Football: Aspirations leagues apart in land of faraway people

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The Independent Online
THE NEW Champions' League format has taken most people by surprise. "I didn't realise they were doing it every week," they say. Actually they're not, but let's avoid explaining the format for now, suffice it to say there are a lot more games to play if you want to win the thing. Obviously you do want to win it because you become the greatest side in Europe and there's a bonus trip to Brazil in January which is nice because it's getting cold here then. The price is high though.

Chelsea paid dearly for their exploits against Milan a fortnight ago, losing to Watford next time out.

Manchester United have managed just two points from six in the Premiership since this season's Euro adventure began. Arsenal, meanwhile, have reverted to type and dusted down the old ditty "1-0 to the Arsenal" approach to keep themselves in touch with the top.

Just a few seasons ago Gianluca Vialli didn't like the idea of Ruud Guillit's squad rotation system. Now the boot is on the other foot and he knows he needs 17 or more men who can be rested and played - but never dropped. The terminology has even changed to match the changing focus.

Roy Keane was not "dropped" on Saturday, he was being "kept fresh" for Marseilles tonight. When an actor says he's resting he's actually out of work. When Arsene Wenger "rests" the likes of Denis Bergkamp and Davor Suker before a trip to the Nou Camp he really is resting them, and thus prioritising where and when to utilise his resources best. On that basis the priority has become the Champions' League.

Priorities are fickle things, however. The Worthington Cup was the first to suffer, with reserve teams fielded by managers who had Premiership and FA Cup aspirations. The FA Cup itself followed, when Manchester United cocked a snook at that glorious competition, immediately demoting its status. Even the Premiership is not immune because it seems that teams these days are chasing a Champions' League berth rather than the League itself. Manchester United qualified for last season's Champions' League as runners-up in the Premiership. They didn't have to be the best in England to become the best in Europe. Of course the big three want to win the Premiership - as do most fans, if not the plcs - but it's not essential in the quest to get to the bigger pot of Euro gold.

Don't get me wrong. Seeing the likes of Batistuta, Bierhoff, Ronaldo and Enrique on a weekly basis is pure entertainment and ITV's viewing figures for the Champions' League endorse that. Only World Cup games are watched by more people. But the trend is set and the road to a European Super League lies straight ahead. There's no turning back, but we must not forget what Saturday afternoons were invented for.

We'll never again have 11 Englishmen turning out for a top English Premiership side and Bosman has ensured that we're all much more fluent in European surnames than those of local heroes (where they still exist). But we must never forget that the fans' preference for domestic competition over European football is genuine, and nothing to do with xenophobia. It's about accessibility.

If your club is never likely to reach the upper echelons of the Premiership then Europe is but a fantasy world. It's played in faraway countries by faraway people.

It's like fancying a supermodel. You won't get a date or even a call but you don't mind the occasional peek. It's what dreams are made of, isn't it?

Gabby Yorath is an ITV sports presenter