Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Chumpions

There is, in Bruges, a museum devoted to the humble chip. You might think that a nation that devoted to deep fried complex carbohydrates might have a degree of sympathy for Scotland. Sadly it seems that any lingering attraction between two nations enslaved by their love of the fryer does not extend to the football field.

Thus we Scots find ourselves outstripped by the Belgians in the race for co-efficient points. Last week's Europa League results, once they had been analysed and decoded by the ghost of Alan Turing, meant that Scotland slipped from the top 15.

Given that our most recent European adventures were the footballing equivalent of a stag do in Benidorm where the best man dies, the groom picks up an STD and an usher is blinded by a ping pong ball, it might reflect better on us if we accept some culpability for our own downfall.

It would not be a surprise, however, if the Belgians found themselves the object of some opprobrium in the boardrooms at Ibrox and Parkhead last week.

For much of the season you have hardly been able to lift a newspaper without reading about how crucial Europe is to the ambitions of the Old Firm. With two Champion's League spots up for grabs the loser in the two horse title race at least had a safety net to cling to. No longer.

From the end of next season to the victors will go the spoils and to the loser will go the far less lucrative prospect of the Europa League.

We need only look at Rangers' debt and Celtic's less than buoyant accounts to realise that this is a horrifying development for the big two. Where do they go from here?

That Rangers will be reduced to fighting it out for a solitary place in a qualifying round for the richest show on earth will hardly make the Ibrox side more attractive to potential buyers. As those potential buyers seem to be already looking on them as being as attractive as an asbestos riddled hovel with an outdoor toilet, this is not the best news to reach Govan.

Celtic too will be looking at a cutting of cloth. Whatever their feelings about Tony Mowbray the denizens of the East End might do well to just sit back and enjoy the richly rewarded talents of Robbie Keane. It may be some time before they see his likes again.

How do the Old Firm react? There might be a temptation to gamble, to build a team capable of dominating domestically and navigating those tricky qualifiers. But that is route fraught with danger, the downside of which can be summed up in a single phrase: "doing a Leeds."

The other option is to excercise prudence and sign up for an age of austerity. That also carries risks. Celtic have already seen how medicority can reduce attendances and the budget routes opens up the chance of sliding backwards towards the rest of the league. As welcome as that sounds to those of us on the outside it is surely unthinkable for the big two.

So the money men are going to have quite a little balancing act to contend with. The search for an owner who can ease the financial woes has suddenly become a lot more desperate for Rangers. The need to have a manager that can deliver what's needed will have Celtic's directors looking ever more quizzically at Tony Mowbray.

The whole issue, incidentally, is proof of how UEFA are now not so much a governing body as a tinpot dictatorship in place only to do the bidding of the continent's richest club.

That doesn't change the reality of the situation or the size of the crisis it presents for the Old Firm. It seems that we might be facing one of those moments when the whole landscape of Scottish football is in for a violent shake-up. Who'd have thought it would be the Belgians who provided the catalyst?