27 Aug 2010

Not a draw, a fix

by Jim White

At one point during the interminable and bombastic Champions League draw, Gary Lineker cracked a joke.

The Match of the Day presenter was responsible for drawing the group numbers out of glass bowls and made chortling reference to hot balls. He was recalling the old-style method of fixing a draw, the way in which the tokens were heated up to ensure the right ones were pulled from the hat.

The joke passed unnoticed by the UEFA officials on duty. But then, even if they'd spotted it, Michel Platini and his outfit would not have concerned themselves with the quip. They have no need of hot balls at UEFA when the draw is already institutionally fixed to ensure that the proper outcome is adhered to.

Group stage? It needs to be renamed immediately thus: stage to extract a little bit more cash before the real business begins in the spring.

Let's face it, thanks to the nakedly corrupt system of seeding, there was no real need to stage a draw this week. We can already predict who will be in the knock out phase. The real shock of the competition would be if the last sixteen were any different from this: Inter, Tottenham, Lyon, Barca, Manchester Utd, Valencia, Panathinaikos, Benfica, Chelsea, Marseille, Bayern, Roma, Milan, Madrid, Arsenal and Shakhtar. Ajax might feel a little aggrieved at the lucklessness of their draw, but otherwise, it went absolutely to form. The group stage of the Champions League is not a competition, it is an exercise in ensuring the big names progress smoothly.

Take Manchester United. Thanks to the in-built security measures to protect their interests, they will be playing a club even more hamstrung by debt than they are, a club hamstrung by the steady decline of their nation's club game and a club hamstrung by the fact they are, in this case, literally making up the numbers.

Valencia, Rangers and Bursaspor: that is less a draw than an opportunity for Alex Ferguson to give his first choice players the week off in advance of the more robust challenges ahead.

But even their group has nothing on the feather-bedding Barcelona have been gifted. If the Spanish champions fail to emerge from engagements with Panathinaikos, Copenhagen and Rubin Kazan then frankly, the bookmaking business might as well give up tomorrow.

Harry Redknapp used his column in the Sun to purr contentedly about how being drawn in the same group as Inter was "what you are in the game for". And while it might be true that a couple of games against the European champions present a fundamentally more enticing prospect that the sort of opponents who await Manchester City and Liverpool in the Europa League, you don't imagine that down the road at the Emirates the fans are ringing the game against FK Partizan in their diaries as one of those must-see events that set the adrenalin running.

The Champions League became a cartel for the continent's richest clubs in the mid 90s, when it expanded to include non-champion clubs from the bigger leagues. Now, the naked bias of the group stage means that the real competition is deferred until March, gifting a good autumn of money-spinning to all the big boys. Though increasingly the bulk of that money comes from television, not the gate.

For some time on the continent, the followers of the big clubs have realised its pantomime nature by staying away in droves from group games, most of which are played out in Barcelona and Milan to empty stands. Only in England has the fantasy persisted that this is somehow the pinnacle of the game and something to be watched at all cost.

Yet the evidence is, even here, that enthusiasm is waning. The chances of Manchester United against Bursaspor filling Old Trafford or Chelsea selling out when they play MSK Zilina are about as high as Michael Owen being given a hero's welcome on his return to Anfield for Jamie Carragher's testimonial.

This is not to say the small clubs do not deserve a shot at the big time. Of course they do. Actually, they deserve the proper chance that comes from an open draw. Instead, thanks to the way it works, we can cheerfully predict the final four even now: Inter, Barca, Chelsea and United. Yup, the same old same old.

In the Champions League romance is something they used to do in the old days. Before they discovered economics.

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