If two clubs could be said to have profited from the Champions League more so than any others in the English game, it is Manchester United and Arsenal. Under managers Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger respectively, both have enjoyed lengthy spells at the top of the English game and with this, has brought regular Champions League football.
Indeed, both Arsenal and Manchester United have participated in the competition in every season since the 1998-99 season, the second year in which countries were allowed to have more than one participant . Manchester United have participated in the competition in every year since 1993-94, bar the 1995-96 season, when Blackburn were the only English team in the event.
This is an incredible achievement for both teams and has meant that both have enjoyed both the extra publicity and of course, the considerable financial gain from playing in the competition on a regular basis.
For Manchester United and Arsenal fans, this has become something of a virtuous circle; the more times they qualify for the competition, the more money they get and the better players they can sign. That and the expansion of qualifiers from two teams, to three and then to four (and from the 2015/2016 season, potentially five) means that teams who regularly qualify for the Champions League often find it easier to do once again.
That is not to understate the domestic achievements of both Arsenal and United in this period. Both have performed superbly well to remain perennial qualifiers for the Champions League every season, however there is no doubt that the regular income from that competition, gives them a big advantage over teams who don’t have this money available.
So this season is looking rather interesting to say the least; could we see a Champions League representation in 2014-2015 which sees neither Manchester United, nor Arsenal representing English interests?
It seems very unlikely Manchester United will qualify through their league form. It’s been a turbulent first season for David Moyes and United are just so far behind the top four that realistically, their only chance of gaining entry into next year’s Champions League hinges on them winning the tournament this year.
United were the rank outsiders before the first leg of their quarter final game with Bayern Munich, but a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford has given them hope of springing an upset and perhaps doing enough to reach at least the semi finals. Beyond that, who knows what is possible?
Arsenal however looked relatively safe in the top four just a few weeks ago. Indeed the Gunners were top of the table as recently as February but since then have suffered alarming defeats at the hands of Liverpool and Chelsea, while a draw with Manchester City wasn’t really enough to close the gap on the top three.
More problematic for Arsenal though is that fourth place is now no longer a certainty as Everton are closing in on the Gunners. The Toffeemen are just four points behind Arsenal, with a game in hand, and next weekend, they take on Arsenal at Goodison Park. If Everton win that game, they can win their game in hand and leapfrog Arsenal in the table into the crucial fourth spot.
Of course, both teams still have points to contest, but if Arsenal finish outside the top four and United don’t win the Champions League, it will be the first time in 16 years that both teams have not qualified for the tournament.
Personally, I believe that will only be to the benefit of the domestic game in England. Here’s why.
A quick glance around the top league’s in Europe will show a worrying pattern. A few years ago, the standing joke was that the Scottish title race was effectively a two-horse race given that Rangers and Celtic were so superior to the other teams in their division.
Unfortunately, across Europe, all the major leagues are now taking on a similar look to that scenario. In France, Paris St Germain lead the way by 13 points, Juventus have all but wrapped up Serie A, Bayern Munich have already won the Bundesliga, in Spain Real Madrid and Barcelona have dominated the league in past years, only this season being challenged by the emerging Atletico Madrid.
In each case, clubs with vast wealth are making their domestic league a race for the remaining Champions League spots. Is this how we want our domestic football to go?
That’s why this season has been so refreshing on so many levels in England. While Chelsea and Manchester City and Arsenal’s title challenge was expected, Liverpool’s certainly was not and nor was Everton’s attempt to break the Champions League monopoly.
It is precisely clubs like Everton who I feel will benefit most from breaking the Champions League monopoly at the top of the English game. The Toffeemen have played in the competition once before, but lost in the third qualifying stage to a talented Villarreal side. With cash tight at Goodison, Roberto Martinez has done a magnificent job this season and Champions League football at the end of it would be a fitting reward.
A healthy domestic game is the lifeblood of football and unfortunately, I think the Champions League cash has polarised the domestic game across Europe. We are reaching a point where certain domestic league’s are almost pointless to run because you know which two or three teams will be at the top come the end of the season.
You also know that these clubs will then use the extra money they get to bring in better players, while the clubs without the Champions League cash struggle to attract players to bridge the gap as they don’t have the funds, or the chance to offer players Champions League football, in order to attract them.
You then end up with these bigger clubs amassing huge squads of players, sending 20-40 players out on loan and having top quality, regular international players, sat in the stand most weeks because they can’t get a game.
So while recognising Manchester United and Arsenal’s remarkable achievements, I truly hope next season sees a Champions League without them participating, if only so that the playing field in English football becomes a little more even.
This time next season, there could be potentially seven or eight teams, not two or three, in with a realistic shout of the Premier League title.
As I believe that is of great benefit to the English game and is what makes the Premier League the best in the world.