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How Manchester United’s Global Brand Is Affected by Missing the Champions League

An underwhelming season for Manchester United has been capped by the news this week that the Old Trafford club had dismissed beleaguered manager David Moyes, who succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson last July.

As rumors have surfaced aplenty across various media outlets speculating the causes of Moyes’ downfall and what exactly went wrong in his tenure at United, the club have appointed Ryan Giggs as their interim manager as they strive to look forward to the future.

Their underwhelming performances this campaign have led to a disappointing failure to qualify for the Champions League next season, as they are now well and truly mathematically out of reach of the Premier League top four, for the first time in 19 years, which has led to some concern about the direction of the 20-time title winners.

For a club of United’s size and stature, how costly would missing out on the Champions League be for their future and their brand image? How will they pick themselves up from the wake of their recent managerial departures—first Ferguson and now Moyes?

Let’s explore how Manchester United’s brand will be affected by missing the Champions League across three rough timescales: The short, medium and long terms.

 

 

CHRISTOF STACHEShort Term: A Harsh Economic Hit

The immediate future of Manchester United as a preeminent footballing superpower is murky at least: The notion that they are not a “sacking club” has been dispelled after Moyes’ dismissal, even though his results perhaps made his position untenable.
To fall from the lofty achievement of winning the Premier League title last May to a current seventh place with no hope of making the top four this season will rightly be considered a disaster from the club’s point of view, given Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity and record of success, which helped built an image of the club as a perennial contender and a winning institution over the years of his legendary reign.

So to fall from conquering England less than 12 months ago—and conquering Europe six years ago—to the prospect of regular Europa League football, or even no European action at all, will be a massive reputational dent: How can United keep up their global reputation if they’re not even continental?

In the wake of David Moyes’ sacking, Manchester United will miss out on a reported £50 million due to a failure to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition alone, according to Simon Goodley of the Guardian, who suggests that the same riches that are available to competing clubs will serve as a double whammy on top of United’s losses, considering their debts.

Goodley’s comparisons of United’s current situation with Bayern Munich’s in 2007—that they would need to spend massively to improve their squad without European football in a bid to catch up with their competitors—led him to estimate a potential £100 million summer outlay in transfer fees alone.

Which doesn’t include the wage expenditures for their high-earning star players and the considerable compensation that Moyes and his staff will no doubt fight for.

Make no mistake: As United count the costs of missing out on the Champions League, it’s not just to their reputation in the short term as a global sporting brand, but also a blow to their already shaky financial situation.

 

 

Jon SuperMedium Term: The Rebuilding Must Be Done Right

Considering the massive financial commitment that the club will need to make to steady the ship and turn it around, the short-term hit will only be compensated by an ambitious and focused rebuilding job done at all levels of Manchester United.
This involves many aspects across the front and back of the club, not least including a revisiting of the overall backroom structure in place at Old Trafford, which Gabriele Marcotti of ESPNFC suggests should include a Director of Football to alleviate the workload of the modern football manager, and a thorough review system to ensure that players are not signed for inflated fees (see Marouane Fellaini) or rewarded with bumper contracts despite being clearly surplus to requirements (see Nani).

That United have splashed £64.6 million on just two signings will not be lost on any observers: If anything, it will serve as an “eyes light up” moment to the agents of United targets and a major obstacle for the club to overcome. A quick glance at Liverpool’s eye-watering spending in the summer of 2011 will make for a horrifying prospect for many a Red Devil fan.

But besides the playing staff that have been the public face of United, both on and off the field for better or worse over the years, the figurehead that leads them to silverware and sustained success will need to be appointed as well.

The bullish nature and at-times extraordinary proclamations of Sir Alex Ferguson all added to the Manchester United aura and myth, which were almost instantly shattered by the defeatist and pessimistic utterances of David Moyes, who also oversaw the transformation of Old Trafford from a home fortress into a cauldron of fear.

They messed up a managerial appointment once; they can’t afford to do it again.

 

 

Handout/Getty ImagesLong Term: The Structure Is in Place for a Resurgence

As a football club, Manchester United have led the way in England and in Europe for many years, both on the football pitch and off it in the commercial realm. United were perhaps the first club to have built any global brand of note and formulated a wining commercial strategy that was based around silverware won on the pitch and the superstars that brought United that distinct success.
News that the club’s share price on the New York Stock Exchange has rebounded to a pre-Moyes, according to the Mirror, is both cruel on the newly deposed manager and reflective of the club’s standing in the global financial game, while Alex Duff’s commentary on Bloomberg.com considers the club’s power in terms of attracting lucrative commercial sponsorships and strategic partnerships.

Any new manager arriving at Old Trafford would be walking in a dressing room, while needing the injection of some much-needed fresh blood, still featuring some world-class stars, and operating within a commercial giant that is peerless in world football with a brand name that still resonates around the globe. Any comparisons with Liverpool’s dramatic downfall are as a result premature and naive, as the Anfield club have only recently caught up on the commercial side of things, whereas United were pioneers at building a commercial enterprise.

But while United fans shouldn’t panic at the current state of their club, even if the Champions League anthem won’t be playing at Old Trafford next year, they will realize that the club will only be able to bounce back—and the club officials will realize its brand power will only be fully realized—if they overcome a potentially significant short-term hit and approach their rebuilding job correctly.

Because if they don’t do it right, the Manchester United brand, which has been built so strongly over the years because they have become synonymous with success, will wither as a result of their on-field disappointments.

It’s imperative that they get it right this time, before it becomes a vicious, self-defeating cycle.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Is a European Super League an Inevitable Next Step in World Football?

The past couple of weeks in European football have thrown up some interesting scenarios, perhaps unthinkable just a few years ago, which have thrown into question the competitiveness and balance even in the leading domestic leagues around Europe.

When Chelsea loaned Thibaut Courtois, then one of the hottest goalkeeping talents in the world, almost three years ago to Atletico Madrid, surely they didn’t expect to have to waive a contract clause at the prospect of facing their loanee in the Champions League semifinal.

When Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga and upset the status quo just a few years ago, surely they didn’t expect that a comprehensive 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in the league would mean as little as it just did, given that Pep Guardiola’s side had just become the quickest team ever to win the German championship.

These are but two incidents that have reflected the reality of European football these days (and there are many more—think Bayern’s ruthless snapping up of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski from Dortmund, supposedly their closest rivals).

And the reality is that, while the top-tier leagues, especially in England with the Premier League, have started to break away from their lesser domestic competitions, those cream-of-the-crop clubs at the top of the European game have begun to form a mini exclusive club of their own.

Perhaps it’s time to consider not whether a European Super League would be a fun and interesting side project for club owners to think about, but whether it is actually an inevitable next step in world football.

 

Kerstin Joensson

 

Booming broadcast and television revenues

It’s hard to point a finger at a definitive starting point for this spiraling breakaway of the European elite, but BT Sport’s staggering £897 million three-year exclusive deal to broadcast live Champions League and Europa League games starting from 2015, announced last November via BBC Sport, is a good start.

Given the amount of money involved in the European game, it’s no surprise that the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool have made qualifying for the Champions League essentially a barometer of their season-to-season success in the Premier League.

Of course, it’s a cyclical game—perhaps even a snowball effect—in which money drives commercialization and encourages clubs and league administrators to package the sport as a “consumer product,” which focuses on entertainment value in the form of stadiums, overall team play and individual superstars, which boosts widespread interest and thus potential income, and so on.

But it’s not as if those involved in the beautiful game at the top level are trying their level best to keep the game devoid of any adverse effects from the money involved. Far from it.

Just this January, the Telegraph reported that the Premier League wanted to bring forth the next “auction” of football broadcasting rights by six months, which sources allegedly claimed was a show of “opportunism” from the league in “attempting to exploit the fierce competition between BSkyB and BT, and the resulting increase in the value of sports rights.”

As the game of football evolves at the top level and clubs become ever more like global corporations, even the ordinary football fan has evolved into being a consumer from their clubs’ point of view.

And how do businesses engage with their consumers? By providing high-quality goods (in this case, high-quality performances with a dose of superstardom, delivered at every broadcast opportunity across every possible channel).

A further case illustrating the financial explosion of the modern game once again focuses on the aggressive increase of Premier League prize money: A Telegraph report in May 2013 mentioned that Manchester United’s £60.8 million in TV money, a record sum for a Premier League champion, would be eclipsed the following season by the club that finishes bottom of the league because of new broadcasting deals.

 

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

 

Exponential inflation of player valuations

The sheer amount of money involved in top-level football highlights the indispensability of the sport to TV networks and channels, which in turn drives up their bids to carry these matches.

But from both the clubs’ and the fans’ points of view, this is merely a reflection of an ever-increasing and ever-vociferous demand for the sport—especially as clubs and leagues are becoming more business-savvy and expanding into markets never previously thought lucrative or even possible.

Which means that top-level footballers and top-level coaches, who turn top-level footballers into top-level teams on the pitch, gradually become a premium commodity to be traded to those willing to shell out a fortune in anticipation of the potential upsides.

And so we have eye-watering deals like Gareth Bale’s world record transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid, who themselves set the previous record by signing Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. And vastly inflated contracts like Wayne Rooney’s new extension at Old Trafford, which reportedly will land him a mammoth £300,000 a week, per BBC Sport.

Suddenly, the prevalence of money in the modern game has made it an essential part of both player decisions and transfer strategies. Players appoint ruthless agents to extract the best deal for themselves and their clients, while clubs head towards the murky waters of outbidding each other for star names.

The supply line has just shot up in value.

And those organizations who can afford to shell out the big bucks to procure such mercurial and overpriced talent—some through the generosity of a well-off benefactor—become the most important players in the financial game of football.

It’s no surprise, then, that Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski put forth in Soccernomics that football clubs in capital cities are best positioned to dominate the European game in the future: Take the financial “capital” in the cities and you instantly have the most powerful hybrids of money, geography and power across football clubs in Europe.

 

Marc Mueller

 

A whole new, exclusive playing field

Where does this bring us?

On the one hand, the growing demand of top-level football means that there will only ever be greater sums of money spent by fans and reflected in megadeals between leagues, clubs and broadcasters.

On the other hand, the explosion of player valuations means that agents will continue to grow in prominence and importance, while player power will entrench itself as an institutional concept in modern football—and only a handful of football clubs are even equipped to handle such major deals.

Which essentially means that the footballing world is their oyster.

As players vie to get into those clubs as a sign of their ability and ambition and as clubs strive to either maintain their place in that elite group or try their utmost to break into the oligarchy, a whole new, exclusive playing field has taken form for the big boys up top.

La Liga has traditionally been the easiest and most glaring example of a “top two” league, with Barcelona and Real Madrid maintaining a hegemony on proceedings in Spain until Atletico burst onto the scene this season, while recently Bayern Munich has become a textbook example of just how far a first-placed team can pull away from its closest challenger.

Sooner or later, as egos, ambitions and competitiveness are wont to trump all in sport, these big players will yearn for a platform where they can pit their wits against each other on a regular basis, to claim a title that will truly prove their dynasties.

The concept of a European Super League suddenly doesn’t sound so far-fetched after all. In fact, it almost sounds as if it’s going to be the next big evolution in world football.

And just as TV networks have continued to scramble for big broadcasting deals just to get a slice of the ever-growing pie, football clubs not yet in the “Super League” category will fight tooth and nail, and spend an arm and a leg to try to get there.

There will be plenty of new entertainment for football fans—and plenty of inadvertent and unfortunate financial casualties as well.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

The True Financial Cost of Manchester United Missing out on the Champions League

The gulf in class on the Old Trafford pitch was evident on Tuesday night as Manchester United succumbed to another 3-0 home defeat to a major rival, but David Moyes added more insult to injury as he claimed that Manchester City’s standard and level were something to “aspire” to, per Sky Sports.

For Red Devils fans, who had been used to seeing years of Premier League dominance and a true winning dynasty under Sir Alex Ferguson, this statement—that United were now, suddenly, looking up to their “noisy neighbours”—will have irked, much more than their overall lethargic play has already this season.

It hurts, not just because it was United’s sixth home defeat in the league this season—their most ever in the Premier League—but also because a glance away from the scoreboard and at the league table shows just how far they’ve fallen from their supreme title-winning season last year.

As we approach the final weeks of the 2013-14 Premier League season, Manchester United are left staring up rather than down, contemplating what exactly a failure to qualify for next year’s Champions League—and they are on the brink—would mean to the future of the club.

But what exactly would it mean? Here’s a brief study on the true financial cost of Manchester United missing out on the Champions League—and it doesn’t look too rosy.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesPremier League Payouts

Qualifying for the Champions League requires a minimum of a fourth-placed finish in the Premier League, so let’s go from there.

It’s a well-known fact that the Premier League provides payments to its competing clubs at the end of every season—and it’s because of the league’s astonishing financial successes that those in England’s top tier receive huge amounts of revenue from television rights and so on.

While we won’t know the exact payouts each club receives for the season until late May, after the season will have officially finished, our benchmark will be from last season, where the fourth- and fifth-placed clubs were Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur respectively.

For their efforts last season, Arsenal received a total end-of-season payment of £57.1 million, £12.8 million of which were “merit payments” from the Premier League based on position, according to the league’s official announcement. Spurs, on the other hand, received £55.9 million and £12.1 million in merit payments.

It’s easy to calculate the difference just in merit payments as a reflection on the gap between the fourth- and fifth-placed Premier League clubs, but the other components of the payout—the “facility fees,” given each time a club’s matches are shown on TV in the UK, and “overseas TV” costs—are also tied intricately into their performances in the league and in European competition.

So the difference in overall payments is likely a more reliable indicator on the gap. In this case, it’s £1.2 million.

Not too significant as a lump sum, but when it comes to Manchester United, the fact that they were so successful in the league last season means that the hurt will be inevitable—and more considerable.

United finished the season as runaway champions, netting a league-high £60.8 million in payouts, which is a full £4.9 million difference from Tottenham’s eventual payout. And it doesn’t stop there: United’s current seventh place was where arch-rivals Liverpoolfinished last year, and the Merseysiders received £54.8 million.

If the Red Devils drop from first place and finish seventh come May, they will have missed out on at least £6 million just in league payouts—and we haven’t even adjusted for the inevitable league-wide increase yet.

 

Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesChampions League Payouts

Then there are the official payouts from the Champions League, which, if United do miss out on the competition itself, they will naturally not be entitled to next season.

For all their domestic woes this season, United’s run to the quarter-finals this season has by and large been smooth, barring a first-leg shock against Olympiakos in the round of 16. Their easy win of Group A was secured on the back of four wins, two draws and no losses—but this is also why an exit from Europe’s elite cup competition will hurt all the more.

According to the official UEFA website, the Champions League paid a minimum base fee of €8.6 million to each participant in the group stage last season.

An additional €1 million was awarded for each win and €500,000 for each draw, meaning that on their group stage form this season, United netted at least €13.6 million just from the group stage alone.

All clubs competing in the round of 16 received a €3.5 million payout, whereas each quarter-finalist received €3.9 million each.

Added on to the group stage payments, that’s at least a €21 million total that they will earn from this season’s Champions League run—and, again, that’s not adjusted for the inevitable competition-wide increase yet.

And who knows—if David Moyes manages to mastermind a famous victory over two legs against the fearsome and record-breaking Bayern Munich of Pep Guardiola, there could be further payments yet.

Translated into pound sterling, the Champions League prize money from this season is at least £17.5 million (and counting), which puts the total opportunity cost at £23.5 million.

Just exactly the amount Marouane Fellaini would’ve cost last summer—if Moyes submitted his bid before the Belgian’s release clause expired on July 31, 2013, according to BBC Sport.

 

Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesThe Intangibles

If only the cost of missing out on the Champions League was just £23.5 million.

Just ask Liverpool, perennial arch-rivals to Manchester United, who slipped into several years of mediocrity—including a couple through financial difficulty—after finishing seventh in what turned out to be Rafael Benitez’s last season at Anfield.

Whether it was down to the personal draw of the managers that succeeded Benitez, or due to the lack of top-quality competition that Liverpool were to be involved in, we may never know, but the truth remains that Liverpool’s signings since that exhilarating title challenge in the 2008-09 season had dropped down several notches—and only resurfaced in the past year or so.

In many ways, Manchester United’s current situation and Liverpool’s back then are similar, especially since both clubs are two of the most prestigious in England (and the world), two of the most historically successful and two built on pride and tradition more so than pure financial muscle.

To lose out on what has traditionally been a key part of the United brand—namely their winning tradition and stature in Europe—would be a huge blow to Manchester United’s appeal to prospective players.

David Moyes stressed in January that “the amount of big players wanting to join United is incredible. It’s because of the club and what it stands for in world terms. Players are not looking at the share price. They are looking at the football club,” per ESPN FC.

A Manchester United without the Champions League simply does not provide the same attraction and a scan at Liverpool’s reported missed signings over the years is testament to that.

Far more than the £23.5 million base loss, which less than half a season under the terms of their kit deal extension with Nike can already recuperate, via the Mirror, this might well be the true cost to Manchester United missing out on the Champions League.

Unless, of course, they change tack and throw their financial weight in to compensate for the lack of European competition, in which case the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain become their main competitors.

And they’ve all got Champions League football.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

English Football Weekly: Arsenal Slip, Liverpool Close-In; A New Managerial Generation; BT Sport’s Champions League Megadeal

EPL Week 11 recap: Reds dominate; Spurs slip; United roar

There were no lingering memories of Liverpool’s forgettable loss at the Emirates last week, as the Reds took Fulham to task and practically ripped them apart. Four goals were scored at Anfield on Saturday, but it really should’ve been more like seven or eight, such was the Reds’ domination. Fulham’s form will have been the bigger talking point, however. This was a side that indulged the laxness of Dimitar Berbatov and kept a pedestrian midfield unmoved for 90 minutes. Surely Martin Jol is on the brink of the sack; he has to be, or Fulham will spiral into a relegation battle.

After a promising start to the campaign, suddenly it doesn’t look so rosy anymore for Andre Villas-Boas and Tottenham, which on the surface should just be ludicrous—20 points and joint fifth in the table doesn’t spell crisis in any way. But after the three Premier League clubs at the bottom, Spurs are the fourth lowest-scoring team in the top division, and it’s starting to hurt them big time. Sunday’s loss against Newcastle, albeit against an inspired Tim Krul, represented their second loss in three home games. For all of the money AVB spent on the midfield in the summer, he has yet to find someone to link the middle with the front.

On the flipside, Manchester United are rising again—and fast. David Moyes crowned an encouraging run of performances with a statement of a display against Arsenal on Sunday. Given the tightness of the league this season, it won’t have caused the seismic wave that’s been mentioned in too many quarters in the immediate aftermath, but it does give United’s rivals plenty to think about—and Arsene Wenger will have plenty to think about as well. It’s not the end of the world for the Gunners, not still leading the table going into the international break and almost a third into the season. The January window will be key for both clubs.

That Southampton won yet again shouldn’t be a surprise anymore: They’ve won more often than not this season and find themselves just three points behind the league leaders. Title challengers? We can’t be sure yet, but they’re definitely European contenders right now. West Brom also delivered a very credible draw at Chelsea, who will be very relieved that their controversial penalty gave them even a point. Norwich’s 3-1 win over West Ham will also offer some much-needed breathing space for Chris Hughton and co.—about time his summer acquisitions started hitting the net. Let the international break be over sharpish. This league is too much fun.

 

A new generation of managers is emerging

In the Premier League top four currently are two managerial stalwarts who have practically won it all in European football—Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. But it’s the two other occupants that intrigue, for they are relative novices at the top level.

But Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino, and the style of football they preach, are a breath of fresh air in the fast-changing Premier League landscape—and a very welcome change of scenery at the top as well. Look just a bit further down and we see the likes of Roberto Martinez and Andre Villas-Boas, who also champion the merits of possession, energy and pressing. And this can only be a good thing for English football.

It’s always seemed that English football has been slower to catch onto emerging footballing trends. After all, it’s taken until now for possession-based technical football based on an energetic, high-pressure playing style to take root in the Premier League. But it’s taking it by storm, and we as fans are reaping the benefits.

As managers bring with them a philosophy—not just a winning mentality—this inspires clubs to revamp their structures, academies and internal setups to catch up to the rest of the continent (clubs that trust their managers enough, mind). As the coaching setup is increasingly tailored to cater to youngsters from around Europe (due to the globalizing nature of football), coaches and methodologies need to be updated to reflect the relentless growth and development.

Could the Premier League and the English national team end up not as adversaries, but as mutually beneficial endeavors? Food for thought as we consider another side to football below.

 

BT Sport, the latest game-changer in football

The buildup to Week 11’s Premier League action was dominated by the earth-shattering revelation that BT Sport secured the exclusive broadcasting rights of the Champions League and Europa League starting from 2015—for a massive £897 million.

How will this affect English fans? Well, this allows them to tune into one broadcaster only for their European fix, which is much easier to manage for cable subscribers. It also frees up the Champions League final and at least one match featuring each participating British team to be shown free-of-charge every season, which is a boost to everyday viewers as well.

Those already sounding the death knell of affordable football for the everyday fan need not panic just yet; the goal behind this money-spinning deal is to get even more interest to ramp up the bids the next time around, so there will be mechanisms to make European football coverage at least as affordable as it is now (inflation permitting).

What it also means is that starting from 2015, European football will be even more of a cash cow for top clubs than ever before. (Yes, “European football,” given that the Europa League will be given much more of a boost as well.) While this news has gotten the Daily Mail to proclaim an imminent rise in significance and importance of the FA Cup and League Cup, it also means that the much-mocked Arsene Wenger Fourth-Place Trophy will edge ever closer to reality.

Those clubs that are fighting to get back into Europe—and especially the Champions League—by the start of the 2015/16 season might be tempted to shell out even more on prospective signings in the coming few transfer windows to stock up enough ammunition to launch a real fight for the top four, which will have UEFA scrambling to impose its controversial Financial Fair Play rules—but also raise the quality of the Premier League even further, perhaps at the cost of creating a “Big Eight” in the English top flight.

We’re only beginning to scratch the surface here, but BT’s deal has already changed the landscape. Now they should consider shelling out just a little bit more to bring Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher over from Sky. Then it’ll make a tad more sense.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

Why the League Should Trump All for Liverpool

I couldn’t get up for the 2:30am Champions League semifinal between Barcelona and Chelsea last night.

Not that I didn’t want to, but after getting out of work at 10pm, I couldn’t muster the physical stamina to wake up in the middle of the night to watch a clash between neutrals.

I’ve just watched the match highlights.

Before I continue, let me just preface this by saying that, if Chelsea do go on and win the Champions League, thereby securing Champions League football for next season irrespective of where they finish in the Premier League, I will fully retract everything I’ve said about Fernando Torres making a bad decision to leave Liverpool.

Because let’s face it – finishing as champions of the (footballing) world’s most difficult competition, getting another shot at it next season, and a major pay raise: how is that in any way a bad decision?

It’s not nice being on the receiving end of a “I told you so,” but sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say that you got it wrong.

Now. As I was saying, I just watched the match highlights.

The first thing I noticed was the Champions League anthem playing in the background as the camera did its customary panning of the players from both teams and throughout the pre-match handshake.

I grew up on that anthem.

There was a time when I’d first gotten into Liverpool, when Liverpool, during the early 2000s, weren’t a fixture in the upper echelons of European football, just as Liverpool aren’t now.

But I grew up, as a fan, watching Liverpool in the Champions League.

During all my years abroad in Boston, Champions League action featuring Liverpool in September and February weekday afternoons on ESPN2 was a staple. I proudly strutted my Liverpool jerseys around campus and wore my heart on my sleeve. I left class early and ran back to the dorms to turn on the TV, door open, and crank up the sound.

When Liverpool scored – and boy, did Liverpool score – I ran up and down the hallways, and my hallmates all came to check out the tiny TV screen out of curiosity. I didn’t have to persuade them to stay; they stayed for the rest of the game out of their own accord.

I remember the days when I was proud, so proud to be a Liverpool fan.

Call it glory-hunting if you will – and I will gladly admit that, yes, I do like supporting a team that wins. One that, if it’s not winning, is showing enough resolve and consistency year on year to earn the chance of competing for the top prize in its profession. Is that such a big fault?

For overseas fans like us, who sadly don’t have a strong local club (or league, for that matter) to follow, it’s not any romantic sentiment of a local club for the community, not any family values in the stands, not any domestic and continental domination before our time – though, having grown into Liverpool’s club culture over the years, I have to say that I have gained a massive appreciation for the unique Kop culture. (But it had to start somewhere.)

No – it’s the idea that I’m rooting for an institution that believes in its right to compete at the highest level. That strives to match its opposition, no matter how financially, technically or physically superior. That, in the words of Clive Tyldesley in the aftermath of the 2005 Champions League final, “have been the most wonderful underdogs.”

And for a time, for that period when I became a fanatic, when I fell in love with Liverpool Red, when I exhibited such extreme emotions that I rarely muster, the Champions League became synonymous with my team.

That is of course failing to mention the rich financial windfalls that come with Champions League placings and performances. In both the short and long run, the extra income does wonders in terms of player recruitment amongst other things – but in a reflection of the emotions and the passions that the beautiful game brings about, those come in a distant second.

Sure, Liverpool this season have won a first piece of domestic silverware in six years, and might secure a domestic Cup Double with an FA Cup win over a considerably improved Chelsea side – but Liverpool, even in this season of wretched league results, have always proved to be wonderful underdogs, capable of cranking out a performance when they most need to.

The real challenge is to be able to maintain that consistency and high level of performance in an ever-competitive Premier League – to finish in those much-coveted Champions League spots.

It’s no surprise that Liverpool fans still hold up five fingers when it matters most.

Because once you maintain your game at that level, you earn the right to compete with the very best. And then, only when you get to compete with the very best in the world, your ability to come up with the most extraordinary triumphs become a prized asset, the reason why people become so attached with an institution boasting a never-say-die attitude.

So my overwhelming thought when I watched Torres skip around the keeper like his old days in Liverpool red wasn’t about his decision to leave Liverpool.

It was – and stayed with – that Champions League anthem.

If it was Liverpool standing there with that anthem roaring in the background – preferably barely audible beneath the stirring renditions of You’ll Never Walk Alone – you bet your backside I’d be tuned in at any time of the day to witness the occasion.

Because it’d mean that Liverpool will have returned to the Liverpool I know best.

The Road to Munich: A Look at the 2011-2012 Champions League

This year, we’re looking from the sidelines.

A pity, really, since this Champions League campaign promises to be one of the most exciting in recent years. First, a recap of this year’s group stage draw:

Group A: Bayern Munich; Villarreal; Manchester City; Napoli
Group B: Inter Milan; CSKA Moscow; Lille; Trabzonspor
Group C: Manchester United; Benfica; Basel; Otelul Galati
Group D: Real Madrid; Lyon; Ajax; Dinamo Zagreb
Group E: Chelsea;Valencia; Bayer Leverkusen; Genk
Group F: Arsenal; Marseille; Olympiakos; Borussia Dortmund
Group G: FC Porto; Shakhtar Donetsk; Zenit St Petersburg; APOEL
Group H: Barcelona; AC Milan; BATE Borisov; Viktoria Plzen

I’m not going to go in depth on each group, as there are definitely teams and leagues that I don’t follow enough and, as such, I don’t feel like I’d be able to contribute anything substantial in those regards. But what football fan doesn’t have an opinion about Champions League favorites? Without further ado, I present to you my picks on this year’s quarterfinalists, and a few honorable mentions.

Let’s start with Bayern. Without many major additions in the summer, aside from Germany’s first-choice keeper in Manuel Neuer, Bayern still possess a strong squad. On their day, Bayern have one of the strongest attacking forces in Europe and are able to choice from an in-form Mario Gomez, and the strikingly efficient duo of Ivica Olic and Thomas Muller. That is of course discounting the now-sulk-free Franck Ribery and the effervescent Arjen Robben, who I believe is one of the world’s best players when fit. And don’t forget Takashi Usami in reserve: you don’t join Germany’s most famous club on loan, as a 19-year-old, without having been capped for the Japanese national team, if you’re not something special. Bayern’s success is heavily dependent on Juup Heynckes’ ability to instill defensive organization in a newly-assembled backline, but their attacking options should ensure that they make considerable strides this year.

It’s City’s first appearance in the Champions League this season, but I’m tipping them to make a splash. Followers of the English Premier League won’t need any updates on how they’ve been doing this year, and the fact that this year’s title race is already shaping up to be the Battle of Manchester speaks volumes on the progress that City have made. Roberto Mancini is a seasoned Champions League campaigner, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some astute tactical deployments against the big boys. But against the highest caliber of European teams, City’s relatively weak defence will ensure that Mancini won’t be able to play a stereotypically Italian defensive game. With a starting backline of Ricards, Kompany, Lescott and Clichy, City will need to rely heavily on their men up front for points. But what a strikeforce they have: Carlos Tevez is currently their backup striker, and I think that’s all that needs to be said on this topic. This is a team whose attacking options will blow away many a team this year, and I’d say they’re a strong bet for a run to the quarterfinals at least, but I’d give City another year for further defensive reinforcements before tipping them as title contenders.

I don’t know what to make of Inter this year. They have a new coach and a new strikeforce, and I’m not convinced that they’re well equipped enough to go all the way this year. Diego Forlan was an inspired signing, but his European appearance for Atletico was enough to render him ineligible for further CL action this year, at least on the pitch, since Inter hilariously included him in their squad submission. Is Mauro Zarate good enough at the highest level? I’m not too sure, but Eto’o’s departure will absolutely be a blow to their chances. In Wesley Sneijder and Esteban Cambiasso, they have one of Europe’s finest midfield partnerships, and they will have too much top-level experience and quality for many teams, but Gianpiero Gasperini will have his work cut out if they are to make it further than the quarterfinals.

As for United, credit must be given to their gaffer for continuing to build world-class teams year in, year out. Sir Alex may only have brought in a few major signings this summer, but their returning loan stars seem to have stepped up to United’s level. Ashley Young has been turning in eye-catching performances, as has young defender Phil Jones, and Sir Alex has added a noticeable pass-and-move style that’s had the media and fans purring. Their success in Europe this season will be strongly dependent on whether or not these young stars have what it takes to carry their outstanding Premier League form into the Champions League. Are Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck capable of delivering at the highest level? Fabio Capello seems to think so. Will David de Gea get over his shaky start and cement himself as Spain’s best goalkeeping prospect? SAF seems to think so. And don’t bet against him for once again being able to instill a winning mentality in his squad: the current squad looks very promising, and a run to at least the semi-finals look on the cards.

There doesn’t exist a single discussion on managers in the football world that doesn’t involve Jose Mourinho, whose Inter team put on exhibitions on the art of defending en route to their Champions League success in 2010. His antics and so-called “anti-football” have alienated many a La Liga fan, but there’s no denying that the man is a master tactician. And he’s built a strong squad in Madrid in his own right, with star performers all over the pitch. Their key question: will Mourinho adopt an all-out defensive approach designed to breaking teams down? If that’s the route Real will be taking this season, I don’t see them lifting the Cup, as their squad isn’t as defensive-minded or -structured as Mourinho’s Inter.  But with Cristiano Ronaldo continuing to defy belief and break records, not many teams will be able to handle this Madrid attack. If Mourinho makes use of the attacking options at his disposal and his squad duly respond and turn on the style, then they are absolutely capable of going all the way. And don’t be surprised to see a trick or two up his tactical sleeve.

To continue with the manager talk, new dugout star Andre Villas-Boas has the unenviable task of bringing the European Cup back to Stamford Bridge for the first time in their history. Bigger-name and more established names have failed and seen the sack, but AVB made a huge splash on the European scene with Porto last season. The difference: Porto won the UEFA Cup, not the Champions League. The latter is a major step up, and AVB might face a baptism of fire in the toughest competition in the world. As a curious distinction from many of the sides I’ve mentioned above, Chelsea’s main weakness is their attack. Defensively solid with a world-class goalkeeper and plenty of experienced midfielders, they go into this year’s CL with an aging Didier Drogba and an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres. New signings Juan Mata and Raul Meireles will carry the bulk of Chelsea’s creativity on their shoulders, and for the time being it looks as though Daniel Sturridge is their only worthwhile outlet. A solid domestic start doesn’t take the focus away from their misfiring strikeforce, and it looks as if Chelsea will have to wait another year before shooting for top-dog honors again.

The European all-star team that is Barcelona have continued to recruit star names and to live up to their reputation as the planet’s finest football (and footballing) team. Who would’ve thought that Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez could make such instant impacts on the Barca first team already? Defensively sound with the best midfield/attack combination in the competition and an underappreciated work ethic, there’s not much else to say about Pep Guardiola’s team except that they’re once again the team to beat this season. Just how do you stop the Xavi-Iniesta-Messi axis and also deal with David Villa, Cesc and Sanchez? I’m looking forward to seeing the masterplans that other coaches will come up with against Barcelona though, and I have a feeling that this might just be the year that the mighty Catalans finally meet their match.

AC Milan completes my quarterfinal eight. Convincing winners of Serie A last season, they’ve strengthened wisely: Phillipe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Alberto Aquilani all came in for little to nothing each. The latter injects some much-needed creativity in an aging midfield consisting of Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, which marks Milan’s midfield as their weakest link. As with many of my tips, Milan’s attacking options are once again their strongest suit, with a mouthwatering selection headache between Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Cassano. They have plenty of European experience, but will age prove to be Milan’s downfall? Perhaps not in a more pedestrian league like the Serie A, but I struggle to see how they’ll be able to hold off the relentless energy of La Liga’s twin giants and both Manchester teams. Experience only gets you so far.

One honorable mention: luck is against Napoli for falling into this year’s Group of Death. In any other group, they could’ve had the chance to make a real impression and a run towards the knockout stages, but Group A’s Bayern and City seem to be a step too far for them right now, and don’t underestimate Villarreal for a second. They’ve made some astute signings this summer, and this group stage campaign will be a good chance for Napoli to assess their squad’s capability of playing at the highest level. A third-place finish would see them fall into the Europa League, and if that happens, I’d instantly consider them strong contenders.

And no, I don’t see Arsenal progressing very far this year. Wenger’s experience will help them progress from a tricky Group F, but they lack the world-class talent to carry them as far as the quarterfinals. Perhaps next year, if Wenger continues his spending ways.

But he’ll face a fight in getting there. As it stands, I’m tipping for Fortress Anfield to once again experience our famous European nights once again starting in the fall of 2012. It’s been a while since the spine-shivering YNWA anthem has reverberated around Anfield on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.