Wednesday 5 March ~
In the wake of Arsenal's victory in Milan and Man Utd's stroll against Lyon, it's likely that there will be four English clubs in the last eight of the Champions League. Or at least four multi-national clubs based in England, each of whom might feature three or four English players at most. A couple of the habitual participants in the knockout stages of the Champions League, Bayern Munich and Juventus, are missing this year but those two, plus the Milan clubs and Real Madrid and Barcelona, are all now multi-national concerns – though with more locally born players than the English clubs can muster. This elite group now play each other with almost the regularity of league fixtures. Some think this arrangement should be formalised and we can expect to hear increasingly frequent murmurings to this effect.
Arsenal's triumph in Milan supposedly confirmed the Premier League's frequent boast that it is the world's best. Incredibly, there are those who think that isn't asserted often enough. But claims about the relative standards of the European leagues are only made in relation to the dominant clubs in each competition. TV viewers here who watch the other major leagues on Sky and Setanta can see for themselves that the Premier League does not in fact provide the best overall standard of football. The big four in England are indeed among the best in Europe. But that is principally because their domestic dominance enables them to qualify year after year for the Champions League, the income from which in turn consolidates their superiority at home.
UEFA president Michel Platini's reforms to the Champions League from 2009 are designed to enable more clubs from smaller leagues to qualify for the group stage, at the expense of some clubs from the big four countries who will be drawn against each other in qualifiers. Although this will damage the chances of any other English clubs breaking into the PL's big four, it also means at that least one of the big four may not qualify for the Champions League group stage. (It's widely agreed that a failure to finish fourth this season would be a “financial disaster” for Liverpool and their American owners.)
Richard Scudamore's claim that his vilified Game 39 plan was in part aimed at helping the rump PL clubs to bridge the gap to the big four falls down on this point. No measure that seeks to address the imbalance within the PL will ever meet with the approval of the major clubs – they want to reduce competition, not increase it. Amid the outcry over Game 39, Arsène Wenger reiterated his view – which he's been trotting out fairly consistently since arriving at Arsenal in 1997 – that a European league will come into being. Wenger takes care not to address the issue of what would happen to the other clubs in the domestic leagues. But that's nothing to do with him, after all.