Some Manchester City fans may find an irresistible urge to curse and hurl something towards the TV set but Zadok the Priest piped around the vacant tiers of Europe’s finest stadiums will not stir the soul or inflame passions.
Champions League nights are going to feel very different next season. The biggest clubs, the best players, the UEFA anthem and yet no crowds, no noise, no tingle of anticipation under the lights against unfamiliar opposition.
No chance in a lifetime to see Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo in the flesh.
Entry into the Champions League could be worth more than £50m for Shfeffield United
If your team had to miss out, this isn’t a bad year to do it. A plum draw against Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Juventus will ring hollow. It could be all over before the turnstiles are open. Imagine if that were Sheffield United under Chris Wilder (right), never in Europe in 131 years of existence. Or Wolves, pioneers of the European Cup who have not been in it since 1960.
Still, the scramble for fourth — or fifth if Manchester City fail to overturn their ban — remains a vital prize with no trophy coming their way and will motivate Tottenham and Manchester United when they return tonight.
They will talk about the professional drive to be the best they can be. To be fourth-best. Or fifth. It is impossible to avoid the fact, however, that the key factor is the money, perhaps more than ever amid the financial uncertainty of the pandemic.
For English clubs, entry into the Champions League is worth between £50million from the group stage to £100m for the winners.
Manchester United are still in the race to clinch a Champions League spot
‘Daniel Levy will be desperate for Champions League football,’ says former Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp. ‘That is the priority with the stadium and the training ground built. It was a big part of their decision to let Mauricio Pochettino go.
‘They’d have been thinking they couldn’t keep drifting along. They brought in Jose Mourinho to bring in the Champions League and he’ll be on an incredible bonus to reach the top four.’
At Chelsea, Roman Abramovich will pull the trigger on managers if he fears missing the Champions League; missing the extra revenue, the global prestige and the appeal to sponsors.
Redknapp led Spurs into competition with Europe’s elite, securing wins against Inter and AC Milan before going out in the quarter-finals against Real Madrid.
‘It was fantastic to qualify because it’s where the players want to play,’ he says, but the agony of a near-miss is etched more deeply in his mind.
His team finished fourth again two years later, only to be denied when Chelsea, sixth in the Premier League, won the Champions League in Munich and with it the right to defend the trophy at the expense of Tottenham.
‘It was probably one of the worst decisions of my life to go to that game,’ says Redknapp. ‘I went with my son Jamie and Graeme Souness and we walked around the pitch at the end with the Chelsea fans singing “Thursday night Channel Five”. It was horrendous. I’ll never forget that night.’
Redknapp was fired shortly afterwards. Pochettino was fired when form slumped less than six months after he led Tottenham to their first Champions League final. Spurs have a new £1billion stadium to finance. Money-spinning events in boxing and NFL have been lost and no Champions League will blow another £50m hole in the budget.
‘You get the triple whammy,’ says football finance expert Professor Rob Wilson of Sheffield Hallam University.
‘Clubs in Europe earn more TV money, clubs out of Europe earn less and those missing out on Champions League often spend more to secure talent because they have to outbid the Champions League teams and pay additional wages for the same player. It is not always the case but certainly prevalent.’
Manchester United know all about this. In a bid to recover the glories of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, they have splurged to recruit Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Harry Maguire and Bruno Fernandes, all wanted by rivals who could offer Champions League football.
Of course it helps to be Manchester United, but this allure will fade over time without the Champions League and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have the top four in his sights, keen to build pressure on Chelsea’s youngsters.
Before the break, United were 11 games without defeat and purring with Fernandes in the team.
With Sheffield United and Wolves still in the equation, this race to reach the Champions League may prove to be the most fiercely contested of all sub-categories in this strange end-of-season sprint.