European football set for shakedown as Juventus, Arsenal and other big clubs face next season away from the spotlight
A new, third-tier European tournament may contain some traditional heavyweights, while the recently-deposed Italian champions are at risk of dropping into the Europa League
One more week. After that, the majority of clubs in Europe at last catch breath after a season with the most taxing, concentrated calendar they have ever known.
There are promising signs that football will not again have to pack schedules so tightly to cope with a pandemic. But it will have to squeeze in yet another Uefa competition.
Prepare, from July, for the inaugural Europa Conference League, to be trialled over the next three years and, from qualifying rounds to final, ready to embrace 176 teams. Uefa have effectively invented a third tier to hang below the Champions League and Europa League.
It is extensive, designed to give potential runs in European competition for clubs from the smaller, lower-profile nations. But it is also for those from bigger leagues who fall short of qualifying for the more prestigious tournaments. Some will sneer at the Conference League (ECL), its early-phase television ratings may not soar, but peer into the criteria for ECL qualification and you can glimpse some intriguing possible storylines.
How about Mesut Ozil’s Fenerbahce versus Arsenal this August? That’s a plausible ECL fixture as things stand. Fenerbahce, who were not galvanised as they hoped by signing Ozil from Arsenal in January, finished third in Turkey’s Super Lig, which feeds them into next season’s Conference League. Or it does unless Besiktas, the Turkish champions, triumph in Tuesday night's Turkish Cup final against Antalyaspor, which would deprive Antalyaspor of a Europa League berth and effectively promote Fenerbahce into the Europa League qualifying rounds.
Complicated? The European shakedown always is, especially in the English Premier League, where Arsenal are one of a clutch of clubs who, with two fixtures left, could still end up in one of two different Uefa competitions or in none at all. Seventh place is likely to shepherd the first English representative into the ECL, although that depends on both Chelsea and Leicester City ending up at least in the top five.
That pair aspire to better, and currently occupy third and fourth, two spots that lead into the Champions League. But one of them will not bank maximum points from their remaining league games: Chelsea play Leicester on Tuesday - a kind trick of the fixture list for Liverpool, who are fifth, only a point behind Chelsea and three shy of Leicester.
With only Manchester City and Manchester United confirmed as top-four finishers, the Premier League jostle for Europe over the next six days is intense. Arsenal are ninth, but mathematically able to clamber above Everton, West Ham and Tottenham. Should Arsenal make it into the inaugural ECL, they can scarcely afford to deride it. A proud record is at stake. Arsenal have not begun a season without European football since 1995.
The Premier League can be punishing in that respect. Two years ago, two English clubs reached the Champions League final, Liverpool and Spurs. Neither, as the domestic table currently stands, would even start the next Champions League. Chelsea, if they lose to Manchester City in the final in 11 days time, are in danger of not taking part in the most elite club competition if they have also fallen out of the Premier League’s top four.
“Look how difficult it is,” City manager Pep Guardiola said of the annual English snatch for European places. “In the last nine or 10 years, the champions of the Premier League have, very often, not qualified for the Champions League a year later.”
It is more startling if it happens to the Italian champions. Probably the most stellar name on the brink of sliding, embarrassed, into the 2021/22 Europa League group phase is Juventus. There is one fixture left in Serie A and the club who won nine of the last Italian leagues sit in fifth place. They are only one point behind AC Milan and Napoli, but if that pair win on Sunday, Juve miss out on the Champions League.
Juventus have been emphatically deposed, by Inter Milan, as Italian champions, in what has been a mould-breaking season. In Portugal, an 18-year Benfica-or-Porto duopoly on the league title was broken by Sporting Lisbon. In France’s Ligue 1, Lille are a point ahead of Paris Saint-Germain – champions in seven of the last eight years – with one game left. In Spain, Atletico Madrid are a victory away from interrupting a sequence where Barcelona or Real Madrid won La Liga 15 times in 16 years
All this in the year when 12 so-called superclubs, including Juventus and Arsenal, signed up to a breakaway, closed European Super League. The project quickly collapsed. Several of its signatories have since felt the downward pull of true sporting gravity, a force that reminds all of them status is never absolutely guaranteed.
Updated: May 18, 2021 11:26 AM