Friday 22 September 2017

Miguel Delaney: China, Chelsea and the Champions League - Five important questions facing football in 2017

Not many people predicted Chelsea to be top of the table at this stage, but under Antonio Conte they have shown a determination to stay there. Photo: Getty Images
Not many people predicted Chelsea to be top of the table at this stage, but under Antonio Conte they have shown a determination to stay there. Photo: Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

Can Ireland make it to Russia 2018 - and make it a two-in-a-row of qualifying for major tournaments?

It is the big hope going into the new year, only emboldened by the unusually strong position Martin O'Neill's side find themselves in.

Ireland have so far taken command of a tough World Cup group, and sit there on top of it right across a long break. Perhaps the most pertinent question is how they respond to that; whether they can keep the pace; whether they can really bring it home. It is not just that this is an unusual position for Ireland, after all.

It's that the country has never actually reached a tournament from such a situation. In each of Ireland's qualifications - even the one group where they eventually finished first, in Euro 88 - the side has had to come from behind; to derive the defiance they so enjoy from being underdogs.

They've never been first going into the change of year and then followed that with qualification. A large part of that is probably down to the risks inherent in this campaign. Unless you're one of the major nations, with huge strength in depth and a core of elite stars, it's very difficult to maintain that kind of consistency over almost two years.

Ireland, at least, have already impressively built on Euro 2016. The win in Austria was proof of that, and goes hand in hand with how so many of the squad are in good situations in their club careers. The hope - and, maybe, the key - is that can continue. Or, if it doesn't, whether O'Neill can do what he did in the 2016 campaign and fire a late rally. Either way, as 2016 became 2017, the Irish side were in a near-perfect situation. O'Neill has the opportunity to make it a perfect record, by qualifying for two successive competitions for the first time since 1990.

How will global politics affect the game - and that World Cup?

There's no getting away from it. Football can't be a necessary escape from ongoing global strife for so long without eventually being directly affected by it.

Beyond anything, there's the basic fact that every country on the globe is currently striving to qualify for a World Cup in a country that is currently at the centre of so many delicate political situations: Russia.

Uefa, for example, has already had a fair few complications trying to keep clubs and countries apart in competition due to national disputes. It is entirely within the realm of possibility these complications will multiply within the next year.

Then there are the concerns over Russia's preparation, and all the issues with security that hung over Euro 2016. The summer's Confederations Cup will be more interesting than ever before - but not necessarily for what happens on the pitch.

Will the Premier League live up to its new billing - or will Chelsea kill the title race?

For all the hype surrounding the Premier League, some of this season's has so far been more than justified. The arrival of so many top-class managers has undeniably lifted the level, creating a series of crackling big matches. Encounters like Liverpool's 4-3 win over Arsenal, or Manchester City's 3-1 defeat to Chelsea are a world away from the dreary "controlled" football of the 'big four' era between 2004 and 2009, when the Premier League first started to market itself in this way.

It has fostered the hope of a highly competitive title race, maybe even one with more than three teams involved, and unpredictability right to the end befitting so many riveting games. Except, in those results, there was one big reason why it might end up as bad a procession as ever before: how rampant Chelsea have looked. The league won't feel that lively if there's only Champions League qualification to play for with a few games to go.

Which big-name manager will badly fail in the year ahead?

What is also so enticing about this season is not just that we have so many teams justifiably believing they can take that one place at the top. It is that, by definition, a few of them will have to fail. And some will have to fail badly. Right now, for example, it is statistically likely that at least one - maybe even two - of Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will miss out on Champions League qualification, let alone the title. That will throw up an awful lot of debate of where they're at right now in their careers, especially given the wealthy clubs they're at and the discussions this season has already seen.

Will Wenger finally fall out of the top four, to confirm decline? What will it say about Guardiola if he falls so badly now he's at last in a league with a variety of competition to his side? Is Mourinho really past his best? Or . . . will Wenger once again show no-one has resilience like him? Will Guardiola prove his sophistication? Will Mourinho make a mockery of those who have written him off?

Then there's the man at the top of the table, Conte. Few predicted Chelsea to win the title but, now that they're in first, it would be a huge disappointment to fall.

Can someone outside the really big three finally win the Champions League?

You could hear the murmurs in the hall as the names were drawn out, and Arsenal were once more drawn against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last 16, and Barcelona were once more drawn against Paris Saint-Germain.

The repetition of these fixtures reflects the grander repetitiveness of the entire competition, so conditioned by the real super clubs. Since 2010, 62.5pc of the semi-final places have been taken by Bayern, Barca and Real Madrid. Since 2012, they are the only clubs to have won it. It seems likely one of them will claim it again, especially given their super-club resources. But are there finally signs it could crack this season?

Barca and Bayern have had domestic struggles, while Real have rarely looked convincing despite a fine winning run, and it affected them in how they finished second in their Champions League group. Then there's the fact most of the finest coaches are at the English clubs, as well as the growth of Juventus and grizzled experience of Atletico.

Many of those finals of the last four years also went to the last minutes. Will something finally give the other way this time? Will we at least see relative variety in Europe's grandest competition again.

Just how much will the Chinese Super League change the game?

If the familiarity of the Champions League makes it feel like football needs a bit of a shake-up, and could do with some make-weights against the monolithic power of the European giants, change might already be on the horizon. In fact, its money is already visible. The Chinese Super League isn't just capable of matching the wages of the big continental clubs, but far surpassing them. It's just that, due to a far inferior level of football, it hasn't been able to bring in a proper bona fide star to match those wages. But will that change this year?

The signing of Oscar did feel significant in that it was a rare case of a talented - if out-of-favour - player going there before even reaching his prime, but was immediately counteracted by Cristiano Ronaldo's rejection of the competition, dulling some of that momentum, and emphasising that the league isn't that enticing - yet. A number of players will face that decision in the next year, though, and it will tell us a lot more about how far the Chinese Super League can go and how fast.

No-one should be under any illusions about what is possible there, given the immense political will to establish the country as a football superpower, and the immense private money to back that up.

It's just that it still feels like too much of the league is in too nascent a state, and there is still far too big a gap between the expensive signings and the general level, with that made evident on sub-par pitches in a competition lacking prestige. There's also the example of Russia. Their competition was seen as the potential next major power less than a decade ago, only for the wind to change.

That doesn't look likely any time soon in China, mind. Instead, we're more likely to see a very big-name player go there in the near future. That could be a true game-changer, in the most literal sense.

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