I don’t very often get the opportunity to praise UEFA – generally they don’t do very much I agree with – but when they deserve credit let it not be said I didn’t give it to them. And, frankly, they deserve considerable praise for the way they have handled the expansion of the Champions League.
Let’s forget for a minute whether you agree that the competition should grow from 32 teams to 36. I am personally in favour of it, but I understand those who think the extra teams and the extra games may devalue the contest. However, to me what was more important than the expansion itself was where those extra four teams were coming from.
The original idea was that two of those places would go to teams who didn’t qualify for the competition but who had a successful history in Europe. So, it wouldn’t matter how crap they currently are, the fact that they were good in the past would grant them passage to the continent’s top competition. And that was fundamentally wrong. It would have destroyed the entire concept of sporting merit.
But, announcing that the expansion would come into effect from the 2024/25 season, UEFA said that idea had been scrapped, and instead the four new places would be allocated on merit like, for example, extra slots going to the countries that performed best in Europe the previous season.
And that is where the organisation deserves credit – for not bowing to the pressure put on them by these sleeping giants who are desperately looking to sneak back into the big time through a back door.
The organisation deserves credit for not bowing to pressure by sleeping giants looking to sneak back through a back door
I’m not going to name any names, but we all know the type of club I am talking about here – one that feels it still has the right to be considered a giant of the European game despite achieving no tangible success for years and years.
In announcing the changes, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin was adamant that merit needs to be at the forefront of taking part in all European competitions. “Qualification will thus remain purely based on sporting performance and the dream to participate will remain for all clubs,” he said.
Well done to that man.
Overall, my biggest doubt about these changes comes in the initial league phase. That will see all 36 teams thrown into a single table with each team playing eight different opponents, four home and four away. The top eight teams in this mega league will automatically qualify for the next phase while the teams finishing from ninth to 24th will go into play-offs.
I suppose this format could end up being exciting, but for me, any league system should involve all the teams playing each other. Of course, that would be impossible with a 36-team league – it would take years to get to the next phase.
So why not go for four groups of nine, with the top four in each group qualifying for the next phase? Or maybe the top three, and those in fourth and fifth place going into a play-off pool with the other fourth and fifth placed teams?
It’s decisions like that mega-group one that leave me scratching my head as to how UEFA comes up with their plans. But today isn’t about complaining, it’s about giving credit where it is due. And the biggest issue – not allowing sleeping giants a wild card entry to the tournament – was dealt with admirably by UEFA. So well done Ceferin.
Final piece in Pep’s jigsaw
If Manchester City weren’t formidable before – and I am pretty sure just about every Premier League manager would say they were – then their signing of Erling Haaland surely adds a whole new level of fear for their opponents.
Let’s remember, Pep Guardiola’s team have essentially played this entire season without a recognised striker yet have still scored 94 goals and remain in pole position to secure their fourth title in the past five seasons. If they have managed that level of performance without a number nine, how deadly are they likely to be when you throw one of the world’s most prolific and lethal strikers into the mix?
If there can be any criticism of City, it’s that they miss too many chances. Their attacking excellence creates a plethora of goalscoring opportunities in just about every game they play, yet they often squander a good number of them. The ridiculously lethal Haaland should bring that squandering to an end.
Of course, it would be silly to say next season’s title race is over before it starts. Liverpool will have a lot to say about who takes the crown, as will the likes of Chelsea and maybe even Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. Football has far too many variables – signings, injuries, form, fixtures – to ever suggest the battle to be crowned champions is a foregone conclusion before it even starts.
But if there was a missing piece in City’s football domination jigsaw, it was a world-class striker. And strikers don’t come much more world-class than Haaland. Importantly from a City perspective, you get the impression the signing of the Norwegian hitman might be just what Pep needed to persuade him to extend his stay in Manchester beyond next season.
The Spaniard will be infinitely aware that having Erling smashing in the goals will dramatically increase City’s chances of breaking their European drought. And if you had to take a look at Pep’s ‘to-do’ list for next season, there is only one item on it: win the Champions League.
Haaland could well be the player that makes that changes that list from ‘to-do’ to ‘done’...
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