The Champions League. The pinnacle of European and indeed world football. Oh the glory. That music. Popular in all parts of the globe. And it’s all about winning isn’t it? Isn’t it?
Well answer me this. How many times do you hear conversation and punditry about the desperate desire a club has to win the trophy. And contrast that to how many times you hear about qualifying for the Champions League, and the implications of that. Mainly financial.
A while back I wrote a column on how fourth place, often the most painful finishing place for an Olympian, has become the big aim for many clubs in English football particularly. Since when did fourth become first, I asked. Did I miss the memo?
And this season will be no different with an admittedly interesting tussle developing between Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool, maybe Spurs and Southampton too, for just two precious Champions League places behind Chelsea and Manchester City. On UK TV they are already advertising ‘race for fourth’. I cannot bear that term.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with aiming for top four. Nothing wrong with a club being desperate for the assurance Champions League football. And in the modern football world we are all realistic that the potential to attract players and balance the books are a huge motivation.
But qualifying alone has become the point. Thoughts of actually winning the trophy are barely mentioned at all while you will here endless talk still of Manchester United failing to qualify.
So my issue is this. WHEN you actually reach the Champions League, to treat it as ‘job done’ and anything else being a bonus is sacrilege for a club with a great European history. Such as Liverpool. And please do allow me to use Merseyside clubs to make my point.
I support Liverpool Football Club, always have. My childhood was illuminated by images and experiences of the incredible success in European football, and the tales of my Liverpudlian relatives who were part of the Red Army that ‘conquered the continent.’
Perhaps this alone explains my anger at what I still regard as the worst decision from a Liverpool manager in my lifetime, really, when Brendan Rodgers picked his second team to play Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. A classic example of a modern manager at their narcissistic worst, let ‘s call it ‘Van Gall syndrome’, where he felt he had a master plan to qualify.
Please let’s not imagine what Shankly or Paisley would have made about not picking your best team, with a surprise or two tactically only if necessary, to face the European Champions.
So I should let it go now right? Well actually that’s not as easy as it sounds. Because there is already so much talk about Liverpool qualifying for next season’s competition, not least from Rodgers, as the big target, that it got me to thinking this simple, old-fashioned point. What exactly will he do if and when they qualify. Pick the right players? Actually win some matches. Actually be competitive? Liverpool’s performance in Europe this season was a disgrace and no amount of financially appeased American owners will convince me otherwise. So for those still looking for evidence that the money men are ruling football I present to you the five-time European Champions and ever-so-grateful if they qualify Liverpool Football Club.
But across Stanley Park in Merseyside I want to say a positive word about Everton’s approach to Europe this season, which has contrasted to their neighbours and rivals in so many ways.
Like so many clubs Everton have been hamstrung domestically by playing in Europe on Thursday nights. To the point they are not entirely safe from relegation. Yes they have an ageing squad and some teams have worked them out after an impressive first season under Roberto Martinez. But ultimately Thursday night success will always impact on a club like Everton that doesn’t have a big, high quality squad.
Yet they have simply kept winning in Europe. In a format that has been elongated and draining since the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup merged. The carrot of a Champions League place offered to one team only. Did UEFA ever consider how unfair it will be if one of the teams that finished a mediocre third in the Champions League manage to win the Europa League, after so much hard slog from the teams that entered from the start?
So I hope Everton keep going, difficult as that will be after being drawn with Dynamo Kiev.
And let’s hope that the noise actually created by Champions League action, and indeed the Europa League, starts to drown out what we are hearing off the pitch. Qualifying, qualifying, qualifying, qualifying.
Yes you’ve got to be IN IT. But don’t forget the ultimate aim. IN IT to WIN it. Let’s not move the European goalposts so far that it’s only the taking part that counts.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport