Wednesday 21 March 2018

Does the absence of Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea detract from the Champions League?

Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool all failed to qualify for the Champions League this season. Getty
Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool all failed to qualify for the Champions League this season. Getty

Mark Ogden

Just imagine the Champions League group stage draw with Valencia, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Sevilla representing Spain, Roma, Lazio and Fiorentina flying the flag for Italy and Wolfsburg, Borussia Monchengladbach, Schalke and Werder Bremen carrying Germany’s hopes.

No Barcelona or Real Madrid, no Juventus, AC Milan or Inter Milan and no Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

It would be a nightmare scenario for Uefa, and those broadcasters who have pumped millions into the Champions League to secure exclusive television rights, but the chances of it happening are pretty minimal.

Yet pose the same question about a Champions League without Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea and it has already become a reality.

For the first time since the 1995-96 campaign, when Blackburn Rovers were the Premier League’s sole representative in the Champions League, English football will have no previous winners in the draw for the group stages later today.

With eight European Cups between them, and two near misses as runners-up apiece, Liverpool and United are undisputed Champions League royalty, but Chelsea have nurtured a European pedigree of their own over the past decade, winning the competition in 2012 and losing on penalties to United in the 2008 Final in Moscow.

Failure and under-performance on the pitch last season has left all three  locked out of Uefa’s platinum club this season, however, with Liverpool and Chelsea failing even to secure the (dubious) consolation prize of a place in the Europa League.

But what does it say for the Premier League that its four Champions League entrants this season will have no European Cups between them, with only Arsenal able to boast an appearance in the final following their defeat to Barcelona in Paris ten years ago?

First of all, the Premier League’s Champions League line-up of Leicester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City emphasises the competitive nature of English football’s top flight.

For much of the last decade, it was a closed shop, with United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal enjoying annual membership until Spurs denied Liverpool a place in the 2010-11 competition.

But since the turn of the decade, Liverpool have missed out more often than they have qualified and United are facing their second campaign out of the Champions League in the space of three seasons.

Arsenal are the only club to consistently qualify for the Champions League, but their consistency extends to hugely under-performing once they get there.

Each of England’s competing clubs in this season’s competition will be there in merit, but there is a distinct lack of pedigree and one of them must scale new heights if they are to win it.

United, Liverpool and Chelsea have grown accustomed to going deep into the competition, reaching finals and winning them, but their semi-final record is also strong.

Experience of the Champions League has given them all the nous to navigate a path to the latter stages, even when their domestic form has deserted them – Liverpool and Chelsea both won the Champions League, in 2005 and 2012 respectively, despite finishing outside the Premier League top four.

So will the Premier League be at a disadvantage this season without a previous winner in the Champions League mix?

City, at least, made it to the semi-final last season and in Pep Guardiola, they now have a coach who knows exactly how to win the Champions League having done so twice with Barcelona.

But few will back Arsenal’s prospects of ending their agonising wait for Champions League glory this season, Leicester will face an almighty challenge to go all the way and Tottenham, without the advantage of playing home games at White Hart Lane, must avoid visiting teams raising their game at Wembley when they play their home fixtures in the competition this season.

The big losers from England’s Champions League line-up will be the television companies, however.

Manchester United vs Liverpool remains the biggest audience puller in English football – it is a game that generates huge demand across the globe with 600-700 million regarded as a typical worldwide audience  – while Chelsea vs Liverpool, thanks largely to a series of epic Champions League battles a decade ago, is the second biggest fixture for the broadcasters.

United and Liverpool guarantee the broadcasters big audiences throughout the United Kingdom and beyond, while Chelsea have also gradually built up a global fanbase in recent years.

Arsenal are not far behind, but television executives already know that City, Spurs and Leicester generate little appeal beyond their own support base.

If the absence of Liverpool, United and Chelsea hits audience figures, the domino effect will see advertising revenues fall, so the likes of BT Sport and ITV, the current Champions League rights holders, will be watching with interest.

Still, with a draw that could throw up group games such as City vs Barcelona, Arsenal vs Real Madrid and Spurs against Bayern Munich, there is no doubt that it could get very interesting.

But few will be tuning in for Leicester vs Ludogorets.

Independent News Service

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