Every good story needs a villain. In the unending epic of European football, Manchester City have happily held that mantle for more than a decade.
Like any good slippery character, the club continues to evade capture by the authorities. On Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned Uefa’s decision to ban the club from continental football for two years for violating its financial fair play (FFP) protocols. A €10-million fine will still be incurred, but City have gleefully paraded what is undoubtedly a victory. Unless they win the Champions League, it will be their biggest of the season.
What does such a seismic decision mean for football in the long-term outside Manchester?
Almost nothing, one might argue.
The immediate temptation has been to declare the death of FFP, but the truth is that its spirit died a long time ago — if it ever truly lived. There is nothing fair about football financials: the game is ruled by the filthy rich motivated by monetary interest.
Pep Guardiola himself could have been tossed into a gulag and it would have done nothing to prevent another Wigan Athletic from going into administration.
The common conspiracy is that FFP was introduced as an attempt by the European elite to protect their standing in the face of a growing nouveau riche. True or not, Uefa has done a terrible job at enforcing the scheme. Paris Saint-Germain — which operate with impunity — are walking proof of that.
Is it any coincidence that their singular attempt at a significant punishment did not come from their own investigations, but was instead built on the foundation of the work of journalists at Der Spiegel? Common sense suggests it is not.
And this was all before we had a pandemic to deal with, of course. As a typically pessimistic Arsène Wenger told The Athletic website recently, the usual cut-throat rules of capitalism will apply in the post-Covid-19 landscape: “The strong will be stronger and the weak will be weaker.”
It may seem an injustice that City got away with it all, but it helps to remember that there could have been no verdict on Monday that would have made the football world as a whole a more equitable place.
But the decision does have massive ramifications for this year’s race for Europe. There’s now one fewer Premier League spot available in both the Champions League and the Europa League. This means Chelsea, Leicester City and Manchester United (and just maybe Wolves as well) will enter a dogfight for the latter, with fifth no longer good enough. With all three clubs susceptible to both the brilliant and the moronic, it’s impossible to say where the smart money lies.
Meanwhile, as many as five other teams will enter a battle royale for the Europa League. In this instance, the perceived evil triumph of Manchester City may very well end up costing teams that we could label as ostensibly being the good guys.
Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are two sides that would tell you they aim to be the antithesis of City. In recent years, both have admirably embarked on an improbable journey of the improbable, becoming successful self-sustaining clubs.
They’ve had a good crack at it too, despite falling a little short on the successful aspect. Sheffield United is another one that has to be commended for what they’ve been able to achieve on a bare budget.
The framing of City as villains might originate from the European elite, but the failure to sanction their profligacy will be hard for fans of any of the above clubs stomach should it cause them to miss out on Europe.
The (new) magic of the FA Cup
With all the brouhaha over the goings on in court, it’s easy to forget that Guardiola is chasing a treble. He’s one down with the League Cup in hand, is looking healthy in the Champions League and will play out the penultimate stage of the FA Cup this weekend.
Although the Premier League has understandably lost some of its lustre, given the circumstances of the day, the world’s oldest cup competition is set to serve up its most exciting conclusion in years. Four of the traditional top six are vying for a trophy that will undoubtedly add some uplifting shine to their season.
Both semifinals also offer match-ups that generally provide plenty of excitement. Arsenal drew the short straw and will face City on Saturday. Games between the two tend to be high-scoring affairs; unfortunately for the Gunners, the bulk of those goals end up in their net. The last time they beat the Mancunians, however, was in the Cup in 2017 — which they went on to win — so take whichever precedent you prefer.
The onus is on Mikel Arteta to seal off as many holes as he can with limited duct tape at his disposal. As Son Heung-min eagerly demonstrated to Arsenal’s cost in the North London derby: attacking brilliancy amounts to naught when you can’t complete a basic back pass or clearance.
Chelsea and Manchester United, too, have had their own hostilities in this competition. They will face off for the fourth consecutive season — the Blues emerged as winners in both the 2017 quarterfinals and 2018 final, before United got revenge in a 2-0 win last year. The new Wembley Stadium was also opened with this tie: Didier Drogba capitalising on an assist by current Chelsea boss Frank Lampard to score a late extra-time winner.
On top of a spot in the final, at stake may be the psychological edge needed to help sneak into the top four over the last two games.