Champions League qualifiers may be better in May

Written by Reuters | Berne | Updated: Aug 24 2014, 02:24am hrs
On the same day hosts Brazil were crushed 7-1 by Germany in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup, another remarkable match took place almost unnoticed, thousands of kilometres away, in the Armenian capital Yerevan.

There, on an historic night for Andorran football, Eloy Casals, goalkeeper for the champions of the principality FC Santa Coloma, rifled in a 94th-minute effort to secure an away-goals win over Armenia's Banants in a Champions League first round qualifier.

Banants, 3-1 ahead in the second leg, looked set to qualify until Casals took advantage of confusion to send the Andorran amateurs through after the tie ended 3-3 on aggregate.

Casals joined the likes of Peter Schmeichel and Vincent Enyeama among the ranks of keepers who have scored in the competition.

Events in Belo Horizonte, understandably, overshadowed this remarkable act of giant-killing but helped to raise a question: why was European club football being played while the World Cup was building to a crescendo

The Champions League is the pinnacle of club football and, for major European teams, qualifying for the group stages is a priority.

For the 22 teams who qualify directly, there is time to prepare.

Their club directors go to Monaco at the end of August for the draw for the group stages and their matches start in mid-September.

By then the new season is in full swing.

But those who are not direct qualifiers, including the champions of 40 'smaller' countries, face a battle in up to four rounds of preliminary matches in July and August.

For some clubs, this means they have barely started pre-season training when they play their most important matches of the year.

The losers face a full season ahead knowing they have already missed out on their main target.

Austrian side Salzburg are a classic case.

Ever since the Red Bull energy drink manufacturer took over the club in 2005, their stated aim has been to qualify for the Champions League group stages.

They have taken part six times in the qualifiers without success.

As winning the league is seen as an obligation, this means they have little to look forward to after being eliminated.

Some countries, like Austria and Switzerland, start their seasons in mid-July to give their teams an improved chance in the qualifiers.

Last year that led to the incongruous sight of hydration breaks in the Austrian Bundesliga when it kicked off in a July heatwave.

This season's Swiss league started a week after the World Cup final.

Italy's Serie A, on the other hand, does not begin until the end of August. Thus Napoli's home match on Tuesday against Athletic Bilbao, in the first leg of a playoff tie, was their first competitive fixture of the season.

ANTI-CLIMAX

With the transfer window still open for business, Napoli gave the impression they were fielding a makeshift team for a contest where the outcome could be worth 38 million euros ($50.34 million, the same amount they earned from the group stages last season.

In short, the arrangements are messy.

It would appear more sensible to play these qualifying ties in April and May, at the end of the old season, rather than the beginning of the new.

There is something anti-climatic when teams like Bilbao finish fourth in La Liga, knowing they must wait three months to play a two-legged match of such importance.

Playing the Champions League qualifiers at the end of the 'old' season would be a natural progression for clubs who have finished well domestically.

Instead of stopping, and re-starting, three months later, often without key players, teams would carry momentum into the playoffs.

This would create a fitting climax to their season.

The first and second qualifying rounds, for teams from the 'smaller' leagues, could start in April with the third round, and playoffs, taking place in May.

Most leagues would have to finish one or two weeks earlier, by the start of May, but the smaller ones would need to end in April.

July, and most of August, would then be left without football, apart from those countries that have a summer season.

European soccer's ruling body UEFA has acknowledged that playing the qualifiers early in the season is not ideal - and change may be an attractive proposition.

"It could be interesting but the problem is you never know exactly when the season ends in different countries so you might face a similar problem," secretary general Gianni Infantino told Reuters.

"But it's true, this is an issue. It's a pity for any club to be knocked out in early July. So we have to see what is better.

"It's difficult to find the right balance but it's a good point to look at."