Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
AP/Press Association Images Club Brugge take on Man United tonight.
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Do the Champions League play-offs matter?
Tommy Martin looks ahead to the midweek European action.

“IS THE CHAMPIONS League back already?!”

Those of my fellow employees of a Champions League broadcaster who don’t really care much about the Champions League are confused. In their heads, Champions League means dark winter evenings, rather than hot August nights. It’s part of the post-Rose of Tralee section of the cultural diary and, frankly, the pale moon has not yet risen.

“Yes, well, sort of. It’s the play-offs, you see, let me explain…”

Uefa parcels the play-off round along with the tournament proper for TV rights purposes, so official Champions League broadcasters roll into action at this stage. You are allowed to use the Champions League music, the proper onscreen graphics and the whole general glossy vibe of the main event.

But, of course, it’s not the Champions League.

The play-offs are a perilous no-man’s land between the rocky terrain of the early qualifying rounds, where scrawny Levadia Tallinns and B36 Torshavns lurk, and the lush, verdant plains of the group stage, upon which the fattened ruminants of the big five leagues graze.

For those that must make their way between the two contrasting football landscapes, it is a fraught and defining challenge. Neil Lennon — a managerial veteran of two successful play-off duels with Celtic — has often spoken about the crippling stress of it all. “[For months] the only thing you think about is qualifying. And the only other thing you think about is not qualifying. You sit in the house, you’re there, but you’re not there with family and friends. You drift off.”

Mind you, in 2009, Uefa made things easier for clubs like Celtic, and theoretically, more difficult for clubs like Manchester United, or whoever happens to finish fourth in the Premier League.

The ‘Champions Path’ was one of the great reforming strokes of Michel Platini’s first term as UEFA president. In an effort to get more actual champions into the misleadingly named tournament, it was decreed that five extra group stage places would be reserved for title winners from Europe’s pygmy leagues, and that they would duke it out amongst themselves in the qualifying rounds, safe from the nasty bullies of the big leagues.

The flip side of this was to throw these giants into a high stakes death-match for group stage access called the ‘Non-Champions Path’. Theoretically, fourth placed English teams could have to grapple for their Champions League bounty with a rival from La Liga (though seeding means this is unlikely to ever happen).

No English team has fallen foul of the Non-Champions Path bear pit as yet, but in every season since 2010, at least one of big five leagues has suffered a casualty. This season, two ties — Lazio v Bayer Leverkusen and Valencia v Monaco — will result in a big five club being cast into the Europa League abyss.

Did Platini’s mildly socialist gesture spread the wealth? Ever so slightly. While in the five seasons prior to 2009, an average of 14.8 league champions participated in the group stage, the Champions Path (now upgraded to the more Sat Nav-friendly ‘Champions Route’), guarantees 17 places for domestic title winners, meaning the group stage has been graced by names like Debrecen, MSK Zilina, Viktoria Plzen and BATE Borisov.

However, even prior to 2009, the likes of Thun, Artmedia Bratislava, Cluj and Anorthosis Famagusta still sneaked their way in and, additionally, runners up from smaller countries who have eked out a second qualifying spot — like Club Brugge of Belgium, United’s play-off opponents this season — now have less chance of avoiding a tough draw.

Another criticism of the change is that, by making it easier for champions from smaller countries to qualify, Uefa simply pushed financial inequality down into the individual domestic leagues.

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Dinamo Zagreb, for example, three-time group stage participants since the Platini tweak, have just completed their 10th Croatian title success in a row. BATE, also three-time qualifiers in the last six seasons, are celebrating nine in a row in Belarus. On the other hand, like with Celtic in Scotland, those domestic dynasties were in place long before 2009.

In truth, the Champions Route isn’t really the policy of a footballing welfare state, but rather a tokenistic nod to pan-European equality. Like Uefa’s ‘solidarity payments’ (echoes of Lech Walesa and the Gdansk shipyards unintentional, one imagines), which this season will see 3.5% of total Champions League revenues distributed to clubs outside the group stage gravy train, the effect, while nice for those in need, is barely noticeable in the overall scheme of things. A bit like butter vouchers.

An occasional Udinese or Borussia Moenchengladbach has been sacrificed at the play-off stage, but in general, making the structure of European football fairer to the little guys is beyond Uefa’s power, especially with ever-increasing domestic TV deals in the big five leagues.

So Manchester United will probably beat Club Brugge, BATE and Dinamo Zagreb and maybe Celtic will shuffle excitedly through too, but come next May, it’ll still probably be Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid left standing at the end.

The play-offs may have the veneer of the real thing and they may deliver plenty white-knuckle drama over the next week or so, but their lasting relevance will only marginally exceed that of the goings on in Tralee this week.

The Champions League is back! Well, almost.

– First published 06.30

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