Would Premier League play-offs pay off?

by William Abbs

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Like a jealous child craving attention when its parents have a new baby, the Premier League likes to raise its voice in February when the Champions League knockout stages begin. This time last year, the English top flight mooted the idea of playing an extra round of league fixtures in a foreign country. The so-called “39th Game” was met with raucous disapproval from fans, and the Football Association, UEFA, and FIFA were also all deeply suspicious of the Premier League’s motives for staging matches in cash-rich but football-poor destinations such as Dubai and Japan. Despite the overwhelmingly negative response to the proposal, though, it did succeed in generating publicity about the Premier League at a time when its top clubs were engaged in vital European ties against the best from the continent’s other top divisions.

Given that the Premier League is the only domestic league that can challenge the Champions League’s popularity with fans and television viewers throughout the world, then, it is fitting that its suggestion this year – announced on Monday following a meeting of the 20 member clubs on 4th February – concerns the process for qualifying for European competition. Despite the expansion of the Champions League meaning that winning the league is no longer a prerequisite for entry, since the Premier League was formed in 1992 only eight of its clubs have represented England in the tournament (and two of those, Leeds and Newcastle, have since been relegated). With Liverpool managing to limp back up to fourth place in the table recently, despite Rafa Benítez having assembled the most feeble collection of players seen at Anfield in the past two decades, the Premier League has reacted to the prospect of the “big four” clubs continuing to dominate Champions League qualification by proposing that the teams finishing between fourth and seventh in the table engage in a further knockout competition – the winner of which would take the final English berth in Europe’s most prestigious club competition.

The Premier League rarely looks at the Football League for guidance, but a play-off system for entry to the Champions League is a clear nod towards the additional games that take place in the three divisions below the top flight at the end of the regular league season. To say that the promotion-deciding play-offs in the Football League consistently generate as much drama and excitement as a whole football season is no exaggeration, because those handful of games distill the endeavours of the competing teams over the previous nine months into a fraught two-week period. The final, winner-takes-all match at Wembley is both sides’ 49th league game of the season, after which one of them is elevated to a higher tier while the other is condemned to another season at the same level.

Compared to the ludicrous globetrotting that the Premier League suggested last year, introducing play-offs to determine Champions League qualification is an idea that would have certain benefits. Just as the prospect of qualifying for the play-offs in the Football League means that more teams have meaningful games for a longer part of the season, finishing seventh in the Premier League would become a highly attainable goal for the clutch of teams that habitually bubble around the European spots in the table. However, if Aston Villa, Everton, and Spurs are all unable to usurp the worst Liverpool team in many years from fourth spot this season, what merit is there in stilting the domestic season with extra games in order to offer teams close to mid-table the possibility of Champions League football? More bluntly, entering a seventh-placed team into the Champions League would make a mockery of a competition that goes by such a name – and that alone should be enough for UEFA to veto the Premier League’s idea.

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