Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Chumps League?

Around the early 1990s some smartarse an UEFA decided that Europe's premier cup competition was not quite exciting enough. Well, when I say not exciting, I mean that it wasn't generating enough cash. After nearly 40 years, European football’s holy grail wasn't as marketable as the suits would have liked so sponsorship contracts were negotiated, re-negotiated and negotiated again. The entire competition was 're-branded' and in 1993, what spawned forth was the malevolent, all-consuming and vile abomination we today call The Champions League.

"I will kill you and eat your children"

How was this different to the previous format? Well, rather than the straight-forward two legged knockout cup competition featuring just the league winners from each country that everyone was fairly content with, mini-leagues were introduced to give us a greater number games to consume like hungry, salivating dogs. As the competition has grown, more and more teams are ushered in leading to the quite absurd scenario in modern football where, in some cases, finishing as low as FOURTH in your domestic league is enough to qualify and actually considered something of a success. Qualification for the tournament means more than winning actual silverware – a quite tragic indictment of the modern game. So yes, a team can win the 'Champions' League despite having not won their domestic league the previous year. In fact, a team can compete and of course win the competition having NEVER won the title in their home nation - this hasn't happened yet but give it time... Sounds silly doesn't it? But why do UEFA allow this? Well, A) Because more games means more money obviously and B) Fuck you! That's why.

Ironically, by opening up the competition and attempting to be more inclusive, the Champions League actually becomes more exclusive. With rare exceptions, it's generally the same names competing for the top prize year on year. These teams make more money from the competition simply by being there and of course, the financial gap between the haves and the have-nots when they play in their own league becomes a gaping chasm - that is unless you have a multi-billionaire benefactor/sugar daddy to give you a helping hand but the pros and cons of that can be debated on another blog post another day.

The group stage of the modern day Champions League competition is very rarely something one ought to waste time getting excited over. Two teams qualify from each of the eight groups of four and the top dogs almost always find themselves seeded which inevitably sees their path to the knockout stage rarely troubled. Particularly in England, we have become accustomed to 'our' teams navigating their way through to the last 16 with relative ease.

Not this year however. As we enter the final round of group games, a very real scenario presents itself where the knockout stage will feature just one English side with the other three dropping down into the competition's fatter, uglier, younger sibling the Europa League – the consolation prize/punishment for finishing third in abovementioned groups.

Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal team have secured first place in Group F with a game to spare allowing them to simply enjoy their trip to Olympiacos. The French manager will send out a team consisting of 2 teenagers on work experience, 5 primary school children, 2 teething babies, a single sperm and Tomas Rosicky to face the Greek side while rumour has it the first team have been sent to the nearby resort of Kavos as a reward where Theo Walcott will throw up after doing one too many fish bowls, Gervinho and Thomas Vermaelen will race quad bikes and Aaron Ramsey will finger a 19 year old on the beach.

Meanwhile, things do not appear to be as rosy for Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs who all have major obstacles standing between them and the Utopia of the knockout stages.

The West Londoners take on Valencia at home first where only a win or a goalless draw will be good enough to see them leapfrog the Spanish side and progress to the latter stages. To say The Blues have had a difficult time of it of late would be understating matters to an almost laughable degree. Initially touted as potential champions this season, their current form has many people asking serious questions as to whether they will even finish in those coveted top four positions. It has been an inauspicious start for new manager Andres Villas-Boas. Indifferent league form spilled over into Europe and a 2-1 setback against Leverkusen two weeks back has led to this do or die scenario.

Opponents Valencia currently sit a comfortable third in La Liga behind the powerhouses of Barcelona and Real Madrid and pushed the latter close in their narrow defeat just a couple of weeks back. They also have the free scoring Roberto Soldado in their ranks who is likely to keep Chelsea's worryingly fragile backline very busy. Soldado has already netted an astonishing 14 times in all competitions this season – a feat Fernando Torres might not accomplish in the next 14 months!

I'm always wary of writing off Chelsea. A 3-0 win over Newcastle at the weekend was a reminder of the quality they possess and more importantly, provided a huge confidence boost ahead of this game. In truth, home advantage should see them safely through but having lost against both Arsenal and Liverpool(twice!) at the Bridge in recent months, you couldn't say for certain that a home win is on the cards.

Unfortunately, home advantage isn't something Manchester United can rely on in their vital Group C game against Basel. A draw will be enough for the Reds to go through but the Swiss side will be going all out for the win and it would be daft to take anything for granted in this game especially given the performance they put in when they went to Salford and came away with a 3-3 draw having fought from two goals down to lead right up until Ashley Young’s late equaliser.

The return to form and fitness of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic has seen the defensive headaches from the early part of the season cured somewhat so if the task is simply to avoid defeat, you'd expect Sir Alex Ferguson's side to have enough quality to get the job done. But as recent games have shown, United are not playing anything close to their own usual high standard and you could easily argue that they've been fortunate to win so many games so far this season. This fortune hasn't transferred to Europe where teams have been able to capitalise on their mistakes. It might sound crazy but anyone who saw that first match will know that Basel pose a very real threat. Namesakes Fabian and Alexander Frei will be looking to pick up where they left off at Old Trafford.

While the destiny of the two English finalists from 2008 lies in their own hands, the same can not be said for Champions League virgins Manchester City whose rampant run at home has not been replicated abroad. The Citizens latest victims in the league were last weekend who were dispatched with the kind of delicious exhibition football that has had many commentators declaring the cash-rich club to be on par with Barcelona and the like. Just one glace at their European form will tell you such comparisons are somewhat premature. Having surrendered four points to Napoli and losing in Munich, City must now beat the four time winners and 2010 runners up Bayern at the Etihad Stadium and hope the group A whipping boys Villarreal can get anything against the Neapolitans.

Beating Bayern may well prove to be the easy part as the Bavarian side have already won the group and, like Arsenal, will not be placing a great deal of importance of the game. Similarly, Villarreal cannot even make third place and will be far more concerned with arresting their abject domestic form than doing Roberto Mancini any favours. Napoli will be expected to win this game and send City into the forgotten land that is the Europa League.

The likelihood of all three sides failing to progress is slim and I would stake a great deal of money on it. City are on the brink but United and Chelsea, although not in an ideal position, are certainly well placed to join Arsenal in next week's draw for the next round of the competition.

On the flipside, if all three were to finish third in their groups, the tantalising scenario of up to seven English clubs (if Stoke, Fulham,Birmingham and Tottenham were to qualify) in the bloated mess that is the Europa League would actually be highly amusing.

Well, I’d laugh anyway.


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