Home Sports Champions League: UEFA's latest carve-up is just another victory for mediocrity

Champions League: UEFA's latest carve-up is just another victory for mediocrity

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Tottenham and Arsenal fans are greatly dismayed that their derby has been arranged for Thursday, May 12.

They should make the most of it. By the time UEFA and their co-conspirators at the European Club Association have done their worst, games like that won’t matter at all.

It does seem rather convenient that, each year, one giant fixture gets shoehorned into the final two weeks of the season. Neither Tottenham nor Arsenal have been in Europe this year and both were eliminated from the FA Cup by March 2.

Surely the fixture could have been arranged before mid-May. Apparently not. And the knock-on around it shoves Arsenal to Newcastle on Monday, May 16, and Tottenham to Liverpool late on Saturday, May 7. All very inconvenient. 

Tottenham and Arsenal's North London derby has been rearranged for Thursday, May 12

Tottenham and Arsenal’s North London derby has been rearranged for Thursday, May 12 

Yet at least the match still means something. It’s a hot item for broadcasters because it’s viewed as a fourth-place decider.

Once the new Champions League format is minted, however, the same situation would be pretty much a dead rubber. Fifth will be the new fourth, mediocre the new competent. Historical qualification places are a game-changer. And not for the better.

This has never been about improvement. What the elite of Europe have always desired is protection from consequence. Even the best of them.

One day, Manchester City will have to survive without Pep Guardiola, Liverpool must get along without Jurgen Klopp. Chelsea are already feeling an icy wind without Roman Abramovich. Do you think these clubs want to leave the future to chance?

They’ve all seen what happened to Manchester United once Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down. They’re not as smart as they would like you to think, these guys. They’re worried it will fall apart.

On the continent, it’s the same. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus didn’t want a Super League because they think they’re the best. They’ve been overtaken, commercially, by the Premier League, they are under attack from within by supposed inferiors like Atalanta and Villarreal. They wanted to protect their traditional status. They wanted to make history work for them. 

They should make the most of it because by the time UEFA are done, it won't matter anymore

They should make the most of it because by the time UEFA are done, it won’t matter anymore 

And UEFA granted that wish: two historical berths each year to the Europa League qualifier with the best co-efficient. Might be a fifth-placed team, or even an FA Cup winner. The only criterion is a historic European presence.

So West Ham, or Wolves, in fifth would stay where they are; but Tottenham, Arsenal or Manchester United would almost certainly be elevated. Crystal Palace, if they won the FA Cup, would remain a Europa League side; but Chelsea, if they slipped outside the top four but won at Wembley, would maintain Champions League status.

So superiority becomes self- perpetuating. Champions League co-efficient points have greater value than Europa League, so the same clubs keep returning as fifth is no longer the near-miss for them that it is for others.

Under that system, Tottenham’s meeting with Arsenal would be meaningless. The winner comes fourth and qualifies automatically, the loser gets fifth and does the same.

Freeze frame the season now and historical places would go to Arsenal and Roma, two clubs who have made such a stunning contribution to European football that they muster a single UEFA-recognised trophy between them, Arsenal’s 1993-94 win in the now-defunct European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Neither have won a single competition that exists today — either the European Cup/Champions League or the UEFA Cup/Europa League. Some history.

And some form. What UEFA’s acceptance of historic places suggests is that their marquee competition misses the team who lost 3-0 to Crystal Palace on Monday, who lost 2-0 at Brentford, 2-1 at Everton, who have gone down 8-0 to Liverpool on aggregate across four matches this season and 7-1 in two versus Manchester City.

UEFA's latest carve-up in their elite competitions is just another victory for mediocrity

UEFA’s latest carve-up in their elite competitions is just another victory for mediocrity

There is a giant gulf between Arsenal and the best English clubs qualifying by right. And, historically, they deserve squat. It was 12 years ago when they last reached the final eight of the Champions League.

As for Roma, their claims are equally risible. Beaten by relegation-threatened Venezia this season, mid-table Verona and Bologna, they are lucky to have got a second crack at Bodo/Glimt in the Europa Conference League quarter-finals — because they lost 6-1 to them in the group stage.

As for Champions League history, it consists of a semi-final run in 2017-18 and a quarter-final in 2006-07 and 2007-08. Roma reached the final of the old European Cup in 1983-84, but Dundee United made it to the semis, and no one is thinking of giving them a place. Nottingham Forest have got more European history than Arsenal and Roma put together.

Of course, it no longer matters and nor should it. Nottingham Forest are not of Champions League quality now but neither are any club who cannot finish top four in their own league.

This is supposed to be an elite competition, not a halfway house for also-rans. Did the endless safety nets for World Cup qualification benefit Italy? No, they made them entitled and complacent.

What will happen to Stan Kroenke’s plans for Arsenal once fifth is good enough? It’s not a motivation to build back better, you can guarantee that. 

The Champions League is supposed to for the elite, not a halfway house for also-rans

The Champions League is supposed to for the elite, not a halfway house for also-rans

Stealthily, this also constitutes another attack on the worth of the Premier League. One of its great selling points is that six into four doesn’t go. Now UEFA have chipped away at that jeopardy.

You don’t have to be top four to succeed. You can come fifth, or win a cup populated by reserve teams.

Not all of you, of course. Some of you. Maybe it is our mistake. Maybe we should have just let them all go, with their facades of wealth, and strength, and history, and competence.

FIFA sweep Qatar under the carpet

Between 1974 and 2002, the opening game of the World Cup featured the defending champions. In 2006, that changed. It was decided to revert to an earlier format, in which the tournament kicked off with the hosts. It had been that way in 1950, 1958, 1966 and 1970. 

The hosts have now gone first in each of the last four editions: Germany v Costa Rica, South Africa v Mexico, Brazil v Croatia and Russia v Saudi Arabia. Even if the match-ups were not great, they had energy because the host nation were involved.

So it shows how bent the 2022 World Cup is that FIFA haven’t risked Qatar opening up. The first game of this tournament will be Holland v Senegal because it’s a tie worth watching. 

Qatar’s meeting with Ecuador is later and very much the undercard. Yet, sadly, it’s too late for FIFA to be embarrassed by their hosting decision. This is your World Cup, gentlemen, and you are to own every dismal aspect of it.

Rio has earned the right to criticise United flops

Of all the opinions on England it is said to be those from Rio Ferdinand that cause the greatest angst among players. 

He is felt to be too harsh, and this season he has been particularly forthright on the performances of Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford. 

And yet: 81 England appearances, six Premier League titles and the 2008 Champions League. He’s earned the right, don’t you think? 

Harry Maguire has struggled at Manchester United this season

Rio Ferdinand has earned the right to criticise United's flops

Rio Ferdinand (right) has earned the right to be forthright with the likes of Harry Maguire (left)

Are Real Madrid for real?

That’s going to be some future planning meeting at Real Madrid. ‘Right, lads, so we sack the coach who is winning the league by 12 points, and get the guy in from Paris Saint-Germain who he just beat 3-1. Then we buy the Chelsea centre half who looks very high maintenance and couldn’t get near us on Wednesday. Anyone have a problem with this?’ 

New man shadowing Eddie is RFU’s latest awful idea

The RFU are like a bad idea factory these days. The latest is to have Eddie Jones’ successor shadowing him at the 2023 World Cup, like it’s just another audition for a bigger event, as the Six Nations has become. 

If the new coach is English, as wished, it is very likely some in the squad will know him as much as they know Jones. Why would a coach trying to win a World Cup want his squad distracted by such a presence on the sidelines? 

Those out of the team will be trying to impress the new man, second-guessing his preferences in the hope of future gains, those in it may be torn. 

Glenn Hoddle asked to shadow England’s footballers during the Euros in 1996, but was rebuffed by Terry Venables. He was trying to win a tournament. He didn’t want his messages diluted or his players in two minds. 

If Jones feels this, too, he should stand firm. The new man gets his England team at the end of 2023. Until then, the RFU wants Jones; so Jones it is.

(And by the way, if Jones was winning, it would not matter that he took advisory positions with Suntory Sungoliath in Japan, and even tried to improve players who might come up against England in the World Cup.

The fact that he isn’t makes it an issue. It will be interesting to see if the RFU permit his successor to pursue outside opportunities. If they do not, it confirms they made a mistake.)

Huddleston should look closer to home

Discussions continue over the hoops Russian tennis players must jump through to compete at Wimbledon this year. 

Grandstanding sports minister Nigel Huddleston wants them to publicly denounce president Vladimir Putin in order to play, ignoring that this requires bravery on a scale few cabinet members possess.

For a Russian athlete the consequences of going against Putin right now could be huge. Maybe Daniil Medvedev, and others, should offer to denounce Putin if Huddleston and his colleagues will likewise judge the regime of Saudi Arabia. 

Better still, ministers could express support for the apparently forgotten principle that those who make the rules should adhere to them, or resign. Let’s see how brave everybody is. Seems only fair.

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston (pictured) wants Russian tennis players to publicly denounce president Vladimir Putin in order to play

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston (pictured) wants Russian tennis players to publicly denounce president Vladimir Putin in order to play

McClaren can still do a job at United

Strange that the idea of Steve McClaren back on the Manchester United staff under Erik ten Hag should be considered controversial. Of all the criticisms aimed at McClaren the manager, no one ever said he was a bad coach. 

Be careful what you wish for, Gary

It is the time of year when football clubs publish their annual financial results and there is some interesting reading. 

The parent company of one ambitious League Two side lost £91,000 a week in 2020-21, have total losses of more than £15million since it was set up in 2015 and liabilities of more than £19m. 

Wages are now running at £143 for every £100 of income, one investor is owed £12.5m and gates average little more than 2,000, the lowest of the 92 clubs.

Of course, this is exactly the sort of set-up that makes many advocate the need for a government regulator. Financial doping, they call it.

Not me. I believe the owners of football clubs should invest as they wish, as long as the money is a gift, not a loan. But Gary Neville, and others, want this Conservative government to place a firmer hand on football’s tiller.

So it should be interesting if the regulator ever looks at the above-mentioned club — because it’s Salford City, where Neville is co-owner.

It’s all doom and gloom down there for Everton

Any run from one of the teams in the bottom three was always going to reel in Everton, and it was always likeliest to be Burnley making it, with their games in hand and past experience. 

Three wins and a draw in eight matches now leaves them separated by a point. Burnley have only one team in the current top five to play, Everton have three, plus Manchester United. They are in real trouble now. 

Everton are in real trouble now as they face a tough run-in in their fight for survival

Everton are in real trouble now as they face a tough run-in in their fight for survival

Relegation can’t be decided by courts

And so it begins. Middlesbrough and Wycombe’s action against Derby was always Pandora’s Box. Now, we have Premier League clubs poring over Everton’s accounts to see if they found a way around financial fair play.

With a points deduction one of the available punishments, what’s the betting those looking at it most closely will be Burnley, Watford and Norwich — or any other team in fear of going down? No one will ever be relegated without a lawsuit again. 

It will be just like watching Brazil, but not in a good way, titles decided in the appeal courts. That’s how Sport Recife came to wrest the 1987 championship from Flamengo — with a Supreme Court ruling in 2017. Enjoy your choices, everybody.

Tennis is encouraging bad behaviour

Have the pressures of the pandemic led to the appalling behaviour of some male tennis players? No. Letting over-entitled pillocks get away with murder has caused the recent epidemic of umpire-baiting, abuse, racket-smashing and tantrums. Nick Kyrgios is a repeat offender, and yet is indulged. 

So, too, Alex Zverev. And the new punishments amount to more fines, rather than immediate expulsion from the tournament and a future ban, which would be some deterrent. Any poor behaviour that is not stopped, is encouraged. That’s why tennis has a problem. 

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