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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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European football's new underclass

The real minnows of the modern Champions League are not Anderlecht, Brondby or Rosenborg; they are Betis, Udinese and Schalke. The big fish from little ponds have been replaced by the exact opposite - and it is time to reverse this trend.

If all their teams successfully negotiate the qualifying rounds, the big five leagues (Spain, England, Italy, Germany, France) will provide 18 of the 32 teams in the group stage - 60%.

Meanwhile, there is no automatic place in the groups for the champions from serious football nations such as Turkey, Russia and the Czech Republic.

This is not one of those rants along the lines of: 'How can they call it the Champions League when it's got teams who aren't champions in it?'

A return to the old European Cup format would be deeply tedious. We would have five teams with a genuine chance of winning (Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter, Bayern, Lyon), a few decent spoilers (PSV, Porto, Celtic) and that would be it. The number of plum ties could be counted on the fingers of, well, a couple of fingers, and if Chelsea draw Barça in the first round, tough.

I am a child of football's commercial age. The space in my brain that was once devoted to respect for football's traditions and history has now been taken up by Richard Keys screaming: 'PREMIERSHIP!! BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD!! FOOTBALL BEGAN IN 1992!'

I couldn't give a stuff about the integrity of a competition that pretends to be for Champions, but I do think the bias in favour of major (i.e. rich) countries has gone too far.

Four places for each of the major leagues? The reason why is of course money, but do people really want to see Chievo or Osasuna any more than CSKA Moscow or Galatasaray?

UEFA want to make sure big clubs don't miss out - after all, we wouldn't want Arsenal to spend a season kicking around with the plebs in the UEFA Cup, would we? After all, they've got a shiny new stadium to pay for.

But Arsenal have been in the group stage for eight seasons on the trot - fair reward for finishing first or second in the Premiership with unerring reliability.

So does it really hurt them to miss out one season out of every nine, particularly on the heels of a season in which they lost 11 league games and finished 24 points behind the champions.

Even the most one-eyed observer would admit last season's Premiership season was not good enough. In fact he has - even Arsène Wenger admitted his side were not up to scratch.

And that is without the extraordinary events of the last day when Spurs showed an all-too-literal lack of intestinal fortitude, possibly provoked by a dodgy lasagne. Still, Spurs have decided to turn a negative into a positive, starting this season as the last one ended - by stepping out in a brown kit.

At least Arsenal's last-day seizure of fourth place ensured the Premiership was the only one of the continent's elite leagues to send a quartet of 'top' sides forward. Osasuna did brilliantly to claim fourth in Spain, but they hardly set the pulse racing.

Roma and Chievo have come through from Serie A thanks to the 'Calciopoli' verdict that booted Juventus and Fiorentina out of the top four. But even if those clubs - like AC Milan - had clung onto their Champions League spot, the Italian crop would not have been a vintage one.

This is not the Fiorentina of Gabriel Batistuta and Rui Costa. Their leading player, Luca Toni, scored 31 times in the league last season, but was shown up as unremarkable at the World Cup - another example of the value of goals in Serie A being overrated.

This year the third qualifying round seems to be sorting the wheat from the chaff slightly better. Chievo went down 2-0 at Levski Sofia in their first leg while Valencia suffered a surprising defeat to Red Bull Salzburg and their managerial dream team of Giovanni Trapattoni and Lothar Matthäus.

In any case, sides who tumble at this stage can parachute neatly into the UEFA Cup, another competition that would benefit from changes to the Champions League. At the moment Europe's penultimate club competition is a home for the mediocre and the obscure.

Its group stage is utterly laughable; three months of games between Serie A reserve sides and the cream of Macedonia - just to reduce the field from 40 to 32 teams.

A few more high-profile teams might not fix this ridiculous format but they might make it marginally less excruciating.

It might seem mean-spirited to do down the efforts of sides like Osasuna, whose only crime is to play better than the sum of their parts. But success over one season does not make a great side.

Celta Vigo reached the Champions League in 2003/04 and were promptly relegated, while last season both Betis and Udinese flirted with the drop. Osasuna beware. Maybe the best thing that could happen to them would be to lose their second leg against Hamburg, having ground out a goalless stalemate in Germany.

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