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Arsenal shocked by Champions League play-off scheme

PUBLISHED: 17:49 18 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:47 07 September 2010

THE news that the Premier League is considering a new play-off system to determine the fourth Champions League qualification place came as a major shock to Arsenal this week. While nothing is yet confirmed and this idea may suffer...

By Paul Chronnell

THE news that the Premier League is considering a new play-off system to determine the fourth Champions League qualification place came as a major shock to Arsenal this week.

While nothing is yet confirmed and this idea may suffer a similar fate to the '39th game' plan first mooted 14 months ago, the danger to Arsenal is clear.

The Gunners have occupied fourth spot for two of the last four years. And, with Chelsea and Manchester United having shared the title for the past five seasons and looking very likely to do so again, third and fourth place have become Arsenal's unwanted but perennial home.

The idea that at the end of a 38-game season the Gunners could finish fourth and then face a gruelling set of play-offs is hardly appealing.

The major obstacle to the Premier League making the idea a reality seems to depend on three factors.

The first is the agreement of the clubs, with a 14-6 majority of the 20 top-flight teams needed to pass any such proposals to the format.

The second would appear to be the lucrative TV deal agreed by the Premier League with Sky and the BBC which runs for the next three seasons starting in August 2010.

That deal is signed, sealed and ratified and would need to be changed to accommodate the extra games.

Those extra games are the third and possibly greatest problem. Just how could an extra two-week block be found at the end of the season to fit in the new play-offs?

This season, for example, the season has to finish on May 9 because of the World Cup - the only exemption is the FA Cup final on May 15 and the Champions League final on May 22.

In most other seasons there are international matches or tournaments scheduled for May and early June and there are already complaints over burnout and a lack of any break, especially in the Premier League that has no winter break.

The reaction from the clubs has been mixed - teams lower down and in mid-table have welcomed the idea, but Arsenal and their fellow top four regulars are known to be furious at the prospect.

They are not alone in having doubts. Even David Moyes, whose Everton side would have qualified for the play-offs in four of the past five seasons had they been in place, have voiced concerns.

"It might be quite exciting but you should be judged on where you are at the end of 38 games," said Moyes.

"Say it's Spurs who finished fourth and they find they are beaten by the team that finished seventh. They'd be aggrieved to have worked so hard only to be judged on a cup competition."

The possible format of the play-offs has not been revealed yet, but it is thought it could be styled on rugby league's system, with the three lower-ranked teams playing a semi-final and final to meet the fourth-placed team, thus giving the higher-ranked club over the league season an advantage.

That would appease the top four a little, but the feeling is that the play-offs are being brought in for one reason and one reason only - money.

The argument of the rest of the Premier League is that the top four have been swallowing the Champions League income on their own for far too long, and that is a valid point.

One thing is certain- this is a debate that is set to run and run. The Premier League summit this summer is the first time it will be discussed.

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