Welcome to ESPN’s Insider Notebook, featuring contributions from our reporters across the continent. In this edition, Arsenal fans excited about getting Champions League football through the back door are dealt a reality check, PSG’s president is negotiating with himself, Chelsea have a Kepa conundrum and there’s an esports battle brewing …
Arsenal in the Champions League? Forget it
We’ve heard many weird and wonderful ideas appear about how to resolve issues if the coronavirus crisis means domestic seasons across Europe cannot be completed. But sorry, Arsenal fans, don’t get excited. Unless you finish in the top four, you won’t be playing in the Champions League next season, whenever that will be.
One of the whispers out of Tuesday’s UEFA video conference, held with all 55 national associations, was that European places could be decided purely on UEFA’s club coefficient, a system that ranks clubs based on their European performance alone over a five-year period.
But that just wasn’t going to happen. It was pie in the sky. It was the suggestion of one league representative, and while it might get traction in places, sources told ESPN — information which was officially confirmed by UEFA later on Thursday — that sporting achievement should govern who plays in Europe. It’s up to the leagues to suggest a formula — most likely table as they stand or a points-per-game method — and UEFA will offer guidelines.
If coefficients were used, England‘s Champions League spots would go to Liverpool, Manchester United … and ninth-placed Arsenal. Tottenham Hotspur, who are eighth in the league, would take Manchester City‘s place, due to City’s ban for financial fair play violations (pending an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, of course).
Leicester City and Chelsea, who sit third and fourth in the Premier League table respectively, would be dumped into the Europa League with Wolverhampton Wanderers, while Sheffield United would be denied their first-ever European campaign in a cruel twist following a fine season back in the big time.
But that misfortune is nothing compared to Belgium, where Club Brugge sit 15 points clear at the top and are to be crowned champions; they are ranked only fourth by UEFA’s coefficient, so would merit only a place in the Europa League third-qualifying round.
In Spain, sixth-placed Atletico Madrid would take the place of Real Sociedad; Atalanta and Inter would lose out to AS Roma and Napoli in Italy; Lyon and AS Monaco would take places off Marseille and Stade Rennes, who have never played in the Champions League, in France.
In Germany, RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach would be replaced by Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke. AZ Alkmaar, who are only second to Ajax in the Dutch Eredivisie, would lose their place to PSV Eindhoven.
Sporting merit is all part of the reason why UEFA is so against the idea of null-and-voiding seasons, preferring instead that leagues are played to a conclusion or places awarded on achievement.
These stories give great headlines, but rarely stand up to scrutiny. It is not that the idea has not been floated. But for an association in full as a blanket rule? Not a chance. — Dale Johnson
PSG president negotiates with … himself?
Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is negotiating on behalf of Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 clubs with TV rights holders, so that the final installments for the 2019-20 season can be paid. The rights holders in France are Canal+ and BeIn Sport, whose supremo is … yep, you’ve guessed it: Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
So the Paris boss is basically in talks with himself. The motto does say that if you want something done, do it yourself, but this is pushing it. Al-Khelaifi has been put forward by the other Ligue 1 presidents, and Canal+ also thought it was a good idea that he was part of the negotiations.
On April 5, BeIn, like Canal+, refused to transfer the money to the league for the latest instalments of the Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 rights, totalling EUR155 million. They have another payment due on June 5. The negotiations continue, and Al-Khelaifi is asking for French football to be less selfish. He is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. — Julien Laurens
Chelsea in Kepa conundrum
Chelsea are struggling to drum up interest in goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, sources have told ESPN. Manager Frank Lampard is open to selling the Spain international after dropping him for six games in January and February.
Intermediaries have been gauging interest from some of Europe’s leading clubs, but there seems to be very little appetite to take the 25-year-old off Chelsea’s hands. Kepa arrived from Athletic Bilbao for GBP71.6 million in 2018 and has a contract at Stamford Bridge until 2025.
Chelsea face a dilemma about how to move forward with their goalkeeper situation. No. 2 Willy Caballero is set to leave at the end of the season, and the club are exploring the option of signing another senior goalkeeper to compete with Kepa. — Rob Dawson
Spending lockdown in Malaga’s stadium
Spain’s strict coronavirus lockdown has not been a problem for the Perales family, who have Malaga’s La Rosaleda stadium as their backyard.
Andres Perales, who is 83, lives in a house alongside the 30,000-capacity arena with the youngest of his seven children, Andy. Andres worked for the club for almost 50 years in various roles — from team bus driver, to gardener, to janitor and even masseur — and has lived on site since 1989.
“This is my life. I spent my youth here at La Rosaleda,” Andres told La Sexta TV. “It’s a real shame to see it empty like this. I’ve seen it full, with people coming and going … and now like this it’s really sad.”
Despite retiring a decade ago, Andres continues to live rent-free in a three-bedroom home accessed via the stadium’s Gate 18, which bears his name in recognition of his years of service.
“I can’t complain,” Andy, who is 43 and also a club employee, told El Pais. “After lunch I go for a walk on the training pitch, and if I feel like it I go to the first-team gym. I don’t go into the stadium too often, I’ve seen it enough.”
Andy and two of his sisters were even involved in disinfecting the stadium last month, donning protective gear to ensure La Rosaleda’s offices, locker rooms, turnstiles and concourses were free of COVID-19.
“It was like cleaning the house, on a larger scale!” he told the club’s website. — Alex Kirkland
Esports beef as Spain left stunned with Italy crying foul play
Sources have told ESPN that Spain were stunned by Italy’s comments following the cancellation of the FIFA eNations StayAndPlay Cup.
FIFA organised the virtual tournament to help spread a positive message during the enforced lockdown in Europe due to the coronavirus pandemic, with participants made up of one international footballer and an esports star as a pairing from each country.
Spain and Italy were drawn in the same group of the StayAndPlay Cup, alongside Portugal and Malta. However, while most teams selected an international player and professional esports star as their two representatives, Spain chose YouTuber “DjMaRiiO” with esports player Jaime “Gravesen” Alvarez.
Italy cited this as one of the reasons for the cancellations, with Alessio Romagnoli, the Azzurri‘s representative, also criticising the move.
But the Spanish FA have been left baffled as they claim FIFA informed them they could select an influencer; DjMaRiiO, Spain’s biggest FIFA YouTuber with six million subscribers, falls into that category.
And you thought only real football could bring such drama and aggro! — Rodrigo Faez