England expects – but is it wise to do so?

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Anybody who wants to predict the future of European football should remember the cautionary tale of the Sydney Opera House.

The makers of this gorgeous building thought it would cost $7m. They ended up spending a munificent $104m – on a cut down version of the original design.

In his thought-provoking, self-congratulatory bestseller The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleeb points out that our models of the future are always undermined by three flaws: we are never in possession of all the information, very small variations can have a huge impact (the butterfly effect) and we cannot account for events which have never taken place before.

So, bearing Taleeb’s cautions in mind, if all four English teams reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League this week, does this mean the Premier League will reign forever?

After all, no English team has lost to a non-English team since the 2007 final and six of the last eight semi-finalists have come from the Premier League.

Liverpool: Last side to lose to foreign opposition in 2007

Such domination is impressive. But not unprecedented. One of the fascinating themes recurring throughout European Cup history is the fluctuating balance of power between north and south.

Real Madrid won the first five. No team from northern Europe won the trophy until 1967. But from 1970 until 1984, Gabriel Hanot’s brainchild was monopolised by teams from England, Germany and the Netherlands.

From 1985 until 1994, only one bunch of northerners got a look in: PSV (1988). Since Ajax’s surprise victory in 1995, the pendulum has swung pretty regularly between north and south.

So if you take the long view, English domination doesn’t seem as complete. Nor does it necessarily seem destined to be permanent.

One known unknown which could affect England’s future performance is the new qualifying system.

The top three will automatically make the group stage from 2009/10, while whoever finishes fourth will join a new play-off round where they could face either the runners-up from the likes of Belgium, Romania, Russia, Scotland and Turkey, fourth-placed teams in Italy and Spain or third-placed sides in France and Germany.

This is a slightly tougher route to the group stages for whoever comes fourth in the England. And look how nervy Liverpool’s 2008/09 qualification over Standard Liege was.

The big known unknown is the system that emerges to level the playing field across European football and stabilise club finances.

None of the formulas so far suggested – such as the idea that clubs could only spend a percentage of turnover on players’ wages – have garnered unanimous support. And it’s unclear how the European Commission will view such schemes. The wages/turnover formula seems, for example, in breach of competition law.

Liege push Liverpool to their limit in 2008/09 qualifying

So everything is still up for grabs. This season we have seen Manchester City bid over £100m for Kaka while the club that owns him has just announced a 30% wage cut and may sell him to Real Madrid this summer.

Meanwhile Chelsea, once the world’s richest club, will reduce their £148m wage bill at season’s end by selling players.

That’s enough about money. I’m sure that, like me, you have read enough “football in the credit crunch” articles to last you a recession or six.

These pieces can usually be boiled down to this:

1. Things will get worse. 

2. We don’t know how much worse.

3. We don’t know long things will be worse for.

4. Err that’s it.

If all four English teams do make the last eight, The Sun’s Neil Custis will feel his eloquent suggestion on Sunday Supplement that “Serie A has been rubbish for four years” has been vindicated.

I’ve never been able to watch this show since they evicted poor old Jimmy Hill from his own breakfast room. But Custis’s claim prompted a furious, well-reasoned response from Andrea Tallarita on Football Italiano.

If the Premier League is such a great league, Tallarita asks, how come so many teams can’t even get a shot on the Manchester United goal?

Tallarita also points out that if FIFA’s 6+5 homegrown player rule came into force, 16 Serie A teams wouldn’t have to change their squads. Only a handful of Premier League clubs could say the same.

And if all four English teams do progress, who will stop then? Of the likely challengers, only Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona look a real threat – if they pull themselves out of their slump.

The only team who can stop United this season?

Who has the best league is a great pub argument. But Arsene Wenger has already resolved this debate when he said: “Everybody thinks they have the most beautiful wife at home.”

And finally...

The press is already talking of Manchester United’s unprecedented quintet. Statistically, winning five trophies isn’t unprecedented at all.

Celtic did it in 1967 although, to be fair, that haul included the less than stellar Glasgow Cup.

And Linfield won a septuple in 1922 while Valletta clinched a sextuple in 2001.

--------------------------------------------------- More to read...

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