Early Doors

The haves and have mores

Early Doors

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. Touched by the hand of a former footballer, the complicated process to reach the Champions League group stages has done little to eradicate the feeling that the club game's prized tournament remains the domain of the haves and have mores.

Michel Platini's masterplan to bring some element of decorum to the Champions League has seen the qualifying stages, revamped before last year's tournament, allow a selection of Europe's lustier foes to collide before the group stages, but little more.

The qualifying competition has been split into two sections - one for champions, one for non-champions - which last season allowed APOEL Nicosia and Debrecen to reach the land of milk and money. For six matches, at least.

Platini's hare-brained conception discredits the tournament. Like some sort of footballing Robin Hood, the UEFA president said that he wanted to correct the imbalance in the club game by enabling weaker teams to reach the group stages.

All the Frenchman seems to have done is place some fodder in front of the larger clubs in the group stages. Interest subsequently dwindles as larger, more mobile units are forced to give up their places, despite its appeal to the perceived weaker countries.

Platini's notion of giving the little man a chance is a fair one, but fair trade has been damaged by the manner in which the tournament unravels.

If Platini had wanted to revolutionise the game, the best way would have been a staightforward knockout draw where all the clubs drop into one hat, in a similar way it was when he lifted the European Cup as a player with Juventus in 1985, but, of course, football has changed, and clubs depend upon a half a dozen or so European matches to bolster their income.

Under Platini's scheme, there is an easy way and a difficult way to reach the group stages: the champions route and the league route. The weaker sides find themselves on easy street, which makes a mockery of UEFA's own co-efficients in penalising the sturdier countries.

Failure to win their respective leagues last season provides a deathly blow to clubs such as Ajax, Celtic, Zenit St Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev, all of whom play third-round qualifying ties this evening, in their pursuit of a place in the group stages.

If such teams come through their respective matches tonight, fabled continental names such as Sevilla, Tottenham, Werder Bremen, Auxerre and Sampdoria provide a roadblock to snaring the riches which accompanies a place in the final 32 of the tournament, while champions of smaller countries will play off to take their place in the group stages.

Rubin Kazan's downing of Barcelona and Unirea Urziceni's throttling of Rangers last season suggests there remains life in Russia and Romania, but we knew that a long time before the Iron Curtain collapsed when the Moscow triumvirate of CSKA, Spartak and Lokomotiv and Steaua Bucharest were ruling the seven seas.

Chelsea may crave the European Cup, but Frank Lampard's belief that the Premier League is a more challenging trophy to lift than the Champions League is hardly an outlandish contemplation. 

If you want to decipher whether or not Platini's initiative has brought about real change, study the last eight of last season's tournament. England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy, Europe's five largest leagues, made up seven of the last eight clubs.  

All Platini is doing is rewarding failure. He has shuffled the pack, but the key hands remain with European football's conglomerates.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

It seems that Mark Hughes has walked away from one group of debatable men from the Middle East at Manchester City to work for another one in London.

Nice to know Mohamed Al-Fayed is not harbouring grudges about Roy Hodgson leaving for Liverpool after leading Fulham to last season's Europa League final.

One can just picture the two having a stroll along the embankment at Putney reminiscing about the good old days when Liverpool visit the Cottage on league business before Tiffin and teatime drinks.  

"This other guy (Hodgson) let us down and just walked away. But we have a nice guy now. Don't mention Roy Hodgson any more," said Fayed.

"He (Hughes) is the man in charge. He's much better than the previous one. I am sure he's going to do a great job. He knows what he's doing. Fulham's a wonderful club.

"We gave him all the support, we believed in him and he just let us down. It's no problem because Mark is much better.

"He has a great team and we had some fantastic results, but this guy (Hodgson) - after we put him where he is now - took advantage.

"But I'm sure he's (Hughes) going to win us the championship."

Probably Mo, but then teams like Scunthorpe and Leicester City will be easier to overcome next season.

COMING UP

Celtic v Braga in the Champions League, plus friendlies featuring Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City.

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