Pot 2 was the giveaway. Pot 2 was the embodiment of how Europe’s richest clubs have fixed UEFA’s biggest tournament.
In pot 2 there were eight clubs, six of which had tried to break away to form a closed-shop Super League little more than a year ago.
Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Juventus are now all living their second-best lives. Only Sevilla and RB Leipzig were outside that nefarious scheme.
Yet discount Liverpool, for the moment. Liverpool were among the plotters but they were pot 2’s worthiest members.
Liverpool finished a point behind the English champions, Manchester City, and lost a Champions League final to Real Madrid. So Liverpool’s season had true merit. The rest of them?
Well, here was the cabal at work. Here was all the protectionism and exclusionism that has been poured into the Champions League for an entitled few. Of the seven other clubs in the second-seeded pot for Thursday’s Champions League draw, four had come fourth in their leagues, two had come third and another second, but by 13 points.
Yet it didn’t matter. While six genuine national champions languished in pot 4 — the one that all but guarantees an absolutely hellish group-stage path — the rich but useless teams got to insulate themselves by virtue of historic co-efficient.
They had been good once, a few years back, so they got to stay that way. They enjoyed all the benefits of being a successful club, without having to be successful.
Between them, Barcelona (second), Chelsea and Atletico Madrid (third) and Sevilla, Tottenham, RB Leipzig and Juventus (fourth) were on average 17.14 points off their league champions.
Yet they sat just outside the top seeds in pot 1 as if deserving. And that is how UEFA maintains the status quo.
Atletico are the most recent champions (2021), then Liverpool and Juventus (2020), Barcelona (2019), Chelsea (2017), and then the fun starts: Tottenham (1961), Sevilla (1946) and RB Leipzig (never).
How can a competition that brands itself the Champions League reward this above the genuine achievements of Celtic, Maccabi Haifa, Dinamo Zagreb, Copenhagen, Viktoria Plzen, Club Bruges, RB Salzburg and Shakhtar Donetsk, who are all champions in pots 3 and 4?
The champions of Europe’s best league, the Champions League holders and Europa League winners are pot 1, and that is fair.
After this, UEFA should start listing qualified champions until exhausted, and then begin the process with second-best teams from the strongest leagues.
Liverpool and Barcelona would drop into pot 3, which is tough, but no club that has come fourth should be in anything other than pot 4. The same with third and pot 3.
Instead UEFA protect, indeed reward, failure. And yes, fourth place in the Premier League is earned by a stronger team than the champions of Israel.
But that will always remain so while UEFA insulates its favoured elite against failure.
This is what made the Super League proposal so heinous. These clubs have already got it their own way. What more do they want?
No need for Marcus to say sorry for being a saint
Did you hear or notice Marcus Rashford swearing after scoring for Manchester United against Liverpool on Monday? Nor me. Some salty language was picked up from one camera angle that found its way on to the club’s television network.
Yet Rashford still apologised for reacting ‘in the heat of the moment’. He posted a laughing face in the hope people would see the funny side, but even so, it shows the pressure he feels to maintain his new saintly image. And might that not be his problem? Rashford isn’t Mother Teresa; he’s Manchester United’s centre forward.
Goalscorers are meant to have a little devilment in them and the young Rashford certainly did. He wasn’t always capable of staying upright even under the slightest pressure and, while cheating isn’t a positive attribute, it must be set against defenders who are told to stop him by any means necessary.
Maybe this attitude is what has gone missing. Since Rashford became a national hero for changing Government policy around free school meals during the pandemic — earning an MBE in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours list — perhaps he feels pressure to live up to that image.
The role model, the perfect footballer, one who cannot be seen indulging in the darker side of the modern game. It’s difficult being perfect, and Rashford’s unnecessary apology reveals a man trying a little too hard to live up to his pristine image.
Nobody should argue against Rashford’s incredible charity work — why not do good if you can? Yet he also needs to be allowed to be a footballer again, and to stop apologising for that.
Spare us the Fury-Usyk phoney war
Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk is already becoming boring. Not the fight, but the back and forth, the inevitable row about the money, the will-he-won’t-he retire, the specious deadlines for negotiations that are set.
Do boxing enthusiasts really find these charades compelling?
Let's avoid Shelvey syndrome over high-flying Toon stars
The last time England were heading to a World Cup there was a great clamour in the North East about a Newcastle player who had to be included. Gareth Southgate remained unmoved and, somehow, contrived to reach the semi-final with a team that did not include Jonjo Shelvey.
Once there, Luka Modric of Croatia reminded everyone what a truly world-class passing midfielder looked like.
Now as we close in on Qatar 2022, there is a similar buzz around the same club and two of its players: Callum Wilson and Nick Pope.
To be fair, both have a stronger claim to merit inclusion in Southgate’s squad than Shelvey in 2018, but even so, it pays to approach with caution.
Appreciation for Newcastle in Newcastle can get quite giddy at times and although this is an impressive start to the season — perhaps even with potential for a challenge to the top four — it’s still a win and two draws from three games, albeit including one very creditable 3-3 with Manchester City.
Yet Wilson, we are told, is the obvious understudy for Harry Kane, and Pope should be in ahead of Jordan Pickford. There are alternate views. The first is that no sooner had Wilson been spoken of as Kane’s shadow, he was struck down by a hamstring injury, perhaps keeping him out for as long as a month.
Wilson is sadly fragile. He has only played 47 of 79 Premier League games since joining Newcastle and has made it past 30 games once in seven full Premier League seasons. The schedule in Qatar is crowded and if misfortune befell Kane, Southgate needs a player who can handle that. Is this Wilson? His talent suggests yes, his body no.
If injury keeps Wilson out of the next England squad, as seems likely, it would mean picking him for Qatar despite him not being involved with the team for three years — he was in a November 2019 squad but did not play. His only start for England will have been November 15, 2018, against the United States — and his last appearance October 14, 2019, coming on as a 76th-minute substitute when England were leading 5-0 against Bulgaria.
So it’s a gamble. Let’s face it, Newcastle wouldn’t be spending a club-record £60million on Alexander Isak of Real Sociedad if Wilson’s availability could be completely trusted.
As for Pope, he’s in excellent form, but so is Dean Henderson at Nottingham Forest. More pointedly, so is Southgate’s first-choice Pickford, who continues saving Everton from catastrophe. Last Saturday, he even did it as a goal creator, his ball against Forest setting up Demarai Gray’s 88th-minute leveller.
Southgate insists Pickford has never let him down, which may be an exaggeration, but makes it very hard to drop him just because Pope is playing well. There are lots of positives around Newcastle right now — but there is a lot of presumption, too.
United shouldn't get carried away just yet
Now the euphoria has subsided, it may be worth looking dispassionately at Manchester United’s win over Liverpool.
Not just the long list of Liverpool injuries, but the fact both United centre halves went down with cramp in the second half. This wasn’t extra time at the end of the season. Will United be able to keep up with the work Erik ten Hag requires them to do?
Equally, are there not Premier League sides more adept at taking advantage of the lack of defensive height when Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia play? Both had good games against Liverpool, but other teams will be more challenging.
In January 2007, Chelsea played Liverpool with Michael Essien and Paulo Ferreira at centre half. Rafa Benitez put Peter Crouch up front, with Dirk Kuyt off him, and won 2-0. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was very effective.
How many times must Ronaldo be served 'justice'?
Cristiano Ronaldo was given a police caution for assault and criminal damage after slapping the phone out of 14-year-old Jacob Harding’s hand as he left the pitch following Manchester United’s defeat at Everton last April. It was nasty, petulant behaviour.
The day after the incident, one of Ronaldo’s representatives called with an offer for Jacob to meet the player at Manchester United. Jacob’s mother, Sarah, declined. Two days passed and the PA called again. This time Ronaldo was on the phone. He asked her to come down to meet his family. He apologised. He left his personal number. He asked what she wanted from him. ‘The police are dealing with it,’ Sarah Kelly replied. ‘I don’t want anything from you.’
But that’s not true because she’s now talking of suing Ronaldo and Manchester United, even after the case has been closed. ‘I want to see justice because there hasn’t been any,’ she says. ‘I want him to be held to account for what he did.’
Yet there was justice, because there has been a police caution, and Ronaldo was held to account by the negative publicity surrounding his actions. He apologised, publicly and privately, he tried to make amends for his poor behaviour. Yet something in his question to Jacob’s mum suggests he knew all along where this was heading. And he was right.
(In further legal news, Anna Palus, the Polish woman accused by Nick Kyrgios of being drunk and distracting him during this year’s Wimbledon final, is also taking action over ‘a reckless and entirely baseless allegation’. Like Sarah Kelly, Palus is insistent this is an unavoidable last resort. ‘I am not litigious,’ she said which, if true, must make her job as a lawyer quite challenging.)
Summer Olympics in Jeddah is a non-starter
Last week in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s minister for sport, HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud, held a round-table event with visiting media. The takeaway was that Saudi Arabia intended hosting the 2036 Olympics and wished the International Olympic Committee to make it the ‘preferred bidder’.
And good luck with that.
The Olympics take place in July and August when the average temperature in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city, is 96°F. The heat for competitors would be unbearable. Even if it was possible to air condition an outside arena, what of events like the marathon, or road cycling?
The Gulf countries want to be part of sport, and that is understandable. They certainly have the wealth to stage big events. Yet there has to be some appreciation of reality, too.
For Saudi Arabia to host, the Olympics would have to move to the winter, somewhere between November and March — and that would encroach on world championship events and the calendar in a great many sports. Yet it’s the only way. Otherwise, for the whole region, the Olympics is a non-starter.
It's just not cricket
This week saw the latest instalment of Cricket For People Who Don’t Like Cricket when the 6ixty tournament launched in the West Indies. Following on from the ECB’s Hundred format, 6ixty will be pared down to 10 overs, with minimal breaks: 30 balls will come from one end, then 30 balls from the other. In this way, an innings will be over in 45 minutes.
Why stop there? The Two. Each team bowls one ball each and then we go to the pub. The None. Both sets of fans meet outside Lord’s and simply go to a pub — and if anyone so much as mentions cricket, the other team wins. And remember where you heard that first, just in case the ECB tries to patent it.
No need for government regulator in rugby
Worcester Warriors owe the taxman roughly £6million, Wasps are in financial crisis and it transpires the amount of taxpayers’ money required to keep Premiership rugby clubs afloat during the pandemic stands at £124m. Yet notice anything? No big fuss about a government regulator needed in rugby. There can’t be any votes in it.