Chelsea go into their clash with Sparta Prague tonight with Rafa Benitez urging his men to treat the game as they would a Champions League match. That may be hard to do for players like Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard, who will have a hard time remembering when they last played in Europe’s second competition.
You could forgive Benitez for treating the competition with traditional English apathy too, given that he has been briefed by the club’s messengers to do everything to make sure that Chelsea finish in the top four.
“The main thing for us is to be sure that we are ready, that we analyse their team properly, so we have all the reports, and we give them the same information that we would give them in a Champions League game,” said Benitez. A man who comes second to almost nobody when it comes to tactical preparation, Benitez noted how the Czech side would likely have spent a month practising and training for this particular match. For Sparta, this is a wonderful opportunity.
For Chelsea, it is not the same opportunity in sporting terms for a team who won the Champions League last term. But this is a team desperately struggling to meet UEFA’s financial fair play rules, which make progress in this competition more important.
Last year Chelsea recorded a supposed profit of £1.4 million, which was helped in large part thanks to three particular factors. One was winning the Champions League, for which they were able to make significant sums in prize money. That won’t happen again this season obviously. Another was Sky writing off shares they once owned. That cannot happen again, for obvious reasons. And the other was because 2011-12 was a tax year in which Chelsea actually did not make any particularly big signings. Chelsea effectively spent their prize money last season for their European adventure on new signings; Oscar and Eden Hazard most obviously.
So there is quite a big financial hole to fill at Stamford Bridge which would be a challenge for even the best accountants to do without some serious efforts by the club’s hierarchy. Roman Abramovich has had some help in this effort from old friend Vladimir Putin, in the form of sponsorship from the incredulously wealthy state owned gas giant Gazprom. How far they will fill the tank is in question though, and Chelsea must find other revenues to ensure they comply with UEFA’s new rules.
UEFA recently announced that two English teams were among 20 who would have been broken the new rules had they been in place between 2009 and 2011. That was a stark message to Chelsea and Manchester City, almost certainly the identity of those sides. Frantic new deals have been signed by both as their commercial departments look to ensure they generate enough money through genuine sources to fund their lavish spending. Yet with just £34 million in combined losses over last season and this allowed, there is not a huge amount of scope for movement. Chelsea are unlikely to fall foul of the rules in the first year that they are analysed, next season, but over the rolling three year periods that they will be taken into account from the following season, the Londoners have a mountain to climb not to breach the regulations.
Then again, Gazprom last year signed a deal to become a sponsor of the Champions League, lining themselves up alongside the likes of MasterCard and Heineken. And when you have friends like that, with the ability to wink and nudge at UEFA with the threat of vital sponsorship money in their armoury, perhaps there is no need for Chelsea to bother with FFP after all.