James Lawton: Is it time to replace fading Champions League with Super League?
Let us cut through the hype and ceremonials surrounding the launch of another Champions League and look forward to that point when it becomes truly worthy of our attention.
This is to say more than halfway into the new season, when talk of a genuine Super League becomes something more than another round of cheap promotion for something that is becoming progressively unbalanced.
Chelsea probably have their best chance of winning it. This is true despite the fact that their withering goals aggregate has been compiled against defence so lacking in character and technique it would in all likelihood have provoked nervous breakdowns in coaches at the upper levels of European and South American football.
There is, however, something about them now, you have to believe, that they have not quite shown before, not even under the full weight of Jose Mourinho's urging or when, in his wake, they ran Manchester United so close in a final of blistering competitive values in Moscow in 2008.
What it is, maybe, is that Carlo Ancelotti has introduced a degree of subtlety that was missing when he was ambushed by Mourinho in last year's tournament.
Ancelotti is, of course, pursuing his third Champions League title and is no doubt still haunted by the fact that so much hubris was so fatally allowed to infect his Milan dressing room in Turkey in 2005 when Paolo Maldini and his team-mates led Liverpool by three goals. Certainly, he suggests a growing obsession with the need for finely honed counter-attack.
His mission is, of course, just one fascinating strand of a tournament that was, unfortunately, launched with such a catastrophic lack of style in Monaco this week. We scarcely need to list all the others, but the level of intrigue is covered well enough in just a few of the leading questions – can Mourinho pull Real Madrid into competitive shape at the highest level? Can Sir Alex Ferguson remake United's European destiny after being ransacked by Barcelona in Rome in 2009? And, perhaps most intriguing of all, can the Barça team which looked so complete in the Stadio Olimpico against United find again the sublime rhythm which was so stifled by Internazionale but so brilliantly underpinned Spain's World Cup triumph last month?
These are surely the most compelling questions. They are also united by the fact that, as this week's draw droned on, no one could have been in any doubt that all of them could be safely placed into cold storage until after the group stages are completed in three and a half months' time.
This, after all, is the period when the Champions League becomes, well, not anything of the sort.
It is not the Champions League but the European Cash Cow – a formal milking of revenue, a maximising of earning potential without anything like a proper level of competitive tension.
Here, there were a few low-key headlines about the Battle of Britain, but who can really see the hard edge of battle in United v Rangers? Yes, there may be a bit of trouble off the field, possibly; but on it, we are no doubt contemplating the last word in inevitability.
Tottenham, placed in Group A with whatever Rafael Benitez makes of Mourinho's reigning champions Internazionale, the Dutch champions Twente and the Bundesliga's third team, will certainly be most tested of the Premier League quartet, with Chelsea, United and Arsenal, in that order, strolling into the round of 16.
We all know the origins of the Super League – the impetus to scrap the format that created the imperishable years of Real Madrid, which had a clean and classic simplicity of contending champions, but nowhere near enough tight or big-revenue ties. It was to head off the moves for a Super League, one in which the cream of Europe could satisfy a growing demand for top-level competition by a public undernourished by the dross created by an ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor.
Now, when we consider the collisions of such as Chelsea and Zilina of Slovakia in Group C, Arsenal and Partizan Belgrade in Group H, we see that a spectre hovers over the Champions League that it was expressly designed to banish. Long before Diego Milito completed the draw ritual, there was the all- pervading sense once again we were marking time at what is supposed to be the supreme expression of club football.
Who, indeed, would not be willing to forecast with considerable confidence the composition of the field entering the knockout phase? Give or take an eruption from someone like Rubin Kazan, it will almost certainly read like this : Internazionale, Werder Bremen, Lyons, Schalke, Manchester United, Valencia, Barcelona, Panathinaikos, Bayern Munich, Roma, Chelsea, Marseilles, Milan, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk. Then, after 48 games and a huge and almost entirely gratuitous carbon footprint, we may have some proper competition. But the wait is far too long – and exploitative, and sooner rather than later someone is surely going to notice.
Nicholson knew perfectionism is beyond price
if there is much poignancy in the story of Bill Nicholson, and his biographer Brian Scovell pursues it with a fine application in Bill Nicholson: Football's Perfectionist, (John Blake Publishing Ltd, £19.99), it is hugely enhanced by the timing of its publication.
This is after all the week in which Javier Mascherano refused to play for Liverpool, a player paid by the club more in a week than the great manager received in any single year of his employment by Tottenham.
After 33 years on the payroll, Nicholson, who was the first British manager to win in Europe when Spurs beat the favourites Atletico Madrid in the final of the European Cup-Winners' Cup, received compensation of £10,000. Before that, and despite winning the Double and producing football which some would still say was the purest ever seen in these islands, his highest annual salary, plus bonuses, was £14,000.
Yes, of course, we are talking about a different age, a different world, but it is still hard to stifle a gasp when you are reminded of the gap between the rewards of today and the time when Nicholson assembled a team that would never die in the memory of anyone who saw it, a team peopled by such as Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay, John White, Cliff Jones and Jimmy Greaves. Nicholson, the most humble of men, made not only superb football but enduring magic.
Scovell records that Nicholson and his assistant, Eddie Baily, found it necessary to go on the dole as they waited for their "compensation". Nicholson, though, was never bitter. On some privileges, he said, you could never put a price.
Holding dominates broadcasting booth in the same way he once terrified batsmen
There was a time when cricket's uninitiated might have been forgiven for suspecting a little too much deference for the views of Michael Holding whenever he appeared in a broadcasting booth.
Of course, the voice was mellifluously Caribbean and almost everyone knew that he was a quite magnificent fast bowler. But surely men of the experience of David "Bumble" Lloyd, a superb performer at the microphone in his own right, Michael Atherton, Sir Ian Botham, "Lord" David Gower and Nasser Hussain might occasionally dispute an edict from cricket's mountain top.
After this summer of Test cricket, particularly, we surely have a better sense of why Holding is so plainly the professional's professional.
Holding's analysis, when bowlers have generally been on top, has been nothing less than a tour de force. Relentlessly protective of the men who attempt to toil in his footsteps, he was at his best yesterday in bemoaning the lack of support for the brilliant young Mohammad Aamer as reflected in the Pakistan slip cordon.
Soon after a chance slipped away for the want of a third slip, the cameras rested on Holding's old captain Clive Lloyd. Holding's tribute was swift and unforgettable. It was homage to a man who led from the front, who understood every nuance of the bowling trade – and who, apart from being a mighty batsman, performed brilliantly in the slips. There can rarely have been a warmer warrior's salute.