Premier League sides have dominated the business end of the Champions League in recent years, but can they do it again? Three of the four have yet to hit top form and this weekend could present a last chance to get things right before it's too late...English Premier League sides have ended the two of the last four seasons as champions of Europe. However, that statistic doesn't tell the whole story of England's recent dominance.
Last season, three of the four semi-finalists represented England, with Manchester United beating Chelsea in the final. In 2006-07, Milan pipped Liverpool, upsetting the odds after three English sides had again reached the semi-finals. 2005-06 was an 'off-year', with runners-up Arsenal the only side to go deep, eventually losing to Barcelona. 2004-05? Liverpool won it after beating Chelsea in the semis.
It's quite a record, even the most anti-Prem football fan would have to agree.
And here we are again, with the knockout stages looming large. This time around, though, English confidence will be somewhat fragile going into the last 16, wherein all four English giants will face tests ranging from stiff to daunting. Fabio Capello's national team were given a footballing lesson by their Spanish counterparts recently and the added pressure of the Champions League's Italy v England triple-header should add spice to the various contests.
External factors aside, however, it must be said that the English group will rue the timing of the Champions League re-start. Shaky form, injury problems, behind-the-scenes turmoil and numerous other niggles mean that the English sides, barring United, aren't in the best of shape going into their continental clashes.
Ahead of the last domestic card before the European action resumes, Goal.com has assessed the state of England's finest.
Using a well-rounded squad, with players from all over and of all ages blended together, Manchester United are chasing an incredible six titles this season, with the defence of their Champions League crown to the fore.
Gaffer Sir Alex Ferguson promised a post-Christmas surge and his side have responded in spectacular fashion. They've bullied their way to the top of the table, where they sit five points clear, and are chasing the European clean sheet record in the process.
However, they also have arguably the toughest tie. Fergie has stated that Barcelona are United's main threats in Europe, but Italian champions, current Serie A leaders and recent Milan derby winners Inter should test the Red Devils to the limit. Sprinkle in the Jose Mourinho factor - the Nerazzuri coach has a brilliant record against United from his Porto and Chelsea days - and you get the picture of a tough battle ahead.
United have Blackburn Rovers at the weekend and can probably afford to rotate.
Chances of being in Europe come the semis? Who's going to defy Ferguson? If it's not the 'Special One', they'll go far. 9/10.
2004-05 champions Liverpool have conflicting priorities ahead of the last 16. The Champions League has been their bread and butter in recent years - strange considering their 'also-rans' tag domestically. This term, however, they remain just about in touch in terms of the league title race and can no longer think of Europe as their No.1 focus.
The Reds will be smarting after making an almighty meal of their triple-header against Merseyside rivals Everton. They crashed out of the FA Cup at the hands of the Toffees following a replay and extra time, also drawing with them in the league. However, wins over Chelsea and, in dramatic fashion, Portsmouth, have steadied the ship somewhat.
Both their key men - Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard - have had hamstring injuries. El Nino is back to his best, just about, but Stevie G struggling to return and he surely can't attain more than 75% fitness before Real Madrid, with a run-out against Manchester City looking unlikely.
The only plus point for 'Mr Champions League' Gerrard and gaffer Rafa Benitez, a Madrid native, is that Blancos boss Juande Ramos may have some kind of meltdown whilst preparing for the Reds, forgetting that he has the Spanish giants at his disposal and no longer shambolic Tottenham Hotspur.
Chances of being in Europe come the semis? Liverpool just seem to get it done, but this year they won't slip through the cracks easily. 6/10.
Chelsea were one kick - John's Terry's infamous shoot-out slip - away from being European champions last season. It's hard to believe now, considering their subsequent stop-start season, but it also may go some way towards explaining it.
Guus Hiddink has been given the task of bagging a trophy for the Blues following Luiz Felipe Scolari's short-lived, unsuccessful stint at Stamford Bridge, and should instil the steel and solidarity lacking in the Pensioners this term. The Champions League may even be the Dutchman's best chance of winning something.
It's unclear as to what kind of shape Chelsea are really in at present. They lost 2-0 to Liverpool, but conceded both goals after Frank Lampard had been sent off. Otherwise, they've survived minor scares to roar through in the FA Cup. Hiddink's first game will be against Aston Villa away, and it will be massive. A loss at Villa Park could end their title hopes, while leaving them at a low ebb ahead of midweek.
CL opponents Juventus - ex-Blues boss Claudio Ranieri in particular - will be watching very closely. He's admitted that preparing for Chelsea has been a nightmare, as he doesn't know what system they'll use. Indeed, Villa and Juve could be in for a shock if Guus can bring something different.
Chances of being in Europe come the semis? It's very hard to say, but they're experienced campaigners by now and could catch Juve cold for starters. 7/10.
Arsenal, as usual, are probably the most intriguing of all the Premier League sides in the Champions League. Furthermore, little is expected of Arsene Wenger's young Gunners this time around.
However, the north London side have won some massive encounters this season and this big game mentality obviously lends itself to the biggest stage. Skipper Cesc Fabregas is still crocked and new signing Andrei Arshavin ineligible, but still, there's something about Wenger's boys.
Arsenal have almost swapped places with Liverpool. Now they're the ones who could ghost through, with surely only a Champions League place to aim for in the league. Opponents Roma had been in very good form, resurgent even, until their 3-0 humbling at Atalanta last week. It's a poor time to let your guard down, as Arsenal are more than capable of causing some upsets.
They'll welcome Sunderland on Saturday. That'll be the Arshavin show, then it's down to business.
Chances of being in Europe come the semis? 8/10
This is the toughest Champions League in recent memory and the winner could come from any of the elite leagues. I'll put my neck on the line and - although the draws could cause havoc - predict that two English teams, Manchester United and Arsenal, will make the semis and one the final, where anything can happen.
Greg Ptolomey, Goal.com