Cup winners vs 4th placed clubs – Who deserves Champions League qualification?

Considering how we’re genetically wired to oppose change as a threat to the status quo (and therefore ourselves), it’s not a surprise that Platini’s proposals to revamp the Uefa Champions League and Uefa Cup competitions have been met with such criticism.

The key factor here is that his ideas, apart from the whole domestic cup winners in the Champions League issue, are convincingly favourable for European football as a whole. So, as Platini asks, is there a better solution than the one he has presented?

To recap, here are the changes Platini suggests:

  • England, Spain and Italy having three teams qualifying automatically for the Champions League group stage via their domestic league. The champions of Europe’s leading 12 countries would be guaranteed a place in the group phase.
  • The top 16 countries including England and Scotland would have domestic cup winners entering a qualifying competition with four group stage places up for grabs.
  • Six group stage places reserved for the champions of the 40 lowest leagues among Uefa’s 53 member countries, who would play off in three qualifying rounds.
  • The final played on a Saturday night rather than Wednesday night in a stadium of a minimum 75,000 capacity with 75% of tickets reserved for fans.
  • The Uefa Cup changed to a similar format as the Champions League, with the Intertoto Cup scrapped.

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The Uefa Cup has needed a revamp for a long time and turning it into a similar format as the Champions League will help the competition and therefore help the teams participating in it. Playing the final on a Saturday, in a big stadium, with adequate ticket allocation for fans, is reasonable and unlikely to be opposed either.

The stickler then is how Platini proposes to change the qualification rules for the Champions League. Personally, I think it’s a good idea to have 3 teams qualify automatically instead of 2 – fewer qualification matches and in the case of the Premier League, it prevents the 3rd / 4th placed teams from slacking off in the last 2 months of the domestic league season and forces them to compete throughout. If we take last season, would Liverpool have played second-string teams in April and May under these rules, especially with Arsenal hot on their tails? I doubt it, and it would have made for a more interesting league as well.

The proposal also allows more clubs a chance to participate in the Champions League, which makes the CL look more democratic and gains the competition more interest, which is what Platini is after as well.

Cup winners vs 4th placed teams

Who is ‘more deserving’ of a Champions League spot? In reality, especially in England’s case, the issue is not who the FA Cup winners are, but who the finalists are, because everyone is now looking at the odd case that the losing finalist will be a club outside the top four or perhaps even outside the Premier League.

If the changes are not going to ‘change things much for England’, as Peter Kenyon says, then we shouldn’t have any opposition to it, right? It’s smart, from a European perspective, to give more teams a chance to participate in Europe, and this move greatly increases the value of the FA Cup – can you imagine any club taking the contest lightly or ‘throwing’ an FA Cup tie because of Premier League / Champions League concerns? No, it makes the FA Cup more competitive, which in itself is a good thing.

There are two scenarios that bear discussion:

First, if the FA Cup winner is also in the top 3 of the Premier League, does the losing finalist go into the Champions League or does the 4th place team get the qualifying spot?

In my understanding, since the qualifying entry is giving to the domestic cup, therefore if the FA Cup winners were also in the top 3 of the Premier League, then the losing finalists would get the CL qualification entry. This can potentially cause a lot problems as it makes it harder for teams to get into the Champions League via the domestic league. If you look at it from Platini’s perspective, he’s making it harder for the traditional European powers to win the Champions League as well as making the domestic cup competitions much more valuable.

Personally I’d have the losing finalists and the 4th-placed team have a one-off playoff game at a neutral venue after the CL final (end of May) to decide who goes through to the CL qualification rounds. Make the teams play for it, keep it fair.

The second question is if the FA Cup winners are outside the top 4 of the Premier League, do they deserve the qualification spot in place of the 4th placed league team? Speaking as a Manchester United fan, whose team could, realistically speaking, end up anywhere in the top 4 this season, I would hate it if United came 4th and we lost out on Champions League qualification, but on the other hand, looking at it from the bigger perspective of making the Premier League, the Champions League and the FA Cup more competitive, it’s a good idea.

Does it achieve Platini’s aim to ‘prevent the rich from becoming richer’? I doubt it, because the rich clubs will, more or less, keep qualifying for the Champions League one way or the other. On the other hand, teams who are close to the 4th spot but not necessarily close to the 3rd spot will feel ‘cheated’ as this makes the bar for Champions League qualification higher for them (and by scrapping the Intertoto cup, makes reaching European football harder as well).

Platini isn’t going for actual democracy – that would require radical changes which would have been unanimously rejected. Instead, he’s changing things bit by bit and come November, he will most likely push these changes through (I doubt that the people opposing this will be able to come up with a unified proposal that is ‘better’ than Platini’s).

What do you think – are FA Cup finalists (outside the top four) more deserving of a Champions League spot than the 4th-placed team in the league?

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