Champions League Play-Off Smacks of Made-for-TV Spectacle

The Premier League has revealed that it is contemplating a new play-off system to determine which team claims the fourth Champions League qualifying spot. In the current system, the top four at the end of the EPL season qualify for the lucrative competition, but if the proposals are accepted, the fourth spot will be claimed by the winner of a mini-knockout system involving teams finishing between fourth and seventh.

For the proposals to go ahead, 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs will have to vote in favour of the move, and even if they did, it would not come into effect until after the current TV deal expires three years from now. Proponents of the move argue that the play-off system will increase competition for the Champions League places, with Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool dominating qualification in five of the past six years.

However, opponents could argue it will do exactly the opposite, giving the so-called ‘Big Four’ more margin for error should they have an indifferent season – such as Liverpool are undergoing at present.

Critics of Sky TV’s coverage have pointed to the bias shown towards the ‘Big Four’, with days such as Grand Slam Sunday among the network’s highlights, and the play-off would again favour the big clubs in a winner-take-all showdown. Can you really see the likes of Fulham, with all due respect, defeating someone like Aston Villa over two legs and then repeating the feat against Arsenal or Liverpool?

Apart from more opportunities to fleece the fans of yet more hard-earned cash, more worryingly for supporters is that the play-off system itself smacks of an American style made-for-TV spectacle. You can just see Richard Keys rubbing his hands already. The Premier League will relish the network battle, adding the play-offs to its fees, while the four clubs involved will welcome some extra pocket money at the end of the season. It doesn’t do much for the rich-get-richer argument.

Then there’s the timing of the play-offs themselves. Could this be another nail in the F.A. Cup’s coffin? As it is, the current season doesn’t finish until early May, with the F.A. Cup final and Champions League finals in close proximity. The danger here is that any team in contention for the play-off spots come March or April would rather relinquish a chance of
Wembley glory for a place in the Champions League. Can you see Arsene Wenger putting out a strong Cup side in the quarterfinals if his Arsenal team lies in fifth place come the beginning of March?

He wouldn’t be the only manager unhappy at the timing either. International coaches, come World Cup or European Championships years, will also be keeping a close eye on any of their players involved. Players and managers already complain at the lengthy seasons, and with the World Cup this year beginning on June 11, any competitive matches at the end of May would leave
no room for injury, as well as reduced preparation time for the national teams.

Just as with the so-called Game 39 proposals, also fuelled by money, there is still a lot of thought and input needed by the right people before these proposals get the green light. Let’s hope they see sense and not just dollar signs.

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