It has become clear that the Champions League dictates what is deemed a successful season for any major club in Europe. The manner in which managers are moved on due to failure to meet minimum requirements of European qualification has caused a number of teams to lose stability and face the prospect of starting the rebuilding process all over again. Yes, it brings financial security, especially for English teams who receive more in income than their European counterparts, but a year or two away from the glamour and lights of club football’s elite competition could be a huge silver lining during a perceived period of darkness.
It has become a much bigger trend in recent seasons for big clubs on the continent to miss out on the Champions League: AC Milan travelled to Fratton Park in 2008 in the Uefa Cup—a tie from a parallel universe only a few years earlier—while the giants of German football Bayern Munich also experienced a year in unfamiliar territory in Uefa’s second competition . It seemed unlikely that anything of that nature would spill over into the Premier League because the strength of the top four seemed too much for others over the course of 38 games, and that the ‘traditional’ top four would remain intact for many years to come. We’ve seen Manchester City and their millions completely blow apart that theory, as well as Tottenham who have experienced a similar step up but with far less financial resources. Of course, some of this is also due to the trouble Liverpool were in under previous owners Hicks and Gillett.
Interestingly, Juventus remain the only unbeaten side in all the major leagues in Europe. The Turin side currently sit in second place in Serie A and have been aided in their good form this season without the burden of European competition. Juventus have also dispelled the myth that teams not competing in Europe will be unable to attract big names or hold onto their own stars. The club signed midfielder Arturo Vidal from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer, as well as adding veteran midfielder Andrea Pirlo to their ranks. The latter, despite a relatively poor season last year for Milan, has been a central figure in his new club’s good form this season. Similarly, PSG and their new-found riches had no problem attracting top talent last summer, bringing in players such as Kevin Gameiro from FC Lorient and £40million Javier Pastore from Palermo. A signal of intent? Absolutely. The Paris side, despite a number of blips this season, are sitting at the top of the French league.
Chelsea’s Andre Villas-Boas continues to see the vultures circling above as any wrong move could certainly spell the end for his time at Chelsea. And for what exactly? Apparent failure to qualify for the Champions League next season? What if the club do finish fourth but get knocked out in qualifying due to the nature of the set-up for the final round of qualifiers? If Chelsea have spent big up until that point—and I’m sure they have a number of high-priced targets in mind—then will they sack AVB in that instance despite the signings made for his philosophy? The point is, Chelsea, like many big teams in Europe, could do with a period of readjustment and time away from the limelight of the Champions League. Juventus are making good use of their time out of Europe, Spurs are flying high like no one thought they would, and AC Milan have acquired new talents—a number of which are big names in European football—and won their first Serie A title since 2004 last season and continue to remain at the top of the league table.
Of course, the financial aspect of failing to qualify for the Champions League is significant, especially with the Financial Fair Play coming into effect soon. But this is not a view based on the financial side of the game, it’s one solely looking at the football side. A good run domestically without the pressures of competing on a Tuesday or Wednesday night abroad can set up the foundations for a number of successful years to follow. Bayern’s failure to qualify in 2007/08 proved to be the tonic needed to allow the club to reshape the squad and complete a successful double winning season that year. Without the allure of the Champions League, the Bavarian side were still able to acquire Franck Ribery from Marseille as well as adding significant firepower to their attack in the form of Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose.
What we’ve seen from Liverpool this season, however, is conflicting to the notion that a year away from European commitments will bring a successful domestic campaign. The Anfield club are currently sitting in seventh place in a distinctly poor Premier League year for most of the top clubs. Despite money being spent over the past 12 months, they have been unable to translate their ambitions for the season into results on the pitch, and face the prospect of another year away from Europe’s top competition unless they improve. The bright side to this, again, is that they would be allowed another year in which to continue the rebuilding process and free of potentially damaging trips away in Europe.
In spite of the view that the Champions League is a competition based on good fortune as well as good performances, there are less than a handful of teams now who are genuinely able to win the competition. Barcelona and Real Madrid hold such a high and consistent standing in La Liga that they can afford to put much more into European competition, where teams from other leagues are constantly worrying about those around them domestically. Maybe a successful period of transition doesn’t simply come to the fore, as teams like Arsenal hope it would. The team have been in the same standing for almost 10 years and it’s becoming stale more than anything. They have little hope of winning the Champions League and, due to European commitments, have little hope of sustaining a strong enough challenge on the league title. Again, without concern for the financial side of it, perhaps a year away from the Champions League would be best suited to teams who are similarly in a never-ending cycle of transition.
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