Lee Wellings: Fourth is the new first

What have Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and Real Madrid got in common?

It’s not just that they were drawn together in the toughest group in the Champions League this year.

They also all finished a distant and disappointing second in their domestic leagues.

Dortmund can be excused of course. They have achieved miracles in the Champions League, and who’d really be able to keep up with Bayern Munich the way they have played throughout 2012/13.

But as for Real and City. The harsh truth is that it’s not good enough. Manchester United and Barcelona deserve their titles, but they also needed more challenging. Roberto Mancini should have no complaints about his sacking at City, with sympathisers having confused two trophies with ‘only two trophies for a club with incredible resources and talent’.

The title races in the other top European leagues have not been title races – yes Napoli deserve huge credit for coming second in Serie A, but they lost touch with Juventus months ago. Did anyone other than PSG look like winning Le Championnat?

And yet the absence of a bona fide battle for a major European league title has not been noticed or bemoaned. Why? Because European league football has been effectively rebranded. Qualifying for a place in the Champions League qualifiers is treated with an importance that gold medal winning champions in other sports would give anything for. Fourth is the new first.

Is it really acceptable that the battle for fourth place in the English Premier League has been treated with such reverence? What nonsense that the match between Chelsea and Tottenham last week, with a Champions League place on the line, was given such high status.

It’s all you hear from fans, managers and owners of the big clubs. We HAVE to finish top four, or top three depending on your UEFA co-efficient. Maybe top two. Whatever happened to top one?

Here’s a cautionary tale for all those who feel fourth is better than winning an FA Cup, or indeed any trophy, which is surely the point of football competition!

In 2005 Everton finished fourth in the Premier League, above Merseyside rivals Liverpool thanks largely to the brilliant management of David Moyes, now recognised of course by his new employers Manchester United. They subsequently qualified for the Champions League

But Liverpool had won the tournament with their unforgettable comeback and subsequent penalty shoot-out win against Milan. How could they not be allowed to defend their trophy was then the question? The ensuing furore put huge pressure on the English FA and UEFA and eventually a solution was found that even the most anti-English supporter would accept was fair in the circumstances. The rules would have to be changed but for now both Liverpool and Everton would qualify. FIVE English teams in Europe for 2005/06.

After so much hot air, Liverpool’s defence of the trophy didn’t quite go to plan. In fact the manner of their exit to Benfica lacked all the heart and determination they had put in to their request to defend the trophy in the first place.

But it’s Everton in that precious fourth place I want to use as the example of false Champions League expectations. They came up against a very good Villarreal team in the final qualifiers. The standard of football for early in the season was excellent, and Everton played well. They also have had cause to complain about the performance of Pierluigi Collina, who was usually impeccable. But Everton lost. European season OVER. In August.

Why must the talk about ‘top four’ dominate a season. There is no glory in finishing fourth, and I mean NO glory. We are back to money yet again. A place in the Champions League earns a club millions of pounds in guaranteed money with more to come as the tournament progresses. Along with the knock-on effects of ticket sales, merchandising etc and the boost to the club’s image. But only if the club qualifies for the group stages.

And that is far from guaranteed for those facing the qualifying process. Even then, getting through to the group stages does not result in a successful season. When Manchester United were knocked out in the 2011 groups their shares suffered. So after that precious qualification from domestic competition there is plenty of hard work still to do.

Champions League football also means the highest quality of players can be attracted. But please let’s not presume all players would turn down a higher wages club just to play in this competition. Or rather that their agents would allow it. Manchester City have the money to pay high wages that makes them and the north west of England attractive to the world’s top players – but six games in the group stages of the Champions League are not the first thing on the negotiating table when the Abu Dhabi-owned club sign players. Carlos Tevez certainly didn’t seem to treat the trophy with the same respect as the money men during his Munich hissy fit of 2011.

It is of course easy to romanticise over the days when the European Cup really was a Champions League. How did a club as relatively small as Nottingham Forest could rise to become kings of Europe, beating Malmo in the 1979 final, then successfully defending their trophy? What chances of Forest or Malmo ever reaching the final again?

The Champions League is of course really the Europa League. The coming together of as many of Europe’s top clubs as possible, making huge amounts of money. Yes it’s brilliant competition. I’ve covered a lot of the knockout stages this year and events in Germany on semi-final first leg week as the German clubs humiliated the Spanish giants were momentous and thrilling.

The final between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich will be quite something too. Getting to Wembley is a real achievement.

But let’s remember how far those who finish fourth, or third, or even second in their domestic leagues still have to go to be proper winners.

Please don’t make fourth the new first.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at ten.a1635002243reeza1635002243jla@s1635002243gnill1635002243ew.ee1635002243l1635002243. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport