At least once a year there are rumours of a breakaway “Atlantic League” or some such, a competition for the dominant clubs in smaller football countries where the domestic title is only ever contested by at most three teams. The next time it’s floated expect to hear that Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea have been approached about joining, on the grounds that they, too, would get stronger competition from, say, Porto, Anderlecht and Ajax than from any of the other 17 clubs in the Premiership.
Not that the top three would necessarily want to be more thoroughly tested; as it stands they seem to have Champions League qualification places sewn up for years to come. This season the matches between the top three and the rest have come to resemble lop-sided CL preliminary ties when minnows are filtered out before the competition can begin in earnest. To date this season, Arsenal and Chelsea haven’t lost any of the 12 League matches each has played against teams outside the top three. Man Utd have lost two such fixtures but, like their title rivals, have also won away against Liverpool, the team commonly expected to finish fourth.
In previous years, the thumping wins in Italy recently achieved by Arsenal and Chelsea would have been trumpeted as a sign of the strength of the domestic product. But not any more. Any such bragging from Sky presenters about the “greatest league in the world” would have sounded more ludicrous than ever when three of the five English clubs entering the UEFA Cup had been knocked out by the second round, in each case by moderate opponents (Steaua Bucharest, conquerors of Southampton, have fallen a long way down the international pecking order since they were European champions in 1986, as they showed in their second-round exit).
Even allowing for the high standards maintained by the top three sides this season, it is a huge embarrassment that in a country with more than 100 professional clubs, domestic league fixtures are no longer remotely useful as preparation for matches played in Europe. Manchester United’s recent European record is much better than Arsenal’s but still unreflective of their domestic pre-eminence.
Liverpool dominated the English league over a longer period than Man Utd have managed to date, roughly 15 years from the mid-1970s, but during that time seven other English league teams reached European finals. In 1983-84, Spurs, who finished eighth having been in the bottom half at the turn of the year, won the UEFA Cup. Even though the latter has been weakened by leading countries getting multiple entrants into the bloated Champions League, it now seems inconceivable that a team finishing in mid-table in the Premiership could now reach the latter stages of that competition, never mind win it.
That’s not to say that the fixtures in what might as well be called Premier League II are without interest. There are “six pointers” every weekend, given that just about any of the other 17 teams seems capable of either landing one of the other European places, or of ending in the relegation zone. But there seems little likelihood of the yawning gap being breached any time soon. The chairmen of Manchester City and Newcastle United, two of the most profligate clubs in recent seasons, have spoken publicly of the need for belt-tightening and, in view of the mess made at Leeds and various ex-Premiership clubs currently drifting around the bottom half of Division One, no one could reasonably advocate mass spending as a way of bridging the gap in standards. Many clubs may soon be worse off, if the European Commission forces individual, rather than collective, bargaining for TV rights on the Premier League, which would just enrich the biggest (ie most popular) clubs.
There is one, otherwise wholly useless, change in the offing that may improve playing standards. In order to fill the couple of hours on Five not currently taken up by the gormless John Barnes trying to work out which camera to look into or highlights of last week’s Dutch League games, from next season the UEFA Cup will, after a single knockout round, have 40 teams in eight groups of five. The good news is that each team will play two home and two away games, not eight group matches. Three teams will qualify, too. English football’s poor relations may just learn something before being shown the door.
From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month