Champions League match day two. I presumed that I would wake up this morning with nerves jangling, great expectations and an unquenchable thirst for revenge over Liverpool for denying us a trip to Istanbul last season. However the over-hyped build up I’ve seen and heard so far has unfortunately done little to stir my interest. Beating the Red Scousers is always highly enjoyable and putting one over on them tonight would leave me with a grin as wide as the chips on their fans shoulders are large, but knowing that such a result could mean absolutely squat in the big scheme of things is slightly disappointing to say the least.
The attempts to turn the game into some sort of grudge-fuelled rematch after the fixtures at the tail end of last season have also left many fellow Blues I know rather disinterested, most being far more concerned about the league fixture at Anfield this coming Sunday despite the season being less than 10 games old. The sight of Carragher and his rent-a-quote team mates gurning from the back pages informing Chelsea that they will “wilt under the pressure of another glorious European night at Anfield” and the baited hooks thrown (largely unsuccessfully) to Mourinho and Benitez in the hope of landing a juicy quote to stoke the rivalry leave me with the distinct impression that everyone is just going through the motions. Jose insists we have nothing to prove given our superior record head-to-head last season, Benitez thinks we’re scared and I feel that whilst a Blues win would at least curtail any high-pitched whining from Merseyside until the weekend, the final fixture at the Bridge in December will be far more important. If of course the two qualifiers from the group haven’t already been decided by then.
The Champions League has certainly given us Blues our fair share of highs and lows during our relatively short tenure up in the rarified air breathed by the European elite. AC Milan home and away, 3-0 up against a Barcelona side littered with the world’s greatest players — Figo, Rivaldo, Bogarde — breaking our hoodoo against Arsenal and last season’s games at the Bridge against Bayern Munich and Barca all provided tremendous drama both on and off the pitch. Tonight’s opponents, irrespective of any dislike we may hold for them gave the world a memorable final last season and an experience that most football fans would donate limbs for. But it is difficult to escape the fact that Liverpool have not looked anything like league-winning material for well over a decade, and victory in a “Champions” League whilst simultaneously failing to qualify through the means of a top 4 finish speaks volumes about the quality and format of the competition these days. Even the most blinkered of us are prepared to admit (possibly with the help of thumbscrews) that Manchester United’s win in 1999, whilst they were not champions of their own league at the time, came after they had both dominated and arguably defined the Premiership for the best part of a decade. Losing to relegation fodder and finishing 37 points adrift of the champions is hardly the mark of Europe’s greatest team and I can’t help wondering how many articles we’d have read about the scandalous devaluation of a once great cup had Chelsea won it in similar circumstances.
The idea of group stages has always felt strange given that the competition started life as a straightforward knock-out cup which was always viewed by the fans as a sideshow to the main event of the domestic league. The mini-league format, introduced to exploit TV’s new-found obsession with football saw the elite clubs fulfil their desire to wring as much money from their cash-cow as possible, whilst handily saving themselves the potential embarrassment of being dumped out by a team of welders and pipe fitters from Switzerland in the early rounds (not forgetting the additional safety net of a place in the UEFA Cup now thrown in for good measure). As time went on interest dwindled in the original two group stages leading UEFA to whittle this down to one, mindful of the fact that some games were being played in front of handfuls of fans whilst the majority kept their powder dry and wallets filled in the hope of bigger clashes further down the line. If the argument is that the TV driven millionaire era of the Premier League is far removed from football’s roots, then the early stages of the Champions League are now probably closer to Pro-Celebrity Quidditch than the game that many of us grew up with. In simple terms, it is becoming more difficult to see where the line dividing the quest for sporting excellence and the increasing need to generate revenue is drawn.
The vastly reduced crowd at the Bridge for the visit of Anderlecht illustrated the problem perfectly, but the powers that be seem unlikely to panic about the state of things just yet. At £50 a ticket for a game against less than inspiring opposition that was available on terrestrial TV many Blues, both day trippers and (more worryingly) die-hards alike, decided that the armchair was preferable. The arrival of Real Betis and sometime Chelsea target Joaquin followed by Liverpool themselves will surely see increased numbers at the Bridge. Whether this will be viewed as vindication of the club’s ticketing policy remains to be seen (moving swiftly past the PR calamity of Peter Kenyon’s admission to an “oversight” in the pricing of the games and subsequent refund), but accusations that we’ve been spoilt by a brief period of success aside the seeds of doubt are clearly present in enough minds to suggest that the gloss on the competition maybe isn’t quite what it used to be. Sure, other clubs may fill their grounds aided by more attractive ticket prices or the inclusion of group games in their season tickets, but for many the genuine sense of excitement created by the knowledge that your team of superstars is just 90 minutes away from potential humiliation and “we’re concentrating on the league” clichés is conspicuous by its absence during the early months when the odd loss or draw can be redeemed later on.
For those reading in the aftermath of Wednesday night, this article will either have an air of overbearing smugness or taste like an overdose of bitter pills that the average Tottenham fan would have trouble swallowing. But results aside, the crowd at Anderlecht and subsequent build up to the game tonight indicate what is wrong with the Champions League and why it is in need of pretty drastic surgery if it is to retain the interest of paying punters and neutral observers alike. From a personal point of view, retaining the league title is more important — should John Terry lift the big-eared cup in Paris come May next year I will of course be ecstatic and hog-whimperingly drunk for several days after the event, but somewhere underneath a few gallons of continental lager there will be a nagging doubt that any feeling of greatness at winning might have been further enhanced by having taken a more challenging route to get there.
For the fans of those clubs currently edging the Usual Suspects in the early stages of the race to compete for club football’s very own Holy Grail next season, I’d suggest that you should be careful what you wish for. For the boys tonight (especially Crespo), well, you know what to do…