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Page last updated at 12:49 GMT, Monday, 8 December 2008

Big four to feel wind of European change

Clockwise from top left: Cristiano Ronaldo, the Champions League trophy, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas

By David Ornstein

The Premier League's big four have made such a habit out of challenging for Champions League glory that it is almost impossible to imagine one of them missing out on the tournament altogether.

Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have contested Europe's blue riband club competition every year since 2003, reaching at least one final apiece since 2005.

David O, BBC Sport
But, under changes to the qualifying rounds that come into effect next season, the team finishing fourth in the Premier League could be in for a rude awakening.

Liverpool needed a last-gasp goal against Standard Liege just to come through qualifying in August and now that process is likely to be even more difficult.

Not for the first time, Uefa president Michel Platini is looking to shake things up.

Platini wants to reduce the number of non-champions from countries such as England, Spain and Italy and increase the number of champions from the likes of Bulgaria, Slovakia and Latvia in the competition.

Big four's Champions League income from Uefa since 1992
Manchester United:

A qualifying path will, therefore, be reserved solely for non-champions from the higher-ranked countries - and that could see England's fourth team pitted against the fourth team from Spain or Italy.

"We introduced this new format after discussions with the clubs but of course there will be losers," Uefa's general secretary David Taylor told BBC Sport.

"To the big clubs who may miss out I would say tough luck. This is a sporting competition and there is no guarantee of success.

"This is good for European football because we are refreshing the competition and we will have increased interest with clubs who have possibly never played in the Champions League before."

Champions League qualifying 2009-12

Platini has not had everything his own way - the teams finishing third in England, Spain and Italy are to gain direct entry to the group stage - but he thinks the alterations will help rejuvenate the competition and improve the quality of teams and leagues across Europe.

If one of England's big four did fail to qualify for the Champions League the potential financial and sporting ramifications do not bear thinking about, even more so at a time of a global economic crisis.

Clubs contesting the Champions League proper earn between 4.6m-20.4m, a share of the 237.31m television pot and matchday income, which for each of the big four is about 3m per match.

From Uefa alone, 2008 winners Manchester United earned almost 42m and runners-up Chelsea more than 36m.

Champions League income 2008-09
Group stage starting bonus:
Match bonus:
345,310 per match
Performance bonuses:
517,965 per win
259,000 per draw
First knockout round:
1.9m per team
2.15m per team
2.6m per team

Television pool:
"Because of the massive amounts of money at stake, the English quartet all budget to reach the group stage every year and if they don't get there, they are in huge trouble," said football analyst Alex Fynn.

"To do well domestically is an end in itself but it is also a means to an even bigger end, which is the Champions League."

Uefa believes any hostility from the clubs is a small price to pay for making the Champions League more exciting.

Taylor points to the way 2008 Champions League debutants Cluj-Napoca (Romania), Anorthosis Famagusta (Cyprus) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) have spiced up the competition.

The worry is that the changes will prove purely cosmetic and critics argue that the competition has become too predictable before the knockout rounds begin each February.

The eight teams originally regarded as favourites to win their groups this season have lost just four of 40 matches played.

"Competitive balance is a concern and the trend in general is on the decline in all competitions," said Alex Phillips, Uefa's head of professional football services. "It's something we consider closely when making changes to the Champions League."

In many sports people talk about the podium but the podium only has room for three

Football analyst Alex Fynn
Phillips's boss Taylor, though, concedes that the inclusion of more champions from lower-ranked countries could result in the big clubs continuing to have it their own way.

When the potential changes were originally examined by Uefa's strategy council, there was support for the adoption of a total knockout format, which was how the European Cup was contested until 1991.

Unfortunately for the purists, most clubs want or need the income generated by a guaranteed minimum number of games and so, for now, the Champions League will retain its current format.

"These things are all a little bit cyclical and I don't think we see dominance from one particular club or country for a long period of time," said Taylor.

"There are five big football countries in Europe and they will always provide the bulk of the winners.

Uefa President Michel Platini
Platini wants no more than three teams per country in the Champions League

"But there are other countries, like the Netherlands and Portugal, who from time to time can produce clubs who can win tournaments and we have to continue to allow that possibility.

"The changes from 2009 increase the chances of that happening and anything we can do to that extent helps."

Fynn, for one, applauds the changes, arguing that the big clubs have had things their own way for far too long.

"In many sports people talk about the podium but the podium only has room for three," he said.

"Finishing first, second or third in a big league should give you right of entry into the group stage.

"Likewise if you finish first or second in a smaller league, or as champions in the smallest leagues.

"But fourth? A fourth place was only introduced when Uefa were trying to prevent the big clubs from forming their own break-away competition."

Leagues 16-53:

16 Switzerland
17 Bulgaria
18 Norway
19 Denmark
20 Austria
21 Serbia
22 Israel
23 Sweden
24 Slovakia
25 Poland
26 Hungary
27 Croatia
28 Cyprus
29 Slovenia
30 Finland
31 Latvia
32 Bosnia-Herzegovina
33 Lithuania
34 Moldova
35 Ireland
36 Macedonia
37 Israel
38 Georgia
39 Liechtenstein
40 Belarus
41 Estonia
42 Azerbaijan
43 Albania
44 Armenia
45 Kazakhstan
46 Northern Ireland
47 Wales
48 Faroe Islands
49 Luxembourg
50 Malta
51 Montenegro
52 Andorra
53 San Marino

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see also
Champions League final switched
30 Nov 07 |  Europe
Platini wants Euro place for Cup
24 Aug 07 |  Football

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