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Which British side does Graeme Souness think has the best chance of winning the Champions League?

The Liverpool legend and football pundit shares his thoughts.

Graeme Souness (file pic).
Graeme Souness (file pic).
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE gets back underway in the coming weeks and Graeme Souness believes it will be very much a case of “the usual suspects” in contention for this year’s prize.

Real Madrid became the first side to retain the competition (at least since the old European Cup format was changed) last season, while teams such as Juventus, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid have invariably tended to dominate the latter stages in recent years.

In recent seasons, the Premier League sides have underperformed relative to the money they have spent, with no English outfit even reaching the final since Chelsea won it in 2012.

When asked whether he thinks any British team is capable of claiming the prestigious trophy in the coming season, Souness cites the two Manchester clubs as possible contenders.

You’ve two different contrasting styles with the Manchester teams,” he says. “You’ve got a more pragmatic approach from United with Mourinho in charge — they’d be a match for anyone.

“City — I saw them play the other weekend. They have the players that could go all the way — they’ve got better quality (than United).

The hardest thing to get for a good football team is strikers and creative players. City have the best in the Premier League.

“They’ll always want to take teams on and it’s ‘let’s see if we can outscore you’. United will be a bit more cautious in their approach.”

Souness has been critical of United and Paul Pogba in particular in the past, and he remains unsure the Frenchman can thrive even alongside a top-class defensive midfielder in Nemanja Matic.

Pogba has all the attributes to be a fabulous footballer,” he says. “I’ve been critical of his decision-making, whether he gets that or not.

“Matic, he’s a security blanket for the rest of the midfield. I don’t get that transfer (to United). I don’t understand why Chelsea (would sell). We saw (Tiémoué) Bakayoko in the Tottenham game. They had 32% of the ball.

Chelsea generally have all of the ball. So has he got the clever passes to match the work rate he showed against Tottenham? Has he got the other part of the game? We’ll find out in the next few months, but he looked the part against Tottenham.”

Despite some promising moments at the start of the season, most notably the 4-0 defeat of Arsenal, Souness remains unconvinced that his former side Liverpool are ready to push the elite clubs all the way this season.

It’s too early for Liverpool,” he says. “I watched them against Arsenal and I watched them against Watford. You go back a couple of weeks and Klopp was getting criticised for that problem in the centre of defence, set pieces. (It happened) all last season — he’s not done anything about it in the summer and he’s getting lots of stick.

“Two weeks on, he’s created this wonderful attacking team. You have to temper that. They had a good day against Arsenal, who were poor, and they had a bad day against Watford. Those questions (as to how good they are) will be answered months from now.

I would have gone for Van Dijk and cashed in on Coutinho (in the transfer window), and given Southampton enough that they can’t say ‘no’.

“I found resting (Simon) Mignolet the other weekend strange. That would suggest that he’s not entirely happy with him. David de Gea doesn’t get rested. Hugo Lloris doesn’t get rested. Thibaut Courtois doesn’t.

The three that they played the other weekend were fabulous. Wijnaldum, Henderson and Can were too aggressive for Arsenal’s midfield.

“With Mane, Salah and Coutinho, the creativity is there. You can’t all be creative players. You have to have the ball to play. I think the blend at the weekend (was perfect) against an Arsenal team who were ordinary.”

Liverpool v Arsenal - Premier League - Anfield Souness is not totally convinced that Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool team have what it takes to challenge the top sides this season. Source: Peter Byrne

Liverpool produced some fantastic performances against the top sides last season, picking up wins over Tottenham, Man City and Chelsea among others. However, Jurgen Klopp’s men regularly struggled against the smaller sides, dropping points in matches they were expected to win against teams such as Burnley, Bournemouth and Swansea.

The Reds’ disappointing 3-3 draw with Watford in the first game of their season suggests it could be a recurring issue, however Souness expects Klopp to have learned from these recurring problems.

I expect them to be better this time around, the better teams,” he adds.

Out of all the top English sides in the Champions League, Souness is probably most pessimistic about Tottenham, last year’s Premier League runners-up, who have yet to win a game this season at their temporary new home of Wembley.

It’s a mystery to me, because I don’t understand why playing at Wembley should be an issue,” he says.

“They weren’t good enough last year to win the Premier League and they’ve not strengthened.

If you’re a Tottenham supporter, and part of me is, you’re saying we weren’t good enough with that group last year. Everybody else has strengthened and we’ve stood still. What we’re relying on is the group all getting better to compensate for all the teams around us that are spending money to get better.

“Tottenham are looking at two scenarios: they’ve a miserable season and they’re not qualifying for the Champions League or getting anywhere near the Premier League. And then the star players will leave because they’ll say they want to be winning trophies and they’ll point to the lack of investment.

The other scenario is that they actually win the Champions League or the Premier League. Then they’re all knocking on the door saying ‘I’m a Champions League winner’ or ‘I’m a Premier League winner’ and ‘you have to treble my wages’.

“So 12 months from now, Daniel Levy is facing a difficult round of negotiations with several of his Tottenham players.”

Manchester United v West Ham United - Premier League - Old Trafford Souness found Chelsea's decision to sell Nemanja Matic to Man United strange. Source: Richard Sellers

In total, the Sky Sports and TV3 pundit believes five sides will challenge for the Premier League top four — Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and the two Manchester clubs.

His most scathing criticism, unsurprisingly therefore, is reserved for Arsenal.

(The Wenger situation is) very difficult, but it was always going to be the way if they got off to a bad start.

“What is worrying for Arsenal is not losing 4-0, but the manner in which they lost 4-0 (against Liverpool).

I was at the game and I found it hard to watch. There’s always been something about Arsenal in the last decade — most of the time, there was something to enjoy about the football.

“I’ve been saying for a decade that they were a couple of men away from being a team who would challenge — real, disciplined men.

It’s alright saying ‘I want to have a clearout,’ but the problem is finding people who want to spend money on your players.

“When they played the lesser teams over the past decade, they played like Barcelona at their very best. But against the big teams, they struggle, so what does that say?

“The first minute (against Liverpool), they’re all over the place — a big channel right through the back four. Why has no one said (to be careful)?

When I played at Liverpool, we were the best team in the world. But in the big games, we were always cautious. (Ex-Liverpool coach) Joe Fagan would explain to me: ‘Here lad, have a good look today.’ It meant, stay in your position and see where the game’s going before you get sucked into things with the forwards. Does Wenger say anything like that to any of them? Obviously not.

“They just want to take everyone on in an open game of football. You can’t do that.

And it’s déjà vu. They just need a bit of a discipline. I’ve always believed you can never have a successful football team unless you have senior professionals.

“You train four days a week and you’re with them on match day. You might be in their company for at most 12 hours a week.

The rest of the time, they’re playing golf or whatever, and that’s what it was at Liverpool.

“I was less than a perfect professional at 23 going to Liverpool. I was more interested in socialising than anything else. You verbally get hit on the head by the senior pros: ‘We do that, but we do that at the right time.’

As you develop and become a senior pro, you pass that information down the line. I don’t think anyone takes that (philosophy) seriously anymore.”

Rangers v Hibernian - Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership - Ibrox Stadium Neil Lennon believes his former side Celtic will find it difficult to advance from the Champions League group stages. Source: Ian Rutherford

Out of all the British sides, Celtic have without a doubt been handed the trickiest Champions League draw.

The Scottish champions have been paired in a group alongside PSG, Bayern Munich and Anderlecht.

Souness’ TV3 colleague, former Celtic player and manager, Neil Lennon, feels his old side face an uphill task to progress any further than the group stages.

“In 2004, we had Bayern Munich, Anderlecht, and the champions of France at the time, Lyon,” the Hibs boss recalls.

We were five minutes away from qualifying for the last-16 of the Champions League. We had a penalty decision given against us. We ended up drawing 2-2 over there (in Lyon), so I’d give them a small chance, but Bayern Munich and PSG are giants of the European game. What they need to do is try to get some points at home.

“It’s going to be very difficult, but Celtic Park can do funny things to teams at times. Celtic’s record at Celtic Park is phenomenal in the Champions League. I think they’ll do well against Anderlecht over the two games, so if they can pick up something (against the others), it’s not insurmountable.

Sometimes you can catch these teams early off guard when they’re still bedding players in. The quality and depth that Bayern Munich have got is obviously phenomenal, but this Celtic team have improved.

“They got through qualifying pretty seamlessly. Astana was a tough tie, but they came through it okay.

They’re a year wiser and a year stronger. They have the confidence of going unbeaten domestically for a long time.

“They had a tough group last year — I know they didn’t win a game, but they competed very well. If they can get that first win, it might give them a wee bit of belief. It’s a glamorous group, but it’s a very tough group.”

draw

With Chelsea, Tottenham, Man City, Man United, Liverpool and Celtic all battling it out in the Uefa Champions League Group Stage, Tuesday nights will be bigger than ever.  TV3 will have the pick of Tuesday’s live game as well as comprehensive highlights and analysis.

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