The Champions League rolled back into footballing town with a bang this week. Tuesday night saw British teams fall either side of injury time goal drama as Liverpool deservedly beat PSG late on at Anfield while Tottenham perhaps undeservedly fell to defeat versus Inter Milan at the San Siro. Wednesday night brought more drama as a surprisingly sloppy Manchester City side were beaten at home by Lyon while Manchester United cruised to a comfortable away victory versus Young Boys.
Being involved in this high level midweek action means that these four clubs must now face a typically sharp turn around before jumping back into a domestic league that is more competitive than ever. This of course is something that the main stakeholders of the clubs and the football world in general have become comfortably accustomed to. Shorter breaks between games is simply one of the prices of the success earned from the previous season. And those who fought so ruggedly for those precious top four spots can now battle for an even bigger prize on the world stage.
This is a tried and tested system in modern football and it still seems to work. Even when ignoring the outrageous amounts of money that qualifying for the Champions League gives domestic clubs (especially those south of Hadrian’s Wall) the yearly process of vying for those four spots does add an extra element to the battle at top end of the table. Whether you think that four qualifying places is too many or not, it’s tough to argue having ‘a race for the Champions League spots’ alongside the title race and the relegation battle isn’t beneficial for the league in terms of entertainment and club rivalry.
Another question to ask though is: is qualifying for the Champions League always a good thing for those that do? Many will scoff flippantly at such queries, again noting the ridiculous monetary boost given to clubs that manage to get into the top four. That fact cannot be argued and clearly for the majority of the top six clubs its crucial that they qualify so that they can gain enough capital in order to spend heavily on what large football clubs typically spend heavily on. However, when taking into account a point brought across by Gary Neville recently where he claimed that Liverpool would have to essentially pick between the Premier League and the Champions League as their squad wasn’t strong enough to try and win both, a better question might be: is being in the Champions League always good for clubs on a footballing level?
Again, many (like Jurgen Klopp who instantly rebutted Neville’s claims perhaps primarily because of their Mancunian origin) would dismissively answer ‘of course it is’ pointing out that your squad gets to play in the best club competition in the world, therefore competing against the footballing elite, while your fan base gets to enjoy special Champions League nights where sometimes the most marvelous things can happen. Once more, it’s evident that all these things are true. The Champions League itself is a brilliant competition that has complied dozens of iconic matches and moments since it took over from the old European Cup format in 1992. Though by nature it’s brilliance and high quality means it is extremely difficult to win. Liverpool performed wonders last year and still fell short at the last hurdle through a combination of bad luck and worse goalkeeping.
During that near miss at glory, they naturally had to prioritise their European endeavours somewhat in the latter stages of the season. By then of course the league title was already basically in Man City’s grasp, however this year it looks as though Pep Guardiola’s team won’t have it so easy. This is where Neville’s assertion that a choice may have to be made for clubs who have their eye on both domestic and European glory gains some validity.
Beyond Guardiola’s City, looking at the squads (and current form in some cases) of the four domestic teams competing in Champions League this season it’s hard to make a convincing case for an all out assault on both fronts. Pochettino’s Tottenham side famously didn’t add to their squad at all over the summer meaning they will probably struggle to find enough depth to go for both trophies. Manchester United meanwhile perhaps need to prioritise domestic success and stabilising a ready to rock ship before worrying about any sort of European silverware. The aforementioned Liverpool are a more intriguing case though, especially after Daniel Sturridge’s encouraging performance versus PSG, if they can keep their key players (especially in attack) fit they could defy Neville’s prediction that their squad is too thin to better what they did in Europe last season as well as pushing City all the way in the league.
Before we get ahead of ourselves analysing whether City or Liverpool or anyone else for that matter can push for glory on both fronts, it’s crucial to point out that not since Ferguson’s Manchester United dynasty has a British team won the Premier League and Champions League in the same season. That again is simply because it’s ridiculously difficult to do so. Moreover, comparing the 2008 football climate to today’s, it’s important assess what ‘success’ actually might be for some clubs. Take Tottenham over the past two seasons for instance, who have accrued an average of over eighty one points during that time, meaning they finished second and third in the league in those respective seasons trailing behind clubs who broke records as they went on to win the title. No silverware was gained for Spurs in this period yet finishing comfortably above some of their top six rivals surely has to count for something even in the hyper competitive climate that we find ourselves in.
It’s this climate though that pressures clubs and their managers to attempt to do the almost impossible and emulate Ferguson’s United and others before them. Jurgen Klopp when responding to Gary Neville’s comments jokingly asked the reporter if he should just play the kids in the Champions League if his sole focus should be winning the Premier League. Obviously, he has a point, he could never do that, the expectations surrounding the club are far too high for that sort of approach. Note that Klopp has been heavily scolded in the past for putting out weak sides in the FA Cup, one could only imagine the backlash if he rested the magic front three of Firmino, Salah and Mane on Tuesday night.
So he, like many other top managers around Britain and Europe, is stuck between a self created rock and hard place. You have to qualify for the Champions League, if you don’t a P45 might make its way into your inbox however if you do you must now juggle a crazy number of games, some of which are versus the best of best, all the while hoping your new signing doesn’t pick up a pulled hamstring at any point in the season. In reality, managers just have to try to rotate their squads the best they can and hope that this approach can take them into the business end of each competition so that a final push can be made. There is no other way. Yet secretly, behind the sarcastic answers to the press and endless defending of that rotation, you wonder if managers wish somehow that there was.