November 18 2012
Stamford Bridge is the place to be on Sunday week, when Champions League holders Chelsea take on Premiership champions Manchester City in a potential showdown between the two of the richest football clubs in Europe. The outcome of the contest will help to decide which team sits top of the Premiership table on Christmas Day and, for managers, shareholders, players and fans alike, the rankings are significant. Six of the last seven Premier League winners were in pole position on December 25, including City 12 months ago and Chelsea two years before that. By the same token, only once in 20 years has the team who were bottom on that day managed to avoid relegation in May.
But football’s festive season doesn’t end on Christmas morning. On Boxing Day, a hectic programme of matches begins, with all clubs playing three times within a week. Then on New Year’s Day, it’s the start of football’s version of the January sales as the transfer window opens, permitting clubs to replenish their squads with whoever’s available – providing they can meet the asking price. Last January, Chelsea paid £50m to acquire Fernando Torres from Liverpool. He didn’t fire in west London at first, but has since shown signs of recapturing his best form, and the Blues did better from their spending spree than the Scousers, who shelled out £35m to buy Newcastle striker Andy Carroll. The forward only scored six goals in 44 appearances for the Anfield club, and in August he was loaned out to West Ham on a season-long deal.
Of course, if you are Chelsea, owned by Roman Abramovich, or Manchester City, owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, it’s a lot easier to speculate in the transfer market than if you are a less well-heeled club. The latter tend to accuse the big spenders of trying to “buy success”, as if this were nouveau riche and bogus, rather than something they’d do themselves if they could afford it. Admittedly, if Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were available in Harrods, it’s easy to imagine Abramovich popping in and purchasing them both with his credit card. But from the start of the 2013/14 season, even the most munificent owners will have to be more careful with their expenditure. The Fifa Fair Play Rule is designed to “create a level playing field” by restricting club losses and barring exceptionally wealthy shareholders from gifting funds to their teams that others cannot match. We are told there will be sanctions for clubs who break the rule, with talk of them even being excluded from the Champions League – although TV companies and advertisers may have something to say about that. Not surprisingly, clubs such as Arsenal, who cannot afford to pay the same wages and transfer fees as their competitors, have hailed the new move. Manager Arsène Wenger clearly believes that Christmas should come but once a year, whereas Chelsea are accused of behaving as if it’s Christmas every week.
The two London outfits are both in the mix for this season’s Champions League, along with City and Manchester United, although none of them have impressed so far. I expect it will come down to the big two, Barcelona and Real Madrid – Messi and Ronaldo – and I marginally prefer the latter at 7-2 with Ladbrokes.