Will the Champions League Become the New Carling Cup?

Platini

As Arsenal prepare for Matchday 2 of the Champions League Group Stage this evening, it is hard to look at the changes made to this part of the tournament by Michel Platini, European football’s equivalent to the anti-christ, as being, in any way, beneficial to the competition.

Platini’s motives are somewhat sound, even if his execution is not. Platini wanted to see smaller teams get into the Champions League Group Stage and he has done that. But has it helped the tournament, or will it help the smaller domestic leagues represented by such minnows as Unirea Urziceni or Debrecen or Rubin? I believe not. In fact, Platini’s reforms to the group stage will actually prove detrimental to both of those causes.

First, it has watered down the group stage to the point where, for some sides, it can almost be treated as an afterthought; Arsenal being the prime example. Our toughest fixture, the away tie at Olympiakos, is the final match of the group stage, by which time, Arsenal’s place in the knockout stage will likely be assured.

It is highly likely that we see Arsene Wenger using the last one or two group stage matches to give some of the youngsters Champions League experience, just like he does with the Carling Cup.Wanting to spread the Champions League places around to smaller countries at the expense of the big football nations is a noble gesture but misguided in the extreme.

UEFA’s goal should be to make the Champions League the best possible competition it can be. This is not done by adding extra qualifying rounds which see teams like Celtic or Sporting Lisbon miss out so a club like Rubin can get in. Long-term effects will be felt when television ratings continue to decline for Group Stage matches.

Interest has been waning on the part of the footballing public in the Group Stage for a few years now and this will only perpetuate that trend. If a club like Chelsea, in a 40,000 seater cannot sell out a Champions League match, then something is wrong. And who can blame Chelsea supporters, or anyone else, for staying at home and watching their club on television rather than paying ridiculous prices to watch their side take on a club that would in all likelihood go out of the Carling Cup with a full-strength side in the third or fourth rounds.

Secondly, these changes will hinder more than help these smaller domestic leagues. The benefits of the Champions League Group Stage money to only one side in these domestic leagues will tip the scales of competition. These payouts will give a club like Unirea Urziceni a huge advantage in their domestic league and we will likely see that, because of the Champions League revenue they earn, the same clubs will consistently win their domestic leagues.

This will unsettle the balance in the domestic leagues which send their champions to the Group Stage. So while it may seem that the tournament is “opening up,” in the long run, that will prove to be wrong. At the same time, competition in the domestic leagues will turn into something resembling the Scottish Premier League, only without one of the Old Firm clubs.

Exactly how this will benefit smaller countries’ domestic football and the Champions League itself, is hard to imagine.

Nicklas Fender-Bendtner

Bendtner crash Yes, that is Nicklas Bendtner’s £160,000 Aston Martin. Looking at that picture it is hard to see how he was able to escape that wreck with only some cuts and bruises. Bendtner was heading north on the A1 when the accident occurred and there were no other cars involved. How does someone do THAT to their car in an accident where no other cars are involved.

Further details about the crash have not been forthcoming, but one has to wonder just exactly what was Nicklas doing. I’m no accident expert, but it would seem to me that a fairly significant amount of speed would need to be involved for the car to sustain damage like that. I

‘m sure all of us Gooners are relieved that he did not sustain any major injuries in the crash but I’m sure we also wish he’d be a bit more careful. While he is now unavailable for tonight’s match, he should return for Sunday, Wenger said. (See video below.)

The Development

HighburySo much speculation and false information flies around the internet, and the regular media, regarding Arsenal’s financial health. Uninformed conspiracy theories abound about the Board not spending money so they can keep it for themselves, despite the fact that Arsenal does not pay dividends to shareholders. This is even more ridiculous considering that Arsenal’s financial reports are available to the public, published every year in the late Fall. But those who push these kinds of theories are not predisposed to read or likely to understand a financial report.

Even in the regular media, who are paid to research and understand these things, I keep hearing things like, “Arsenal can’t spend because of all the debt from building the stadium.” The fact is that the Emirates generates over £3m per matchday. That is over £90m per year. The amount it costs the club to service that debt is only a fraction of that revenue at around £30m. Do the math.

In reality, the stadium, due to favorable financing and its subsequent success,  generates considerable revenue for the club. Unlike United and Liverpool’s debt which was incurred by their new owners taking loans to buy the club and then placing them on the clubs’ books. In effect, the supporters are paying for the Glazers to have bought United. That is why comparisons between the debt of Arsenal and United or Liverpool does not make any sense.

Would you borrow £250 that had to be paid back at £30 per year, if that money meant that you make an additional £90 each year. Of course. It doesn’t take a business or finance major to know that.

Arsenal have now sold 600 of the 655 apartments at Highbury Square. In the current economic climate, that is not too bad. The rest will be sold in time when the economy picks back up. In the meantime, Arsenal have negotiated a new loan plan for the real estate arm of the company, which is completely autonomous from the footballing side. This means that losses incurred from the Highbury development are not the responsibility of the football club itself.

Yet rumours continue to fly about how Arsenal are keeping the money from this summer’s transfers to pay off the failing Highbury development. The fact that Arsenal, despite the economic situation, were able to renegotiate their loan plan shows confidence in the project and the company as a whole on the part of the banks involved.

Arsenal Station will be analyzing the numbers when they are released in a months’ time to give our readers a clear picture of the club’s financial state.

CL Preview: Getting To Know Group H

uefa_champions_leagueTed Harwood is a regular guest contributor to Arsenal Station. He lives in Chicago, IL, and has been an Arsenal supporter for the better part of a decade. He also writes about movies, music, and other cultural artifacts on his blog, Running Downhill.

Arsenal kick off their 2009-10 UEFA Champions League group stage matches on Wednesday evening with a trip to Standard Liège.  After the events of the weekend, this hop across the Channel could not be more welcome.  One of the benefits of having one’s team in the Champions League is that it allows the players, the fans, and the media to shift focus and recharge the batteries, and after Saturday, it will be good to put the Premier League out of everyones’ minds for a moment.  The group H table presents the players with another fresh slate, and I’m sure they will greet the opportunity to focus on starting their 2009-10 Champions League Group Stage campaign with three points.

With that said, let’s turn our attention to Arsenal’s group H opponents for the coming group stages:

Royal Standard de Liège (Les Rouches)

Arsenal’s first opponents in group H are the defending Belgian champions.  They have won the Belgian top flight ten times since their first win in 1957 and have hoisted the Belgian cup five times.  They have historically not had much success in Europe, featuring in the Champions League or European cup on eleven occasions, but never leaving the group stages.  Nonetheless, they feature a decent record of 23 wins, 5 draws, and 16 losses in those group stages.  Their best European result was losing the 1982 Cup Winners’ Cup final to Barcelona.

Liège play in Le Stade Maurice Dufrasne, which while being small (26,000 for all-seater events), has a fearsome reputation (it’s nicknames are either Hell or The Cauldron, depending on who you talk to).  Arsenal’s trip to Belgium will not be an easy one, but one thing that will help is that Standard’s influential midfield captain Steven Defour is out for three months with an injury.  Even so, forwards Dieumerci Mbokani and Milan Jovanovic will present a threat to Arsenal’s suddenly, shall we say…wobbly…defense.  However, this is the type of match that Arsenal should be winning easily.  Plus, Standard’s manager is Romanian Laszlo Boloni, which (ahem) hopefully sums up Liège’s game on Wednesday.

Alkmaar Zaanstreek (AZ Alkmaar)

AZ represent the biggest threat to Arsenal taking the top spot in group H.  Playing against the reigning Dutch Eredivisie champions is never easy (see Arsenal’s 2006-07 round of 16 exit at the hands of PSV for an example), and AZ played exceptionally well last year, conceding only 22 goals in 34 matches to beat Steve McLaren’s FC Twente to the crown by 11 points.  AZ also became the first team to break the big three’s (Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord’s) hold on the top spot since 1981, when…AZ did it.  So they are serious.  And it’s not just their defenders that do the dirt; their strike partnership of the Brazilian, Ari, and the Moroccan, Mounir el Hamdaoui (the Eredivisie’s leading scorer last year), present a potent attack as well.  AZ are only 2-1-1 all time in Europe’s top competition, though, so perhaps their lack of experience at this stage will hurt them.

One other factor helping Arsenal’s case vs. AZ this year is the recent departure of manager Louis van Gaal for the towering heights of Bayern (heights he’s not unfamiliar with, having won La Liga with Barcelona a couple of times, among other plaudits).  AZ’s new manager, Ronald Koeman, is no slouch, though, having managed Ajax, PSV, and Valencia in recent years.  One can hope that the new manager will not have had a lot of time to gel with the squad, but by the time October 20th rolls around, that will probably be a moot issue.  AZ appear to be the team in group H to challenge Arsenal for the top spot.

Olympiacos Piraeus (The Reds or The Legend – how great is that?)

Olympiacos are the reigning Greek champions, something they are just a bit used to.  They are the 37-time Greek champions, have won the Greek cup 24 times, and have won the double a shocking 14 times.  They do not have a tremendous European pedigree to match their domestic dominance (what’s beyond dominance?), but they do have experience at this level, having played 108 matches with a slouchy record of 34-25-49 all-time.  Their best finish was in 1998-99, when they reached the last eight in Europe, losing out to Juventus 3-2 on aggregate.

The Reds are likely to deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation, with striker Konstantinos Mitroglou leading the attack.  Olof Mellberg, familiar to Arsenal fans from his eight seasons of work at Aston Villa, plays in the center of defense, behind Argentine journeyman midfielder Cristian Ledesma.  As always in Europe, things may get a little tricky away in the port of Athens, but Arsenal really should have no difficulty taking six points from Olympiacos when all is said and done.

Unlike previous seasons, overall, the draw for Arsenal doesn’t feature a team that has done well in recent European contests.  There is no Sevilla or Inter to deal with this year, and Wenger and the squad will surely be looking to wrap up the top spot in the group.  Finshing second hasn’t necessarily hurt Arsenal in recent times as reaching a final, the quarters, and the semis in three of the past four years is a record most teams in Europe would slobber over. Not to mention that this is our 12th consecutive year in the Group Stage. Still, every advantage must be sought out.

UEFA’s smart, or sheepish, lifting of the ban on Eduardo will make things easier in the group. Though Arsenal aren’t exactly lacking for strikers, with Vela likely to feature in the first team sooner rather than later along with probable heavy doses of Ramsey and Gibbs and maybe a dash of Wilshere and Hoyte.  Gooners should be feeling bullish about Arsenal’s chances in Europe once again.  Bring on Liège.