The need to reacquaint oneself with the dreaded high street is not the only deep-rooted fear that December brings around. It also, traditionally, plays a huge part in making-or-breaking a team’s season; one way or another, the hard-fought battles at either end of the table will be shaped by results over the festive period.
But, as light and comic relief to the jitters and jubilations of the next two weeks, there is also the fact that around now, the rumour mill goes into overdrive. The media, equally to the fabled word-of-mouth – “My mate’s dog saw Wesley Sneijder in the Old Trafford gift shop” – dedicate time and column inches speculating on who might go or who might stay.
As well as the usual transfer sagas – such as the Carlos Tevez episode, which is rivalling the nativity story in terms of being age-old – there are the more quirky pontifications; the astute-eyed picking up on certain nuances or caveats which may lead to managers having a dabble. It is from this leftfield origin that the curiosity of Manchester United fans was piqued: away from transfers, the Sunday papers were abuzz with talk that, shockingly, Manchester United could be reinstated into the Champions League.
The back story to this unforeseen turn of events is complicated and dates back to August when lowly Swiss outfit FC Sion beat Celtic in their Europa League qualifying bout. A turnout for the books and not an expected outcome for the Hoops, yes, but a long, unconnected way from Stretford. However, during this tie, FC Sion had fielded an ineligible player: the registration of Brian Amofa had not been accepted by the Swiss FA. Like a swaggering school prefect, UEFA soon stepped in to swiftly hand out punishment, leading to Celtic progressing to the group stages at Sion’s expense.
Whilst this may appear harsh, Sion had previous: back in 2008, the club signed Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary but due to the fact that he was still under contract with his previous club, Al-Ahly, FIFA imposed a transfer ban. Although it was meant to last two transfer windows, the aggrieved Swiss team only, in realty, missed out on the winter transfer window of 2010-11.
What’s this got to do with Manchester United and their potential knockout round with Bayern Munich? Nothing … and everything. Because Sion, with both of these previous grievances in mind, have spent the last few months appealing and, in doing so, refusing to let the matter drop. As recently as November, with five of the six group games completed, there was talk of them being reinstated back into the Europa League; even Michel Platini, in his eternal wisdom, would have struggled to make that work. But, because of this prolonged battle, FIFA and UEFA have grown annoyed at having this sprightly Swiss side highlight the loopholes in their much-touted, much-flouted rulebook, to the point that they are now threatening to ban other Swiss teams from European competition.
Enter Manchester United. After being impressively pipped to second place in their group by FC Basel, it is now being theorised that if FIFA do indeed carry out their threat to eliminate Sion’s Swiss compatriots, United could take the place of their vanquishers and face a tie with German giants, Bayern Munich.
A reprieve, another crack at glory, a massive slice of luck … are not sentiments that the hierarchy of United should be thinking. For if this eventuality was to become a reality, it would be a farcical turn of events. Imagine if United went on to win it. How would UEFA look then, knowing that the winners of their premier competition only had their chance because a plucky team from Switzerland dared to stand up to the governors of the game? And how would other teams feel? It is not inconceivable to imagine that they themselves may feel equally disgruntled, and Barcelona certainly carry a lot more clout than FC Sion, not to mention their money-making pull on the global scale.
If on the off chance this did all come about, and Platini was to extend an invitation to Manchester United to return to Europe’s top table, everyone involved with United should do the honourable thing and refuse; being unequivocally gracious in defeat and victory is the sign of a great sportsman, and United should heed that advice.
It has been said for years now that the Champions League and, more specifically, the Europa League need to be reformatted. Many decree it be ridiculous that the third-placed “champion” drops into the Europa League; some likened it to the beaten finalist of the League Cup being handed a reprieve by going straight into the semi-finals of The FA Cup. Tedious, but not dissimilar. In this instance though, if Basel were to be so unlucky as to be unwittingly eliminated, UEFA should do the decent thing and hand Bayern a bye into the quarter finals. Yes, they would miss out on the revenue generated from the match being broadcast, but what they lose in money, they would gain in humility, a currency which Blatter rarely, if ever, barters with.
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