Champions League Kicks Off

Here we go again. The Champions League is back. The competition has been a permanent fixture at Arsenal since 1998/99. We’re entering our thirteenth consecutive season at our continent’s top football table. An amazing record, thirteen seasons never finishing lower than fourth in the Premier League.
There are some, many perhaps, who would say that the decision to expand and re-brand the competition – originally known officially as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, popularly “the European Cup” – makes that record less impressive. I’m not one of them. I think the competition is stronger for bringing in more than one team from the stronger European nations. The additional places are determined by reference to the performance of each nation’s clubs in previous competitions. How can it be said that the competition isn’t stronger for the inclusion of additional clubs from England, Germany, Italy, Spain and so on?
As for it not being a “Champions League” as it’s neither restricted to champions nor a league, I don’t agree. “Champions League” is just a marketing name. I think it’s indisputable that the competition is harder to win than in its former life. There are more high quality teams entering each season whilst keeping a place for clubs from smaller nations if they can qualify on playing merit.
Yes, of course the format was changed under pressure from the bigger clubs and the threatened breakaway European super league. Of course it creates problems by distributing too much of the revenue to the competing clubs and not enough to the national associations to help develop and maintain the game at all levels. That issue particularly needs addressing. I write that in full recognition that Arsenal has benefitted hugely in financial terms from thirteen consecutive seasons in the Champions League. Many Gooners may disagree but I want the whole game to thrive, not just my beloved Arsenal.
I’ve always adored European nights since my first taste of Europe in 1969/70. The home ties against Glentoran, Sporting Lisbon (reserve goalie Geoff Barnett’s “fifteen minutes” with his vital penalty save in Lisbon to give us a 0-0 draw in the first leg), the obstinate resistance of FC Rouen of France, belting Dinamo Bacau of Romania 7-1 at home, beating Ajax in a thriller of a semi-final tie. Then of course, the final against Anderlecht. Battered 3-1 in Brussels at the Parc Astrid, few gave us any chance at home in the second leg. It turned out to be one of the legendary Highbury European nights. And I was there. Unforgettable. The European Fairs Cup (by then it had changed its name from the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup) was our first major trophy for seventeen long seasons. How sweet it was.
Since then of course we’ve had our shares of ups and downs, the highest being that legendary night in Copenhagen in 1994 against Parma, our second European trophy win, lifting the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
We’ve reached three other finals – the 1980 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final against Valencia in Brussels, the 2000 UEFA Cup Final against Galatasaray in Copenhagen and, of course, most recently, the 2006 Champions League Final in Paris. All ended with us getting the pooh end of the stick.
This season the Champions League Final is at Wembley. I’ve always had this sneaking feeling since I was a kid that when and if we ever win the competition it’ll either be at Wembley or somewhere difficult to get to. I’ve lost out on the difficult to get to in recent seasons with the Istanbul and Moscow finals. Frankly, I don’t think we’re good enough defensively to win it this season but I wouldn’t completely rule it out. It would be delicious to be beat Chelsea to being the first London club to win it. Candidly however, they’re a better all-round side than us. So they should be with the silly money they’ve spent.
If we assume for a moment that UEFA is serious about enforcing its new financial fair play rules then Chelsea and Manchester City are going to have to wind in their necks over the next few seasons if they want to continue getting the necessary UEFA licence to play in Europe. I only hope that UEFA has the necessary stones. All the indications are at the moment is that they indeed do. The cracks caused by the debt mountain at Old Trafford are starting to show, inhibiting Old Red Nose’s transfer dealings. The wheels have already come off at Anfield.
Yoonited  are still an excellent side on their day. Dimitar Berbatov finally seems like he’s interested which has papered over the cracks of Wayne Rooney’s poor form a bit. But Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes can’t go on forever. Likewise Edwin van der Sar in goal and Gary Neville. Unless they can produce another golden generation from their youth academy then at some stage they’re going to have to spend and they simply haven’t got the cash without selling Wayne Rooney.
Worryingly, tickets remain on general sale for tonight’s game. The club has scaled back on making Champions League group games category A fixtures, tonight is category B. Our experience of playing group games at Wembley in 1998/99 and 1999/2000 showed that we can attract bigger crowds than the Grove’s capacity with tickets at the right price. There were tens of thousands priced at £11/12 when we played group games at Wembley. We should be looking at a more flexible pricing system for our games. The club website says that all that’s left are an “extremely limited” number of tickets left at £47 a pop, which will be mainly at the Clock End upper tier I imagine. That’s an awful lot of money to sit behind the goal. The school holidays being over won’t help either. Any being left after they’ve been offered to our 100,000 or so silver and red members is not good news.
In any event, let’s enjoy another European ride. I doubt the final is in our destiny this season but I wouldn’t completely rule it out either. Loud and proud tonight please, my fellow Gooners.
Keep the faith!

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