O'Neill backs Europe play-off

Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill has given his blessing to early proposals for a play-off for the fourth Champions League place. The idea is understood to have been raised at a recent meeting of all 20 Premier League clubs, and may well be aired again at the next meeting in April.

At present, the top-four places in the top flight are guaranteed a Champions League spot, either directly into the competition or via a qualification round. However, the possibility of a play-off system would see only the top three given automatic entry, with those finishing fourth to seventh fighting it out for the remaining spot.

The prospect has aroused the interest of O'Neill, whose side occupy seventh in the League, and who have finished sixth in the last two seasons.

"I only heard about it yesterday and gave it a wee bit of thought last night," O'Neill is quoted as saying in the Express & Star. "It's quite interesting. I wouldn't knock it immediately, particularly if we finish seventh. I know the team who finished fourth would be galled if that was the case, but if you knew the rules at the start of the season then you know the parameters.

"The Premier League seems glamorous, but it's a constant struggle. You always feel as though relegation is haunting you. You want to get into the middle section of the table and then at the end of the season there could still be a charge for this spot."

The idea is unlikely to enamour the "big four" of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool who have claimed the top four places in five of the last six seasons. However, as any Premier League vote requires a 14-six majority, the remaining clubs would likely be in favour.

"It would be interesting to see what all the Premier League clubs thought of it," added O'Neill. "Outside the top sides I think people might go for it."

The obvious bone of contention, however, relates to congestion at the end of the season, in particular in a World Cup or European Championship year. "There is definitely that element of, 'Where do you fit it in?'" queried O'Neill. "But the prize is so big, you're talking about a Champions League qualifying game in August.

"The play-offs have become a massive thing. I've experienced it [with Wycombe and Leicester]. If you could guarantee me promotion through the play-offs, I would take it every time."