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Is Champions League glory more prestigious than a league title?

Lee Sharpe: Leeds can make their mark in Europe with qualification next season

Lee Sharpe: Manchester United are crying out for one of two top European strikers

FA Cup semi-finals preview: League leaders Man City tackle Tuchel’s Chelsea

When football clubs are in the midst of showing off at the very height of their achievements, there’s a natural order of things when it comes to major competitions. Some trophies like the Community Shield, the EFL Cup, and the Europa League run the risk of being regarded second-tier competitions, especially in recent years when top clubs have fielded weakened sides, and managers have on occasion shrugged their shoulders following defeats. The Champions League, however, is appearing as the be all and end all for most clubs.

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Champions League vs Premier League? Whether it’s right or wrong, teams start to treat things seriously when they feel they are competing against the best teams for the best prizes. In an age when many domestic leagues see the winners emerge from a relatively select group of clubs, are we now seeing the Champions League becoming the title that big clubs want to win, or does the traditional domestic title still hold the most prestige?

A view from the ‘Premier’ League

When you label your main domestic league the Premier League, you seem to be making a big statement about the quality of the league as a whole, and its strength in depth. Despite this grand claim, there seems to be a two-tier title bid going on in the Premier League that is separated by one major difference. Sides like Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City are all keen to win the title, but there seems to be an itch from the players, the managers and the owners to secure Champions League glory and to get their hands on the ‘Ol Big Ears trophy, regardless of how the Champions League prize money compares.

Other sides like Arsenal and Chelsea, meanwhile, seriously want to win the domestic title, even though they are the relative outsiders in the odds to win the Premier League. Even in these instances, though, fans of these teams can seem to care more about the chance to compete to win the Champions League than about the exact position they finish in the league, with the prestige in terms of finishing position linked intrinsically with how this relates to entry into the Champions League the following season.

While the global rights to the Premier League are still riding high in terms of money, the last domestic bidding war saw rights to broadcast the league in the UK sell for £4.4bn for the next three-year broadcasting cycle. This was a lower figure than the previous sale, which saw the rights sell for over £5bn. This is certainly not a sign of terminal decline, but it does show that fans are not always as wowed by the prestige of the league when compared to the romance of the Champions League and perhaps Premier League viewing figures are slipping (though Champions League viewing figures are reported to have dropped). Thus, coupled with the relative unpredictability of backing a winner of the European title compared to the Premier League, means that fans tend to be readily distracted away from pure domestic matters to European dreams.

Spanish dreams

Spain possess two teams which are very much in a league of their own when it comes to success, although in recent years Atletico Madrid have done their best to get the boat rocking to show that the battle to be the biggest in Spain isn’t just a dogfight between Real Madrid and Barcelona. This may seem like great news for La Liga (which is now not just watched by outsiders for El Clásico, but observed by those with genuine curiosity to see how the title race might develop) but the reality is that fans of Real Madrid and Barcelona don’t just want to be top dog in their own country; they want to be undisputed masters of Europe.

A look back to the year 2000 shows that for Real Madrid, the Champions League became everything. It meant that Del Bosque kept his job after being crowned European Champions despite finishing fifth in La Liga. After this, the quest for La Decima was so important that managers like Jose Mourinho were hired (and fired) just to try and achieve this aim, and players like Iker Casillas openly admitted that they truly only wanted to win the Champions League. Domestic success was not seen as the priority or an event worthy enough to keep managers in their role long-term.

The fight to be top dog in Spain is, of course, going to be something that is not merely a distraction for the big teams, but the prestige of being crowned kings of Europe means that the Champions League is clearly the most prestigious club tournament for the biggest Spanish teams. In Spain at least, the debate as to what is most important seems pretty settled for now, with the Champions League holding the status as the most prestigious trophy to win.

Achieving the improbable 

When it comes to prestige, the status of the event is often determined by the challenge and likelihood of it being achieved. In this respect, for a side like Leicester to win the Premier League and defeat odds of 5,000/1 in the process made it a dream come true for fans and players. This glory clearly left the prestige of the domestic league has no doubt in those lucky fans, especially when they normally start the season with better odds to be relegated than to win the league.

In contrast to this, fans of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and even Manchester United, who don’t demand but do expect to win their own domestic titles almost every year, clearly naturally place less importance on winning a domestic league where only a few rivals exist, compared to the Champions League where the very best teams in world football compete.

It’s not a cut and dry argument at all, despite the arguments to the contrary. After all, just think how many fans still love nothing more than beating their local rivals. What you can say is that when it comes to winning a trophy, no fan will turn their noses up at winning their domestic title or the Champions League, but what will feel that a bit more prestigious will be the trophy that is won against the odds, not at a canter.

Former Leeds midfielder Lee Sharpe has heaped praise on his old club by saying their performances in the Premier League have been “remarkable” this season.

Sharpe made the move from Old Trafford to Elland Road in 1996, and still keeps a close eye on his former side. And after a whirlwind first year back in the Premier League, Sharpe believes Marcelo Bielsa’s side have a big summer ahead of them to reach the next level and secure European football again for the club.

He said: “I think Leeds have been nothing short of remarkable this season. They’ve come in and have been on the front foot from the first whistle of every game. They play a high tempo, they try and score goals, their defenders are a pack, and they attack as a pack. They’ve been fun to watch and absolutely superb.

“European football next season would be the next progression. They’ve comfortably secured their Premier League status, and they now need to go and make good signings to progress to the next level.”

He continued: “Securing European football is not an easy task. When you look at the likes of West Ham, who are flying, Leicester are doing well again this year, and then underneath them, you’ve still got Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal who are all going to strengthen and look to do better next season. So that’s the challenge in front of them.

“European football is the next step but if the manager and the club are ambitious enough and they go and buy good players in the summer then that will be the next goal, but it’s still early days as it’s their first season back in the Premier League and you don’t want to overspend and set goals that are too high. The first thing will be to stay in the Premier League.”

Sharpe also singled out Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford for praise this season, claiming that the former will play a pivotal role for England in the European Championship this summer.

He said: “Kalvin Phillips looks like he’s one of Gareth Southgate’s preferred choices in midfield. He played really well in the last couple of games for England. He never gives the ball away, he’s cool under pressure and reads the game well, so I think he looks like a really good player. I think he’ll have a big role to play in the summer at the Euros.

“Patrick Bamford has also had a fantastic season. His work ethic is arguably the best in the world, certainly in the Premier League, but I’m not sure he’ll make the Euros squad just because of the list of people in front of him like Harry Kane and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets taken, but I think he may just miss out this time.”

On the topic of the Euros, Sharpe also revealed the players he would definitely have in the side and empathised with the difficult choices Southgate will have to make on who to bring to the tournament and who to leave out.

He said: “I would definitely take Jack Grealish. I’m an Aston Villa fan, so he’s obviously one of my favourites, but I also think he’s one of the best players we’ve got at going past people. Phil Foden should definitely go in my opinion. You’ve also got to take Harry Kane. Raheem Sterling has got to go, he’s too lively not to take. Jadon Sancho too.

“We’re inundated with forward players, so it’s going to be difficult for Gareth Southgate to go with a squad and then pick an XI from the amazing players we’ve got.”

And Sharpe also believes that the national team have a genuine chance of going all the way and winning the tournament in the summer.

He said: “We’ve got every chance. Offensively we can go up against anybody. We always used to say that other international teams were more technically gifted, and they can pass the ball a bit better, but I think we can do that as well as any country now. We’ve got players with loads of ability, touch, awareness, and education of the game that is far beyond their years.

“I’m sure we’ll use the excuse that we’re not expecting too much from these players because of their age but these lads are good enough. I like Southgate as a manager, and I think he can get the players to express themselves. We play with a British tempo that can cause any team trouble. With a little bit of luck and no injuries I think we’ve got every chance.”

Former Manchester United star Lee Sharpe has called on Manchester United to go out and sign one of Erling Haaland or Harry Kane to take the club to the next level and secure a Premier League title.   

Speaking to William Hill, the player who was signed by Sir Alex Ferguson explained how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side need to find the missing piece and identify a player who can regularly bag goals that will help the club close the gap on their Premier League rivals Manchester City next season.

He said: “I think Erling Halaand is making himself a statement signing. The types of goals he’s scoring and how he’s scoring them would suit United down to the ground. I think Harry Kane would fit that bill too.

“There’s talk of fighting to keep Edinson Cavani as well, so I’m not sure if they’ve got another centre forward on the shopping list at the moment if they are trying to keep Cavani.

“Cavani has shown his quality, and there’s no doubting his ability. I’ve heard he’s got the option of moving back to South America. But for me, I would try and go and get Haaland or Kane who is going to bang in loads of goals and play every week. It’s what United need at the moment.”

He continued: “Jadon Sancho is also a class act. I think he’s got enough experience in the Bundesliga, Champions League, and international scene to come in at United and hit the ground running. I think he could come in and offer that world class ability to the team because I think he’s quality.”

Following United’s win at Spurs, and looking ahead to the Granada match in the Europa League this week, Sharpe believes the club need to start matches better heading into the next season, in what he thinks will be crucial for the current Old Trafford boss Solskjaer.

He said: “I don’t think the performance against Granada was one of their better performances, but they had spells where they looked good but when you’re not on top of the game and still winning it’s great. They’ve done enough to get themselves through to the next round, which is all you’re looking for in a European competition.

“On Sunday, Spurs came at them and were out the blocks sharpish and again United started a little bit slower than they would have liked to. Then they went full steam ahead and were by far the better team in the second half.

“At times we’ve seen United start slow and they tend to give a lot of early goals away and had to come from behind in a lot of games this season, which is not ideal in the Premier League, but offensively they can be absolutely magnificent. They have some magnificent players who can pop the ball around and score some great team goals, as well as individual goals.

“The performances against Spurs will give them a lot of confidence going into the second leg against Granada, and if they get through that and have a good run of form to end the season then it’s been a good one for Ole (Gunnar Solskjaer).”

Sharpe added: “Looking at Ole’s progress report, I think it’s still a little bit the same. There has been progress but at the bottom of the report card you still have ‘you could do better’ there.

“Sometimes you look at games and think they look flat and there’s nothing really happening. But then again, looking at the big picture, if they come second and then win the Europa League then you have to put it down as a good season. They’ve made small strides and you’d hope that if they make good summer signings then they can come out and say they are challenging for the title.”

We’re down to the business end of the FA Cup and while there isn’t a lower league side on a magic run, there are three clubs taking their place in the semi-final spots that sit in the top five in the Premier League, so we’re in for a treat.

We preview the fixtures from this weekend’s semi-finals.

Pep v Tuchel: tacticians at play

Chelsea arrive into their semi-final against Manchester City on the back of their second defeat under manager Thomas Tuchel. However, they will be hopeful of bouncing back in the first of this weekend’s semi-finals.

The west London side’s fixture against Premier League leaders City gets underway on Saturday afternoon and Tuchel will be hoping he can continue the solid start he’s made with Chelsea by reaching the final, having qualified for the last four of the Champions League this week. City will, of course, have other ideas and with their stunning Premier League campaign reaching its culmination, quadruple hungry manager Pep Guardiola will demand a crack at his 30th career trophy in the final. Both sides will be desperate for that spot in the last two and with both managers tactically focused, it looks poised to be a thriller.

The two teams have met each other six times in the FA Cup and City firmly hold the cards from a head-to head stance. On four occasions, the Manchester side have had the better of the London club, however, in their last meeting in 2016 it was Chelsea that had the last laugh. They finished the fixture with a 5-1 triumph and any sort of repeat of that score line would see some hefty odds landed. On an outright win, though, it is City who are unsurprisingly the firm favourites at 3/4 while Chelsea, the 19/5 underdogs, will be looking for an FA Cup upset of sorts in their quest for a place in the final against Leicester City or Southampton.

Saints look to evade the cunning Foxes

One of the teams separating first-placed City and fifth-placed Chelsea in the Premier League are third-placed Leicester City, who have had a fine run throughout this season, though have shown signs of fatigue of late. Sitting further down the table is Southampton, who, while struggling, do have the current bragging rights from when these sides last met in the FA Cup, when it was the Saints that walked away victorious. That was back in 2012 and it would be fair to say a lot has changed at Leicester City since then and the south-coast side can expect a far tougher ride.

The two sides have met in the FA Cup seven times in total with each club recording three wins and one draw so as we go into this semi-final, historically, all things are square. One side will have to walk away not only as a semi-final loser but knowing their head-to-head record in the competition has been lost. Brendan Rogers’ side come into the game as favourites at 19/20 while Southampton are underdogs at 29/10.

Leicester have taken a lot out of this season so far with a potential top-four finish in the Premier League up for grabs and an exciting squad in the making, however with that comes pressure and complacency, not least when the heights of semi-finals are reached. On the other hand, while Southampton have had a lacklustre season, they know their place in next year’s Premier League is secured. Perhaps they have that freedom to perform and this is their chance at glory for a generation of Saints supporters. They have won only one major trophy in the club’s history and that was the FA Cup back in 1976.

With both sides looking to bookend their season, with a trophy it should be an all-out scrap. The quality may not be as high as Saturday’s first semi-final, but the passion will surely make up for it.

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