It’s Champions League or bust for Chelski

By Martin Samuel, February 5, 2009
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Since Roman Abramovich began lavishing his fortune on Chelsea, there has never been a good time to finish fourth: but this season there would be an extra price to pay for under-achievement. Whether Luis Felipe Scolari would survive such a disappointment is another matter, particularly if Chelsea failed in the cup competitions, too, and a clear-out of aging players would surely follow. But it is the potential impact on Chelsea’s financial standing short-term, not to mention their status in the game, that would be most worrying.

From next season, the rules of entry into the Champions League change. Michel Platini, the UEFA president, wants the competition to be all-embracing and has set up new rules of qualification. The champions from smaller countries will now be kept apart from non-champions in Europe’s elite, who will play-off. So the days when Arsenal could make a cosy trip to Prague to rub out Sparta, the winners of the Czech league, 5-0 on aggregate, as happened in 2007, are gone.

Certainly, in the mix will be the fourth best teams in Italy and Spain, plus the third best teams in Germany and France and five of 10 runners-up from Russia, Romania, Portugal, Ukraine, Greece, Holland, Scotland, Turkey, Belgium and the Czech Republic. The English entrants could get lucky; novices Unirea Urziceni are second in Romania right now. Then again, how would Chelsea fancy going in the pot for a lucky dip against this lot: Valencia, Hamburg, Genoa, Paris St. Germain, Dynamo Moscow, Rangers, Ajax, Benfica and Anderlecht? All potential opponents if the leagues stay as they are.

Arsenal would perhaps settle for fourth place, considering the distance they trail Aston Villa, but from next season that is where the problems start. Chelsea are currently third, but are level on points with Villa and going backwards, while Martin O’Neill’s side is kicking on. To be stranded as the only English team to have to pre-qualify would be humiliating, but Chelsea have put a brave face on embarrassment before. The real issue would be the cost of failure.

The elite of the Premier League have grown used to the income generated by European competition — it is believed that Liverpool’s complex repayment plans could not be met without it – and Chelsea will be no exception.

The lack of investment in this transfer window, for a team that is crying out for reinvention, would indicate that stories of the hit taken by Abramovich in the global financial crisis are not exaggerated. It is insisted that he is still committed to the club, but increasingly Chelsea also work to a target of becoming self-financing. A huge hole would be blown in that scheme, were Chelsea to end up in the rebranded UEFA Europa Cup, having fallen at the first Champions League hurdle to Ajax.

It shouldn’t happen. A club supported financially by Abramovich should zip through Platini’s little test, to take its familiar place at Europe’s top table. But, on current form, when a team needs two goes to beat Southend United, who would approach a visit to Valencia with any certainty? Abramovich may need to spend big in the summer to guarantee his investment and, in the present climate, is this really what he wants to do?

Martin Samuel is the chief sports writer of the Daily Mail, where his column appears on Monday and Wednesday

    Last updated: 11:56am, February 5 2009