Monday 19 March 2018

Like politics all football is still local

'If they lose a Champions League place, Europe will become a little bit more distant, a place which they know a little less about, but the Premier League won’t mind.'
'If they lose a Champions League place, Europe will become a little bit more distant, a place which they know a little less about, but the Premier League won’t mind.'

Dion Fanning

Poor England and her coefficient. Perhaps we can place the saga which is going to unfold over the season in the folder dealing with the country's ongoing and troubled relationship with Europe. It won't be long, surely, before somebody questions the whole basis on which UEFA has ranked nations and wonders what anti-English bias allowed them to award as many points for a win in the hated Europa League as the Champions League.

They will have to embrace the competition which, for many, will be as difficult as it would be for Nigel Farage to thank the European Commission for their work in breaking down borders between EU nations.

But for those who need the Europa League it will be worse as they will be tormented by having to rely on Joe Allen or Theo Walcott when Arsenal's time in the competition comes.

In the anguished howls of Robbie Savage's co-commentary on Wednesday night, we caught a glimpse of the agonies those who love English football are enduring right now but it may be that they are a small number.

Savage's yelps and screams as he willed Manchester City on against Borussia Mönchengladbach and thought of the lost coefficient points may have added to the amusement on the night as England fought back in this great battle.

Few would place themselves on the same side as Savage in a debate. We inhabit a mysterious and opaque planet, a planet where it is now customary to be happily watching a football match when the commentator will deliver a preview of the forthcoming attractions which will include the words '. . . and as usual at 10.0am on Saturday, it's Fletch & Sav'. But Sav was hurting on Wednesday, although I'm sure it was forgotten by the time yesterday morning's massive bantering took place, as usual.

For others, the state of the coefficient will not be a concern. What makes the Premier League the compelling competition it remains is this tribal insularity. I find it hard to imagine too many West Brom or Sunderland fans looking over the coefficient tables last week and breathing a deep sigh of relief when they saw Roma had lost, before adding, "Let's hope Louis Van Gaal's expertise in Europe helps United go all the way this season."

Those who are most interested in England's coefficient will be the supporters of clubs who might miss out on the fourth place and the executives of BT who spent so much money buying the Champions League.

There is a failure but it is possible that it is a failure simply of the four English teams who are always in the Champions League rather than the nation as a whole. Maybe England can let itself off the hook on this one.

All these clubs have had unhappy recent experiences in the Champions League - although Chelsea won it three years ago and reached the semi-final last year so it's not that miserable - and they are all unhappy in their own way.

Since their years of dominance, these clubs have lost the world-class players who, say, Manchester United had when they won the trophy in 2008.

There was a time, too, when other clubs like Liverpool and Chelsea had managers and teams who understood the craft of winning knock-out games in Europe. It was a craft that was at the time derided as 'shit on a stick' but how some seem to pine for that shit and that glorious stick.

But Arsenal may represent the decline most profoundly because they achieved a kind of permanence, resembling one of those vaguely familiar and aged politicians with a majority of 189,000 who pop up in the House of Commons every so often, drifting happily along, never doing much wrong but never doing much right either until something terrible happens during a night out at Madame Jojo's.

This was Arsenal's life in the Champions League, an inevitable and regal, if largely invisible, journey to the knock-out stages before they made an inevitable and regal exit.

Last year, the exit was a little less regal when they lost to a team they were expected to defeat and now they are being beaten in the group stages, reaching the stage of scandal and shame.

Arsenal will fail in the Champions League but that's not news. The indictment of the Premier League will be if they continue to cruise along as part of the top four.

Somebody should be poised to replace Arsenal but it is more likely that Arsenal will spend the cash reserves which protect them against the rest and the rest will be comfortably secure in sixth or seventh.

The Premier League hasn't failed. If anything, it has been too successful. They have worked out a model of distributing this great wealth among the clubs, ensuring a kind of predictable chaos which involves West Ham beating Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City without real change occurring.

Over the past five years, nine Spanish clubs have reached the group stages of the Champions League. In that time, Liverpool are the only English club to break the regular gang of four's hold when they made a brief and memorably unimpressive appearance last season, turning up like a boyfriend vomiting in a flower pot on the doorstep as he arrives to meet his prospective mother-in-law, before rushing away again and hoping they weren't recognised.

Maybe this will become a more familiar occurrence but the chances are that England won't care. As the excellent Swiss Ramble has pointed out, when the new TV deal begins only two European clubs - Real Madrid and Barcelona - will earn more money from television than the lowliest Premier League side.

For those reasons, the Premier League won't become something else because the clubs have a few dispiriting nights in Europe. They have too many consolations. The Premier League is the Vicomte Valmont of sporting competitions, what is true of most men is doubly so of them.

If they lose a Champions League place, Europe will become a little bit more distant, a place which they know a little less about, but the Premier League won't mind. They have found a formula which makes them seductive and rich, and only something that makes them poor will change how they act.

The coefficient has great power but it can't do that.

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