Sam Wallace: Why Michel Platini should go back to future and lose Europa League expansion
Talking Football: Uefa is certainly right when it frets that the Europa League is boring
Monday 03 December 2012
Like a lot of the ideas Michel Platini comes up with when left to his own devices, his latest notion of doubling the Champions League to a 64-club tournament begs the question: should Uefa employ someone to stop the president thinking too much in his spare time?
It would not be the most demanding job in the world, just an assistant sharp enough to react the moment Platini's eyes glazed over in the back of his chauffeured limousine. Someone to say "Michel, talk us through that hat-trick against Yugoslavia at Euro 1984 again", before he announces a feasibility study into the viability of letting Europa League teams field a monster truck instead of a goalkeeper.
The chief distractor would have been useful last week when Platini started riffing on the idea of a 64-club combined Champions League and Europa League, an idea so unoriginal he has already done something similar once already. That would be the expansion of the European Championships from a 16 to a 24 team tournament, thus reducing at a strike the quality of one of the most compelling international tournaments.
Expansion is always the least original idea. The simplistic notion that more of a good thing is always better shows a basic unwillingness to grasp what makes a competition so interesting. The Champions League has never been perfect – especially given you do not even have to be a champion to get into it – but part of its attraction has been its exclusivity.
Uefa is certainly right when it frets that the Europa League is boring – that much has been obvious long before it was re-marketed in 2009. But it is boring because Uefa has made it that way. The great monolith begins properly at the first group stages with 48 teams, eliminates half of them and then sucks up the reluctant eight third-place losers from the Champions League to start again with 32 in February.
The problem with expanding the Champions League is that its group stages are already threatening to become dull. Uefa's seeding system means there will occasionally be interesting groups, like the one in which Manchester City perished this season. There will also be the odd surprise result, like Celtic's defeat of Barcelona. But, as a rule, the group stage is an insurance against shock eliminations and it goes on past the point where it is interesting.
For obvious signs of this stagnation look no further than this week's games. Of the 16 places in the first knockout round next year, all but three are already taken. The British interest will centre on groups E and G where Chelsea and Celtic respectively have the opportunity, slim in Chelsea's case, to progress. Otherwise only Group H, where Galatasaray and Cluj can both finish second to Manchester United, has anything at stake.
In three of the groups it is still to be decided which team will finish first and second, which has some bearing in the draw. In two of the eight groups the two eliminated clubs are still contesting the Europa League spot. But even so, with only six out of 16 Champions League games this week having anything significant riding on them, it hardly amounts to absorbing cup football.
The picture in the Europa League is even more dire. There are 12 groups in that competition with 24 places in the knockout stages up for grabs, of which all but four are already taken. One can be claimed in Group A by Liverpool, who play Udinese away on Thursday and must equal or better Young Boys' result against Anzhi to go through. Another of the four will go to Tottenham if they avoid defeat at home to Panathinaikos in Group J.
In the Europa League this week there will be 24 matches played and 17 of them are effectively dead rubbers. It is not anyone's idea of cup football. It is a bloated, dreary competition, with clubs forced to go through the motions and supporters forgiven for staying at home.
The solution is not more groups and more meaningless games. The sophisticated alternative would be to make the Europa League a home and away knockout competition from the very start, following the format of the old European Cup and Uefa Cup. There should be no consolation for the third-place losers in the Champions League, just a lot of needle from the start.
The beauty of the League Cup in this country is its novelty factor: a knockout competition in the autumn. While the league tables are just taking shape and the European competitions are sleepwalking through their group stages, the dear old Capital One Cup is running to extra time and penalty shoot-outs.
Unsurprisingly, Barcelona want a bigger Champions League at the expense of domestic leagues. Of course they do. Along with Real Madrid, their stranglehold on La Liga's television revenue has eviscerated the domestic competition, and made it so that only two teams count, notwithstanding Atletico Madrid's resurgence this season.
As my colleague Glenn Moore pointed out in these pages on Saturday, it was the meeting in 1987 of Real Madrid and Napoli in the first round of the European Cup that gave rise to the notion that the big clubs should be protected from facing each other until the latter stages of the competition. Twenty-five years on, the fruit of that protectionist instinct is a week like this with game after game that simply does not matter.
Everything comes full circle. These days we have footballers sporting moustaches again and a movement to bring back safe-standing on terraces. What is old is new. Why not a knockout competition in Europe where the big guns risk facing each other in return for the kind of games that people would pay to watch? Platini should know that nostalgia sells. It is his days as a brilliant footballer that convinced a lot people he would make a decent administrator.
Small-time Arsenal need to set their sights higher
The insistence by Arsenal that players negotiating new contracts at the club accept a 25 per cent reduction in the event of the team not qualifying for the Champions League might sound prudent to some.
To me it sounds like the hallmark of a club who do not believe themselves that they have the kind of players who can qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 16 years.
The history of English football is littered with the salutary tales of clubs who had ambitions way beyond their capability to fulfil them. Arsenal's problem seems to be the opposite. They are so determined to think small, that small is what they will get.
The bottom line for Ridgewell and football
Every great cultural institution has that outrageous moment when it puts itself so far beyond parody that those who seek to satirise it simply throw their hands up in the air and admit they are no match for the real thing. Modern English football with all its extraordinary wealth is no different.
To that end, the day a West Bromwich Albion full-back photographed himself wiping his backside with a pile of £20 notes, as revealed in a Sunday newspaper, is definitely a contender. Step forward, Liam Ridgewell, you really have taken it to another level. On a more practical note, anyone running a business in the Barnt Green area where Ridgewell lives may wish to insist all transactions with him in the near future are by card, not cash.
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