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Secret plans to revamp the English Premier League's method of choosing its Champions League qualifiers could be the breath of fresh air needed to revitalize the English game.
While the EPL's popularity around the globe shows no sign of waning, the predictability produced by the monopoly of the "Big Four" – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – has served to rob each campaign of what would be some welcome drama.
However, a proposed plot by the middle-to-lower-level EPL teams to push through a four-team playoff for the final Champions League spot, revealed by the Guardian newspaper, is both likely to be passed and virtually certain to become a hit.
Under the current system, the top four finishers each season book their place in Europe's top interclub tournament. Not since the 2004-05 season, when Everton finished fourth, has any other team from the outside forced its way into the picture, although Liverpool finds itself under threat this year from Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa.
The new plan, which is being spearheaded by Premiership chief Richard Scudamore and enjoys, not surprisingly, strong backing from every team outside the leading lights, needs a vote of 14-6 to pass. Given that so many teams have previously seen Champions League places as an unattainable dream, there should be no trouble in garnering the requisite numbers.
EPL chiefs have been looking at ways to cook up even more cash and inject some extra intrigue into the season for the past couple of years.
A proposal for an extra game, to be held at international venues including the United States, failed to get off the ground due to a lack of support from players, fans and even politicians. However, the idea of the fourth- through seventh-placed teams squaring off in a postseason playoff would be a great move – provided it is done in the right way and doesn't lead to further tinkering with tradition.
There may be some public resistance to what would likely be seen as an Americanization of the English national game, yet that could be tempered by assurances that this will be the extent of the changes. For example, the Premier League winner needs to remain as the team that comes out on top of the table at campaign's end, just as it has done since the dawn of English soccer history.
The Champions League playoff concept will be detested by the Big Four, which is probably a fair indication that it is a good plan. That said, there should still be some advantage to the higher-placed teams. Ideally, the regular-season No. 4 would play No. 7 at home in a single-elimination game, likewise with Nos. 5 and 6. The two semifinal winners would then face each other in a blockbuster finale at Wembley Stadium.
Such a solution is the perfect way to stay in tune with the need to progress and innovation, without losing the fabric of what makes the EPL special.
Weekend Best XI
1. Get him an Advil
Pep Guardiola will be thankful that his Barcelona team has another week before it resumes Champions League action following a thoroughly uninspiring performance in a 2-1 loss to Atletico Madrid – its first defeat of the La Liga campaign. Even worse, influential midfielder Seydou Keita pulled a hamstring and will be out for a month.
2. Get him a beer
Freddy Adu turned in another fine performance for Greek side Aris, scoring a well-timed goal in a 2-1 victory over Ergotelis. Adu received a bunch of congratulatory tweets from members of the United States national team squad yet remains a million miles away from a recall.
3. Get him some earplugs
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is unlikely to have been impressed by Cristiano Ronaldo's revelations that he misses life at Manchester United. Perez would be entitled to hope that a transfer fee of $131 million would be enough to quell any pangs of regret Ronaldo might secretly harbor.
4. Keep an eye on
The bizarre saga involving dumped England captain John Terry and his fling with Wayne Bridge's girlfriend is set to take another twist as the two former friends are set to meet three times in a week. If Manchester City survives its FA Cup replay with Stoke, it will play Chelsea in a quarterfinal, then again in league play. Terry and Bridge will also find themselves at close quarters when England plays its next friendly against Egypt on March 3.
5. Catch a flight to …
There are a few decent little games going on over the next couple of weeks, as the Champions League gets back into full flow with the round of 16. Milan is the pick of the bunch in a must-see clash between AC Milan and Manchester United. David Beckham has recently found himself out of favor at the San Siro but will be desperate to be involved against his former team.
6. Useless and completely made-up statistic of the week
5 – The percentage of his time that Jose Mourinho is going to spend thinking about Inter Milan's clash with Sampdoria next week. The small matter of Inter's Champions League meeting with his former club Chelsea the following week will dominate the Special One's thoughts.
7. Sad goodbye
Former Real Madrid coach Luis Molowny passed away Friday at the age of 84. Molowny had four separate stints in charge at the Bernabeu, winning three La Liga titles and two UEFA Cups.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
Raul. Reports linking the Spanish striker with a switch to the New York Red Bulls continue to gather steam. And what about Thierry Henry, who has long been tipped to end up in the Big Apple? MLS insiders are pointing to the 2011 expansion franchise of Vancouver as the Frenchman's likely landing spot in North America.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
Oguchi Onyewu. The big American central defender is getting ready to pack his bags and head back to Italy, with his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury almost complete.
10. Get excited about …
The negotiations between Major League Soccer and its players union over a collective bargaining agreement are no nearer a resolution. However, the extension of an agreement deadline to Feb. 25 proves that both sides see no value in a damaging work stoppage.
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
Feast your eyes on Carly Cole, the wife of Chelsea and England star Joe Cole.