08 March 2007

England in Europe

We’ve reached the second knockout round in both European competitions and 5 English teams are still alive: Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United in the Champions League, and Newcastle and Tottenham in UEFA Cup ties, going on as I write. Chelsea, United and Liverpool, in that order, are the bookies’ favorites to win the Champions League. In addition, both Arsenal in the CL and Blackburn in the UEFA Cup qualified out of their groups only to lose in the first knockout round. Even Scotland's performed at a better level, with Rangers alive in the UEFA Cup and Celtic dumped out of the CL by AC Milan yesterday. Is this a special year, a little bit of luck, or simply a fluke?

I guess I’ll start from the beginning, with the opposition each faced in the group stages:

Chelsea: Barcelona, Levski Sofia, Werder Bremen
Liverpool: Bordeaux, Galatasaray, PSV
Man Utd: Benfica, Celtic, FC Copenhagen
Newcastle: Celta Vigo, Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbache, Palermo
Tottenham: Bayer Leverkusen, Besiktas, Club Brugge, Dynamo Bucharest

Admittedly, Liverpool had a fairly easy route out of the group stage. And despite being in marginally more difficult groups, both Chelsea and United were favorites to qualify from theirs. As were the teams involved in the UEFA Cup, even though, as history has proved time and time again, the UEFA Cup is much more of a crapshoot, especially in the group stages with the mix of home and away games. All around, it does seem as if English teams have had an easier path than in years past. But not by much. 3 of England’s big four qualified out of their groups last year. United crashed out of Europe last year with a similar group, and on paper, it seems a lot more likely that Liverpool would have beaten Benfica last year than Barcelona this year.

This has been a strange year all around. Both competitions, but especially the Champions League, have seemed far more by the book than in previous years. The UEFA Cup, with the insane amount of teams involved and far easier path for those who drop out of the Champions League after the group stage, always throws up some surprises but a recognizable winner. But the Champions League has been exceptionally “normal” this year. Porto in 2004, Liverpool in 2005, and Arsenal reaching the final in 2006 were all surprises to some degree. Now, it seems like we’re left with all big names and few surprises. Chelsea and Valencia are the sole teams remaining to never reach a European Cup final, and along with Roma, are the only to have never won one. More importantly, Chelsea and Roma are the only teams left not a member of the G-14.

It wasn’t my intention when thinking up this topic to finish with a rant on the commercialization of football and on the G-14. But it’s an unavoidable conclusion. Big money has become a necessity to compete at the highest level. While it’s been an issue domestically for a while longer, especially in England with the “big four” monopoly, it’s become more and more apparent across Europe competition as well. Chelsea and Roma may not be members of the G-14, but it’s not as if either are suffering for funds. And in the UEFA Cup, Spurs and Newcastle are more than well-financed, despite not being one of the big four.

I hate to use Chelsea as an example, but look at what they’ve done this past year. £30m plus for Shevchenko's transfer and an egregious amount of money in wages for Ballack. Not to mention something like £25m combined for Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel. All for a better chance at the trophy that has eluded Mourinho while in London, because I guarantee those purchases weren’t made for the Premier League.

England, at the forefront of this commercialization, is reaping the benefits in European competition. Admittedly, I am enjoying this year’s European competitions (even the UEFA Cup!) because of a greater familiarity with all the teams involved, but this is yet another example of what many have feared in the game. Money doesn't quite rule everything yet, as I'm fairly sure Barcelona's side is more expensively assembled than Liverpool, but we're not far away from that point, and it's not as if any of the teams remaining are checking under the sofa for loose change.

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