While most Champions League previews focus on individual clubs, the leagues’ positions could also be changing this season. The Premier League is in danger of losing its fourth Champions League spot. One of three leagues that qualify three teams directly into the group stage, with a fourth given its chance through a pre-tournament playoff, the Premier League has enjoyed a privileged place thanks to years of Chelsea, United and Arsenal advancing deep in the competition. But with the days of four English teams breaking into the quarterfinals expired, Italy, having ignominiously lost its fourth slot to Germany three years ago, is on the verge of overtaking England.
Through a system that allocates points to federations based on how teams do in Champions and Europa leagues, UEFA currently has England with 65.034 points, a reflection of how its teams have done over the last five seasons. That total is just behind Germany’s (66.749), who overtook England this summer, but leagues behind Spain, whose relative dominance of UEFA’s two tournaments leave it with 85.142 points. Spain gets four Champions League spots, but given that gap, it might deserve an honorary fifth or sixth place in the competition.
The gap behind the big three is not as pronounced. Italy, once in danger of falling behind Portugal or France, is back on England’s heels. Thanks to Juventus’s strong showing in last year’s Champions League, as well as a number of teams excelling in Europa, Italy gained more than five points on England last season. Now sitting at 60.605 points, Italy can overtake England with another season like last year.
The obvious quibble with that view: Italy’s 2014-15 was remarkable – perhaps too remarkable to expect from a consistent basis. The 19 points its teams earned in one year was by far its greatest total in the current five-year cycle (beginning in 2011-12). England, on the other hand, has bested Italy in each of 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14. And though it’s early, England also has most points this season, 3 to 1.666 (in case you cared).
Those numbers, however, reflect a history where England was performing far better in Europe. But last season, the Premier League failed to get a team into the Champions League’s quarterfinals. Same for Europa League, where only Everton broke into that tournament’s final 16. Odds are England will do better this year — long-term trends say so — but if the league happens to stumble, and if Italy has another big year, England will lose a Champions League spot for the 2017-18 tournament.
That’s a lot of ifs, but it’s also why last week’s UEFA Champions League draw was so important. Chelsea, with Porto as the toughest team in its group, will be favored to finish first and get an advantage come the Round of 16 draw. Same goes for Manchester United, who lucked into a group with PSV Eindhoven as its seeded team. Even Arsenal and Manchester City, slotted with Bayern Munich and Juventus, respectively, will be favorites to reach the next round, albeit in second place.
Of course, there are no guarantees, but with all of its teams avoiding groups of plague, famine and death, England should collect some valuable coefficient points. Even if Italy collects another 19 points (second to only Spain in last year’s competition), it might not be enough to reclaim that fourth Champions League spot.
The whole situation is still a warning, though, one that reminds us how fast things can change. England, not so long ago top of UEFA’s coefficient rankings, has suffered through the wanes of United and Liverpool, seen Chelsea unable to pose a serious threat in three years (hat-tip to that semifinal appearance, though), and still waits for Manchester City’s European form to match its payroll. If Arsenal also continues stumbling in the knockout round, England will be vulnerable.
That may be the biggest takeaway here, perhaps more telling than the actual rankings. Many moons will have to align to see England lose its last Champions League spot this season, but it’s no longer unforeseeable. Whereas once England was placing three teams in the Champions League semifinals, now its hard-pressed to get multiple teams into the quarterfinals. Extend those results year over year, and Spain pulls away, Germany catches up, and Italy can hold legitimate aspirations to England’s all-important final spot. Here, quantified (albeit imperfectly), we have an actual measurement of England’s regress, one that’s on the verge of major consequences.
Consider just how important that final Champions League spot has become. Last year, it was Manchester United’s salvation, with Louis van Gaal using it to steer an inconsistent team back into the world’s most lucrative competition. For years, Arsene Wenger used it as justification against his critics, often intimating that qualifying for Champions League, even as the league’s last qualifier, was more important than winning a cup. Manchester City used a fourth place finish under Roberto Mancini to vault to its current heights, while Tottenham used its Champions League appearance six years ago to go on a memorable quarterfinal run (at least, it was memorable for Inter right back Maicon).
Lose that fourth spot, and completion at the top of the league dramatically changes. City, Chelsea, and United have become the circuit’s three big spenders, and they’d likely put themselves in position to be near-perennial qualifiers. Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham could be left hoping for the occasional off year. Potentially, they’d have to significantly cut payroll and transfer budgets, no longer able to factor in the possibility of a Champions League payout. Instead of becoming a reasonable goal, Champions League would become a wish – something that’s largely beyond your control. Arsenal’s world could be crushed.
Of course, it’s all hypothetical, but at one point, Serie A’s most devoted saw its state as a hypothetical – a league once considered Europe’s best falling out of Europe’s top tier. Given the Premier League’s financial power, that’s unlikely to happen, and if it does, it won’t persist for long. Yet we’ve still reached a place where, much like the fringes of a drought, another dry year could bring disaster. And for the teams counting on that fourth spot, as well as those who tie their identity to the Premier League’s stature, losing a Champions League spot would be a disaster, of sorts.
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