It seems in the modern era, that there is a new trophy up for grabs in English football.
While the Premier League title race boils down to a shoot-out between two teams, it is the race behind the two Manchester clubs that is generating the most interest.
In theory, five clubs are vying for two places behind them in the hallowed top four; Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle all have a shot of making it to the big time.
It is almost impossible to mention any of the those teams without a statement outlining their intention to land a Champions League spot this season, with the allure of eating from the top table of European football defining the season for each of these clubs.
Even Arsene Wenger, a man who has claimed three league titles, four F.A Cup trophies and guided his side to the Champions League final during his 16-year reign at Arsenal pays due reverence to the importance of just making it into the top four.
“The first trophy is to finish in the top four," the Frenchman said last month. "And that's still possible. I believe finishing fourth is vital for us, so let's focus on that.”
Of course, we all know the reason why clubs with such illustrious history, who have made a habit of finishing at the top of the pile, have marked a top four finish their goal – an odd notion given the winner-takes-all nature of competitive sport.
Perhaps Tottenham offer the best explanation of why there is such fervor to make it into European football’s premier competition.
Spurs took their bow in the Champions League in the 2010/11 season, making it all the way to the quarter-finals before their dream was finally ended by Real Madrid.
Fast forward to November of last year when the north London club revealed their accounts for the past financial year, which took into account their Champions League earnings.
They showed that Spurs had managed to turn a 402,000 full-year pre-profit, up from the 6.5 million pre-tax loss of the year before. The defining factor that made the difference between profit and loss? You guessed it, Champions League football.
The figures involved are mind-blowing. Each team involved in the group stages claim €800,000 for a win and €400,000 for simply drawing, while if a team makes it into the last 16 they can expect to receive a payment of €3,000,000.
For a larger team, such as Manchester United or Barcelona, they can expect even bigger rewards for making it to further in the competition and from television money.
United received over €25,000,000 in TV money alone during their run to the final – they face a rather large hole in their accounts this year having failed to qualify from the group stages – while their opponents Barcelona raked in just over €20,000,000 just from their games being televised.
For a club such as Tottenham hoping to break into the big time on a regular basis, the implications are massive.
With a limited wage structure, said to be around £70,000 and with White Hart Lane generating a comparatively small amount of revenue compared to the clubs around them Champions League money is vital to their future, and the fact that they missed out on it this season only upped the pressure on manager Harry Redknapp to deliver the goods this time round or face being cut off from the top for a prolonged period.
From the obvious financial advantages there are equally clear benefits when it comes to attracting players and being able to pay the wages of the bigger names in order to sustain a regular place in the Champions League.
Redknapp, for example was left bemoaning his clubs lack of financial clout as Bolton defender signed on the dotted line for Chelsea in January while one of the loan signing of Emmanuel Adebayor may remain just that with the Togolese forward’s massive wages with parent club Manchester City proving to be an issue.
However, amidst all the cynicism around finances and the dizzy world of millions passing between hands in the Champions League, perhaps the most ignored aspect of why teams are so desperate for Champions League football, and possibly the most obvious, comes courtesy of an even more telling set of statistics.
Take Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Three giants of the English game and all three are engrossed in the scrap of their lives to just make it into the competition.
All three are in the midst of what they would deem a ‘rebuilding phase’. A large part of manager Andre Villas-Boas’ remit when he took over in the summer was to overhaul Chelsea’s ageing squad.
In their Champions League last 16 first leg tie against Napoli, Villas-Boas controversially opted to omit Essien, Lampard and Ashley Cole as the clearest indication yet that youth is the way forward at Stamford Bridge.
Liverpool, who lost Fernando Torres last January, have invested heavily over the past 18 months in a bid to return to the Champions League for the first time since 2009/10 while Arsenal have had their hand forced to do something similar after losing Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas last summer.
All three clubs have seen large portions of their Champions League experience disappear recently with younger players stepping into the breach, and according to statistics, there is only one place or them to develop into players that will help them carry their clubs to prolonged success.
Compared to top five leagues in Europe - that is the Premier League, La Liga, Seria A, the Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1 - the Champions League has more passes per game, a highest pass accuracy, a lower percentage of long passes and more goals from open play as opposed to set pieces; bluntly put it is more technically demanding and requires a higher level of skill than all five domestic leagues.
Villas-Boas for example has spoken at length of his struggle to instill a new footballing ‘philosophy’ at Chelsea and make a change from the effective rather than pretty brand of play that has carried them to success in the past.
If he is to succeed in achieving with implanting his new slick style there is only one place for his young guns to cut their teeth; in the Champions League - explaining why, along with financial rewards, there is so much pressure on the 34-year-old to deliver a top four finish if nothing else this season.
The same goes for Arsenal and Liverpool. The Gunners in particular have made their style of football a cornerstone of their identity, and while this Premier League season has proved one of the most entertaining it pales in comparison to the technical demands of the Champions League – the place where young players with potential can make a name for themselves.
Regardless of what league the 'next big thing' plies his trade in there is only one place he needs to be for both financial gain and personal improvement; the Champions League.
The higher calibre of competition and the rewards at stake in Europe that sees the Champions League viewed by some the ultimate footballing competition bar none makes it virtually unmissable for any team hoping for silverware and success in their near future.
With Tottenham in third place and looking likely to make it back into Europe, the one place on offer for Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle to battle it out for. With so many financial and footballing rewards on offer, it is easy to see why it is fast becoming the most talked about aspect of the Premier League.
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