Spurs team there won’t be a single club who says “you know what, let’s take Spurs” if they make it through to the last eight of the UCL.

The high-pressing style of Mauricio Pochettino saw them bully Juve away from home and all of a sudden it seems like the rest of Europe has woken up and realized just how good they are.

If injuries are kind to Spurs and Moura continues to show flashes of brilliance since his arrival from PSG in January, the Brazilian could well be on to something. Tottenham are by no means favorites to win the Champions League, but their recent results against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool prove they are a force to be reckoned with.

Top Chelsea v. Barcelona moments

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Ahead of Chelsea hosting Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg, let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

And boy, we have a lot of golden moments to choose from between these clubs as they’ve meet in the UCL knockout rounds on five previous occasions.

[ MORE: Man United, Chelsea in UCL action

In recent years Barcelona against Chelsea has become essential viewing whenever they meet and Tuesday at Stamford Bridge will be no different as Lionel Messi looks to score for the first time ever against the west London club after firing blanks in all of his previous eight encounters.

From epic semifinal goals, to late drama and heartbreak, below is a look at some of the greatest moments in European history between these two clubs.


1. Fernando Torres‘ goal at the Nou Camp sends Chelsea to the UCL final in 2012

Down to 10-men and trailing 2-0 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate, Chelsea looked doomed after John Terry was sent off in the first half at the Nou Camp. Then Ramires pulled a goal back in the first half with a fine lob, before Lionel Messi hit the post and struck a penalty kick against the crossbar as Barca couldn’t find the all important third goal. With everyone pushed forward, one long punt up the pitch found Fernando Torres late on and he rounded Victor Valdes before slotting home (last goal in the video below) to make it 2-2 on the night and send Chelsea onto the final in Munich against Bayern. They once again recorded another improbable win in the final to secure their first-ever European trophy on penalty kicks and this comeback against Barca, against all the odds, proved it was written in the stars.


2. Andres Iniesta’s last-gasp strike at Chelsea sends Barcelona to the UCL final in 2009

Barcelona went to Stamford Bridge after being held to a 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp in the first leg and they went 1-0 down, with Chelsea seemingly heading into the UCL final. Then, late on the ball found Iniesta on the edge of the box and his perfect finish sent Barca to the final where they would beat Manchester United to be crowned European champions. A wild night of celebrations in Barcelona ensued and Iniesta added yet another glorious moment to his legendary career.


3. Chelsea squander 3-1 first leg lead, fall 6-4 on aggregate in UCL quarterfinals

What drama. Stamford Bridge was rocking as Chelsea beat Barca 3-1 in the first leg of their quarterfinal with two goals from Tore Andre Flo and a fine free kick from Gianfranco Zola and everybody believed they’d make it through to the last four of the Champions League. Umm, probs not. Luis Figo and Rivaldo each scored in the second leg as they looked to be sending Barca through on away goals, but Flo hit back to give Chelsea another advantage. Dani Garcia then scored seven minutes from time to take the game to extra time and Barca scored twice in the first half of extra time to make it 6-4 on aggregate and seal their passage to the final four. One of the greatest quarterfinal clashes in UCL history.

Why are we so concerned with Dele Alli and diving?

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Another weekend, another debate about Dele Alli taking a tumble in the penalty box.

Rinse, repeat.

There should be no debate about the latest penalty kick he won late on against Rochdale in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Sunday. He was clearly fouled and both opposition players and their manager had no complaints as the nimble Englishman went down under contact.

Alli, 21, was brought off the bench to try and drag Spurs back into the game and he did just that with Harry Kane slamming home the spot kick Alli won to put Spurs 2-1 up late on, only for the Premier League side to let in a late equalizer against their third-tier opponents to set up a replay at Wembley in 10 days time.

Yet it is the constant hubbub around Alli and diving which is the biggest issue which needs to be addressed because we are not focusing on the problem of simulation and how best to solve it.

With three yellow cards for simulation while playing for Spurs in the Premier League (more than any other player since 2015-16), plus his manager Mauricio Pochettino saying he understands diving to gain an advantage after Tottenham’s controversial 2-2 draw at Liverpool earlier this month, Alli is in danger of being pigeonholed as a cheat, if he hasn’t been already.

Speaking after the FA Cup game this weekend, Rochdale manager Keith Hill discussed the 88th minute penalty being awarded and Alli’s actions.

“I’m led to believe he was looking for it, but why not? If players feel there is an opportunity to be gained then brilliant, I don’t hold it against him,” Hill said. “I don’t blame him and I don’t have a problem with it. Whether it’s him, Harry Kane or [Rochdale’s opening scorer] Ian Henderson, it doesn’t matter who does it. If he does that for England in the World Cup this summer then I will definitely be supporting him.”

Comments like this, although deemed to be supportive by Hill, are the reason why Alli is being branded a cheat. Instead of vilifying him, the bigger issue of simulation in the game should be the focus. But it’s not. Lengthy bans have been discussed, so too have sin bins, but nothing is really being done to eradicate the issue.

Yet if someone praises Alli for initiating the contact and going down, he’s hammered. If he’s criticized for going down too easily, he’s hammered. He’s in a lose-lose situation. But why is Alli being singled out for special treatment?

Quite simply, it’s because he’s a special talent and because he is the next great hope for England, even if this season he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of being crowned the PFA Young Player of the Year in each of his first two Premier League campaigns. Pochettino’s recent honest comments (which he since stated were taken out of context as he doesn’t condone diving) haven’t done the reputation of his players much good with Kane, Erik Lamela and others also scrutinized heavily after recent tumbles in the box.

“To stop the game, to punish people. Some 20 years ago, 30 years ago, it was like all congratulate the player when he tricks the referee. If you remember the football 30 years ago. That is the football I was in love with when I was a child. Football is about trying to trick your opponent. You know? Yes or no? Tactic – what does tactic mean?,” Pochettino said. “When you do some tactics it is to try to trick the opponent. You say, ‘Oh I play on the right but I’m going to finish on the left’. It’s a mix that I am worried that maybe we are going to kill the game. We love this game.”

Purists within the English game have long lambasted and singled out foreign imports (rightly or wrongly) for taking tumbles in the box, going down too easily and trying to con referees into giving them an advantage.

Many foreign imports to the PL who have since admitted they were taught at a young age to go down if they felt contact in the box which further enraged the debate. Now, with the heavy international influence at each PL club, we have seen simulation become a bigger part of the English game over the past decade and more anger emerge from pundits, coaches and fans alike.

A new rule introduced this season to retrospectively ban any players found guilty of diving (if the incident wasn’t spotted at the time by the officials) has seen Oumar Niasse and Wilfried Zaha banned, although Zaha won his appeal against the decision, and it seems to be having some impact, but it’s still not doing enough to stamp out simulation in the English game.

The initial impetus officials had at the start of the season to try and get rid of simulation has dwindled and old habits are sneaking back into the game.

Is Alli the only player who goes down often? No. Yet the way Alli plays the game, we will more often than not see him clattered into in the box. He flicks and pokes balls past defenders and his relatively slight frame means he will likely go down under contact from a bruising center back or midfielder. That’s just science and it’s the same for many other talented attackers who are built for speed and agility rather than strength and power.

Alli’s reputation as a hothead supersedes these simulation allegations and previous bans for punching opponents in the stomach, lunging into tackles to be sent off and off the ball incidents certainly do him no favors in proclaiming his innocence.

But the vendetta building against him as a serial cheat needs to end before this vicious cycle gets further out of hand and his talent erodes amid the jeers from opposition fans.

It’s unlikely that Alli, like many players, will stop going down in the box anytime soon if he feels contact from an opposition defender. The sooner everyone starts to accept it, the sooner everyone can move on and focus on trying to eradicate serial simulation in the game once and for all. Be it with lengthy bans, sin bins or straight red cards, something drastic must be done.

That’s the bigger issue here. Not Dele Alli.

Man United, Chelsea prepare for La Liga tests

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The final two Premier League teams to get their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties off and running are Manchester United and Chelsea who both play this week.

Both PL giants face Spanish opposition but both are in very different situations heading into these games.

 [ MORE: Champions League schedule

United travel to Sevilla on Wednesday as the firm favorites to advance to the quarterfinals, while Chelsea host Barcelona on Tuesday hoping to still be in the tie after the first leg at Stamford Bridge against Lionel Messi and Co.

After Liverpool battered FC Porto, Manchester City demolished Basel and Tottenham went to Juventus and dominated in a draw last week, all of a sudden United and Chelsea are under a little bit of extra pressure to not let the PL sides down.

That pressure is ratcheted up given the fact that Spanish clubs have dominated the Champions League for much of the last decade, with six of the last 10 European champions hailing from La Liga.

Chelsea were the last PL club to reach the UCL final, when they beat Bayern Munich in 2012, while United reached the final in three of four seasons from 2008 to 2011 but only prevailed on one occasion… when they beat Chelsea in the final 2008. That rich run for English clubs in the Champions League saw seven of the eight finals from 2005-2012 have at least one English club in it, but none have made it that far since.

Six of the last eight teams to reach the UCL final have been from Spain, with Juventus reaching the final in two of the past three seasons but failing to the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Yet this season, with five teams from one league reaching the last 16 for the first time in the competition’s history, there’s a sense the English clubs are back to their best and are ready to put La Liga in their place. United and Chelsea will have the first crack at doing that in the knockout rounds with all eyes on what could be a seismic shift in power back to the PL.

Chelsea were the only one of five PL teams in the Champions League this season to not win their group and they paid the ultimate price for that as they were drawn against Barcelona, the current La Liga leaders and one of the red-hot favorites to win yet another European title.

Antonio Conte‘s men have recovered well in recent weeks after patchy form in the Premier League briefly dropped them out of the top four, but there’s no doubting that there are still issues behind-the-scenes with Chelsea’s Italian manager who many expect to walk away at the end of this season.

On the pitch, Chelsea continue to be Lionel Messi’s kryptonite as the Argentine star hasn’t scored in any of his eight previous outings against the Blues. Conte will hope that is once again the case and we may well see a more defensive Chelsea side than usual as they will keep it tight, then play it up to either Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata to link up with Eden Hazard on the break.

Barca lead La Liga and if Messi once again fires a blank against Chelsea, at least this time they also have Luis Suarez in reserve, although Philippe Coutinho is cup-tied and can’t feature in the UCL after his January move from Liverpool.

As for United, the rigmarole around Paul Pogba continues as Jose Mourinho’s star midfielder missed their FA Cup fifth round win at Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness but is expected to be fit to play against Sevilla. Does Pogba have a future at Old Trafford?

That’s the key question right now but the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez will be eager to lead United in the latter stages of the UCL for the first time since 2014 when they reached the quarterfinals, but Mourinho is dealing with an injury crisis as Marcus Rashford could join Ander HerreraAntonio Valencia, Zlatan IbrahimovicMarcos RojoPhil Jones and Marouane Fellaini on the sidelines.

Sevilla drew against Liverpool twice in the UCL group stage and even though their La Liga form has been up and down throughout this season (they currently sit in fifth place in the table) and since Vincenzo Montella was appointed as their new boss in December, they’ll be a threat.

Wissam Ben Yedder is Sevilla’s chief goal threat and has six goals in six UCL games so far this season, while ex Manchester City pair Nolito and Jesus Navas will cause problems and Steven Nzonzi continues to impress in central midfield.

Both United and Chelsea know they face tough tests against Spanish opposition this week, and it is perhaps made a little tougher with expectations growing for English clubs in the Champions League this season.