Cuneyt Cakir should be nicknamed the Marmite Man. The Turkish referee is the man at the centre of Tuesday night’s Old Trafford storm, the brandisher of Luis Nani's 56th minute red card. Sent off for a high boot competing for a ball dropping over his shoulder, replays clearly showed Nani oblivious to the onrushing Alvaro Arbeloa, unaware of the cat set to be released amongst the pigeons for his final action of the tie. It's difficult to argue that this bold and extremely debatable decision from the UEFA official turned the last-16 tie on its head; Real Madrid soaring into the ascendancy from that moment on.
For the footballing purists a decision of pure disgrace, though many British football fans would no doubt have sported a Cheshire Cat grin on their face as Ferguson exploded with rage. These fans have been wronged by unfavourable penalty decisions, debatable sendings off and of course the infamous 'Fergie Time' when facing off against the English giants. Justice is served they may claim, but they'd be wrong to believe this impulsive reaction. To look at the bigger picture is to see the damage that English clubs Champions League woes could have on future European football participation.
UEFA's co-efficient system is a challenge to fully understand for most. Each year points are accrued to league associations based on their club sides results in the Champions League and Europa League, with every competing side contributing to their national tally. These points are allocated based on a number of trifling factors such as progression, match outcomes etc. The total points earned over a campaign across all a league associations sides is then divided by the total number of sides that league association has competing in European competition. Still following?
These averages attained for the year are then added to UEFA's co-efficient calculator, a tool that measures the cumulative performances of each national association over a period of the previous five seasons. The results from this are then compiled into a table that orders the league associations by their performances. It's a complicated system to understand but in essence makes sense to ensure that the best representatives of European football are present at the elite level whilst preventing a single freak season from affecting the status quo in dramatic fashion.
From this table the top three league associations - currently Spain, England and Germany - are allocated four Champions League places. Alongside this they also receive three Europa League entrance point spots. Those between fourth and sixth - Italy, France and Portugal - receive the same amount of Europa League entrants but one less Champions League place.
At this point in time England currently find themselves sandwiched between Spain and Germany's offering in second place though Germany have been closing the gap with fervour, spirit and most importantly absolute efficiency. Chelsea's European triumph last season may have broken the hearts of Tottenham fans across the country but the Premier League breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Their success arrived off the back of a dreadful showing from other English sides at European level last season and effectively pulled the English 2011/12 co-efficient up to an acceptable level.
That close shave should have been the kick from behind for English clubs to get their houses in order, though lessons appear not to have been learnt. Once again hopes now ride on the shoulders of Chelsea, as well as Tottenham and Newcastle, to drag the national league's reputation out from the mire and contribute vitally necessary points. Failure to do so and continued progress from the respective four German and four Italian sides in the Champions League and Europa will almost certainly close that gap between second and fourth in the co-efficient.
Beyond these two powerful competitors, new forces are pushing themselves to the forefront of European attention. Ukraine and Russia have both witnessed heavy financial investment in their club sides and Western Europe is now attracting a collection of the most sought after footballing talent, big names such as Hulk and Willian amongst others. The five year cumulative rule means that these will not be challenging for a much higher position any time soon, but the seeds have been laid to spout another strong and effective branch to European club football.
For those who cannot see the potential danger for England’s clubs need only look back ten years to a time when Italy’s Serie A was arguably the strongest European association. A number of disappointing performances on the European stage in recent years has seen them drop down from four teams to just three teams in the Champions League. A former heavyweight giant hanging limply and distantly behind the new superpower, Germany.
It goes without saying that there are external factors that must be held in mind too though. Manchester City were grouped disastrously, with the league champions of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, a tough task for any club. Baring in mind their relative inexperience in the competition, it is reasonably understandable why the monumental task ahead may have fazed them. Likewise Chelsea were grouped with the impressively resilient Juventus as well as the unpredictably dangerous Shakhtar Donetsk. Luck has not favoured those English sides that did progress from their groups either, with Arsenal and Manchester United tied in heavily difficult last 16 clashes respectively. However that is cup football and these teams needed to play the hands they were dealt more effectively.
Of course there will be glee to see those who have previously benefited from your misfortune suffer themselves, but be careful what you wish for. If this is the start of the slippery slope down the co-efficient table, there won’t be so many laughing as competition for European places becomes yet more savage and cut-throat.