Sam Wallace: Chelsea should not be given special treatment over Champions League
Published 02/04/2012 | 13:35
When he was Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho would complain bitterly that no accommodation was made for England's Champions League representatives by the Premier League.
He said that, as manager of Porto, he only had to call the league authorities in Portugal and they would move a fixture to a Friday ahead of a Champions League fixture the following midweek.
It has become an issue again this week after Chelsea's FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham was scheduled on 6pm on Sunday 15 April, potentially three days before they play Barcelona on the Wednesday. Needless to say, no one should take it for granted that these two will be in the semi-finals – and Benfica and Milan will have some say in it – but the point stands.
The 6pm kick-off is the one no one wanted, although a perfect storm of conditions made it so. The Liverpool v Everton semi-final had to be played on a Saturday to avoid clashing with the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Neither the Football Association nor the Premier League wanted Chelsea v Spurs up against Manchester United's Premier League game at home to Aston Villa which is live on Sky at 4pm.
Then there is the consideration of ITV, which has paid £275m for its current four-year contract with the FA for England and FA Cup rights. A source at the broadcaster told me last week that by playing the game at Sunday lunchtime, and avoiding a clash with the 4pm Old Trafford game, the viewing figures would have been potentially 50 per cent lower than for a late afternoon or evening kick-off.
As a commercial broadcaster, ITV has to make decisions that maximise the value of its contract. The fans might be aggrieved with it, as well as the FA, over an inconvenient kick-off time, but most are realistic enough to know that English football has been dancing to television's tune for a long time now.
It means that Chelsea will have less than 72 hours between the end of their FA Cup semi-final and – potentially – the kick-off of Wednesday's Champions League semi-final first leg at Stamford Bridge. Roberto Di Matteo's suggestion to move the FA Cup semi-final to a Friday night was a non-starter for many reasons, not least because the two semi-final dates are agreed between the FA and Brent council, the London local authority under whose remit Wembley Stadium falls, months in advance.
There is a wider question here: should English football be more accommodating to its clubs who compete in the Champions League, in the same manner that, for instance, the Portuguese league helps its leading clubs? The clamour always goes up once a season that helping the big clubs in the Champions League is good for English football. No, it is not. It is good for those big clubs and no one else.
If Manchester United are permitted to play their league games on a Friday before a Champions League fixture the following midweek, it allows them to pick players who might otherwise be rested for the game in Europe. It means the likes of Bolton, have a greater chance of having to face Wayne Rooney than they might if United were only to have three days' recovery.
By the same token, having a league match moved back to a Monday rather than having to play on a weekend following a Champions League game gives a top four club's players longer to recuperate. The chances of a smaller club catching them on a day when they are tired or forced to leave players out are greatly reduced. So too, the prospect of an upset.
The Champions League clubs already earn up to £70m more a year from the competition. It is their job to strengthen their squad and husband their resources. By changing the league programme to suit the big boys in the Champions League, all we serve to do is reinforce the elite. Remove the potential downside from playing up to 13 more games a season, and all the travelling that entails, and the big teams will be even more removed from the rest than ever.
The Premier League is an independent competition. It must strive to be as fair and as even-handed towards all its participants as possible and, certainly in the equitable division of its television revenue, it does not do a bad job. It is not there to be tinkered with in order to give the biggest clubs a better chance of glory in the Champions League – and the league itself – at the expense of the rest.
This weekend proved what a joyfully unpredictable league we have. One in which Sunderland can get a draw against Manchester City and Queen's Park Rangers can beat Arsenal. We should be thankful that, unlike Spain and Portugal, the big clubs do not have the option of a discreet phone call to an administrator to tell them when they want to play their games.
If the likes of Chelsea win the Champions League, then that reflects well on English football. But they must accept that as participation brings rewards – greater revenue, the potential to attract better players – there are disadvantages too. If we remove them then the rope ladder will be pulled up for good.
Last season, Manchester United played Arsenal in a 2.05pm kick-off three days before their Champions League semi-final first leg against Schalke the following Wednesday. That is only a difference of three hours and 55 minutes to Chelsea's situation this month. At the very worst, Chelsea could play 30 minutes of extra time on 15 April.
The timing of Chelsea's FA Cup semi-final is unfortunate but there are factors that have contributed to it being so. As for rejigging the Premier League schedule to suit the elite, perhaps those clubs who benefit from such a change would like to redistribute some of their Champions League earnings in return. No? Thought not.