Tuesday 9 December ~
"It's a hell of a cup competition when you play 46 games just to get to the semi-finals." So said the noted sage David Webb when his Brentford side entered the play-offs in 1994-95 after finishing as runners-up in Division Two. Second to fifth place took part that year due to adjustments to the number of teams in each division – and Brentford duly lost to Huddersfield in the semi-finals, one of their six play-off defeats. The Champions League group stages only involve six games for each team but with English teams' financial power lifting them onto a higher plain than most of the opposition, they have come to seem like turgid pre-season kickabouts rolling on through the autumn.
When players cite "wanting Champions League football" as a reason why they must leave their club to sit on Chelsea's bench for a couple of years, their minds are focused on those evenings in the Bernabeu or the Nou Camp in the spring, seven months after the tournament began, rather than group matches against the champions of Turkey and whichever team has finished a distant second to Lyon in Ligue 1. It is no surprise, then, that Liverpool have not sold out their ticket allocation for a third trip to Eindhoven in two years or that Stamford Bridge will less than packed out for Chelsea's tie with Cluj tonight.
Chelsea still need a win to be certain of qualifying for the knockout stage, although it's more likely that a draw will do. They have been beaten twice at home this season but Big Phil seems airily unconcerned: "It is zero pressure. Pressure was when I was coach of Brazil." Although the Mirror today warns that they would be "missing out on the £25 million windfall" from winning the competition should they be eliminated, money is of course no object for Roman Abramovich despite his having lost £12 billion on the Russian stock market recently.
It is still a pressing concern, however, for another English team in CL action this week, with their current debts of over £200m. As Arsenal head off to play in Porto, the club's new chief executive Ivan Gazidis has claimed that they are in a better position than Chelsea – "Arsenal has been run to sustain itself. It is not dependent on an outside investor to pump money in year after year" – but he'll have his fingers crossed when saying it. Arsenal are in their exalted position because of the income accrued through playing over 100 games in the Champions League. The last few League games of this season will indeed resemble a cup competition if there is serious contest for fourth place and no business plan that Mr Gazidis can cook up will compensate for having to plough through group games in the comically renamed Europa League in 2009-10.