BOSTON — If there remains any doubt about the paramount importance of Champions League in Europe, this week’s games — in Champions League as well as the domestic leagues — left no doubt.
Despite the fact that Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona and Bayern Munich are in dogfights for their domestic league titles, all had their biggest offensive star on the bench at the start of the weekend’s games. Man U’s sparkplug and league-leading scorer Wayne Rooney didn’t even suit up — lest coach Alex Ferguson be tempted to use him — as his team easily handled Bolton 4-0.
Barca’s Lionel Messi and Arsenal’s Andrey Arshavin didn’t take the field until the second half — and only, with their teams sputtering in 0-0 ties. In Barca’s case, they pulled out a 1-0 win in Mallorca to remain tied with Real Madrid at the top of La Liga. But Arsenal could do no better than a 1-1 tie at Birmingham, a costly result as it fell to third place, four points behind pacesetter Manchester United. Bayern Munich’s two scintillating wingers, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, also came off the bench in the second half, but couldn’t rescue their team, which fell to Stuttgart and out of first place in the Bundesliga.
If the league title isn’t sufficient motivation for teams to field their best lineup, then what is? The obvious answer in a global era is the European fray, where the gigantic payouts make it worth sacrificing an edge or possibly even a title on the home front. All five of those superstars figure to be in the starting lineups Tuesday and Wednesday, as their teams begin critical, two-game series in the Champions League quarterfinals.
No doubt all four teams would genuinely cherish winning their respective domestic leagues. But what do we remember from last season? Was it Man U winning another — its fourth consecutive and its 18th overall — league championship? Or was it Man U making it to the finals and faltering against Barcelona in its bid for back-to-back European crowns? The memory of the Champions failure certainly lingers longer and resonates more powerfully.
Man U, Barca, Bayern Munich and Arsenal are all safely positioned to qualify for next season’s Champions League regardless of whether they take the English title or not. Which explains why Lyon rested nobody last weekend despite its Champions League meeting with Bordeaux Tuesday. Lyon is currently in a tie for 4th place in Ligue 1, a finish that would leave it on the outside when Champions League commences next season. It fielded its best lineup because it couldn’t afford anything less than a win against Grenoble.
Afford is the key word here because, to the biggest European clubs, the lucre from Champions has become indispensable. Teams that played in Champions League combined to earn more than $800 million last season. Teams consigned to the secondary Europa Cup competition earned about $50 million. Below that bupkus. Which is one of the reasons Liverpool finds itself in such a desperate predicament. The storied soccer power, winner of 18 England crowns, was bounced out of Champions early this season. And, even worse, it is currently in sixth place in the Premier League, facing a difficult uphill climb to reach the fourth and final English spot in next season’s competition. Winning its final six games might not even be enough.
It would be the first time since 2002 that Liverpool didn’t qualify for the elite European league and that failure today is far more costly. With beleaguered, debt-ridden ownership and without the added revenues from Champions, Liverpool may not be able to hold together its expensive, star-studded lineup. And if it can’t hold that lineup together, then it is unlikely to rebound and qualify for Champions next year. So while Liverpool fans fantasize about a rich Arab or Russian riding to the rescue by buying the team, they are terrified that they are watching the dawn of a downward cycle that could render the team a perpetual also-ran.
While Liverpool has, in recent years, found itself looking up at Man U, Chelsea and Arsenal, fans could console themselves that, over the shorter Champions season, their team has been able to compete successfully with the very best in Europe. Now Liverpool is out of Champions, conceivably for a long time. And at the end of the Premiere Season come May, it could be looking up not only at England’s Big Three powers, but at teams like Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and, possibly, even Aston Villa.
The end of a glorious sports tradition is always tinged with sadness. Just like the one where the domestic league championship mattered. It, of course still matters — just not all that much.