A new 'Big Four'?
Wednesday's showdown between Manchester City and Tottenham, a match that amounts to a Champions League play-off, is of huge significance. Not only to the two clubs concerned, who stand on the threshold of the most exclusive group in the English game, but potentially for the entire competitive balance of the Premier League for years to come.
Some believe that if Roberto Mancini completes the task he was brought in to do, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan will embark on a fresh spending spree the like of which has never been seen before in English football. Encouraged by another high-profile platform with which to promote the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the club's owners will find it even easier to attract the world's best players, possibly consigning Liverpool to years of mid-table frustration in the process.
But are we in danger of over-playing the importance of a City victory on Wednesday? Is this really the biggest game in the club's history? Are we truly on the brink of a new era for the English game? And what would happen if City fail and Spurs qualify instead?
Firstly, this is by no means the richest match in English football. That would be the Championship play-off final, with the winner standing to gain about £40m-£50m from only one season in the Premier League, plus £22m over two seasons in parachute payments if they are relegated. The Premier League is also proposing to double this hand-out to £48m over four seasons, so one can justifiably put the prize on offer at about £90m-£100m.
"The Champions League is significantly less lucrative than the play-off final, which is a much bigger deal," Dan Jones, partner at the Deloitte Sport Business Group, tells me. "A good run in the Champions League can boost revenue by about 30%, though, so it's nice to have in terms of competitive position, but one senses that City is a juggernaut regardless of whether they qualify this year or not."
Qualification to Europe's elite club competition typically earns clubs about £30m a season if they progress to the knock-out stages, with sponsorship deals, corporate revenues, season ticket sales and player acquisitions all boosted by involvement. This extra European revenue has certainly helped perpetuate the so-called 'Big Four' in the recent era of the Premier League.
Will Mancini still be Man City boss next season? Photo: Getty Images
The last time the hegemony of the Premier League's elite was threatened was five years ago, when Everton snatched fourth place from Liverpool and qualified for Europe's top club competition ahead of their arch rivals. But it proved nothing more than a blip. Everton flattered to deceive and by mid-August their Champions League adventure was over, knocked out in the third qualifying round by Villarreal. Business as usual. Predictability was restored, and that's the way it stayed.
Similarly, Spurs or City are about to discover that qualifying in fourth place is only half the battle. Uefa has rejigged the qualification format to help teams from smaller nations reach the lucrative group phase and make it harder for those from the more established nations to progress. Last year, Arsenal faced a tricky two-legged play-off with Celtic, and dangerous opponents will be lurking in next season's competition at the same stage.
But even if City or Tottenham do progress past such dangers, their hopes of enjoying prolonged success over several seasons in Europe could be undermined. Not by a rejuvenated Liverpool, or other challengers such as Aston Villa and Everton, but by Uefa's Financial Fair Play Initiative, a crackdown on what Uefa president Michel Platini regards as "financial doping".
From 2012 to 2015, spending by wealthy owners like Sheikh Mansour will be restricted to covering total losses of up to £40m, falling to £30m from 2015-2018. City's owner, it has been estimated, would eventually be allowed to invest less than £10m a year in the club.
Qualifiying for the Champions League for the first time in their history will certainly help City to avoid a repeat of their failed attempt to sign Kaka and make luring the world's best players to Eastlands easier. But as Real Madrid have again proved, winning the tournament requires more than an expensively assembled squad of marquee names.
Privately, senior City officials insist that Roberto Mancini is safe in his job as manager regardless of whether they finish fourth. One told me: "Roberto's task was progress and reach 70 points. That has almost been achieved. We're heading for our highest Premier League finish ever and nothing changes if we don't qualify. The spending will continue and we'll get there next season instead."
Yet, despite the denials, one cannot help think that Mancini's position will come under serious threat if City do squander this opportunity, especially if Inter Milan boss Jose Mourinho becomes available this summer.
In November last year, Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, City's chairman, said this: "We believe in loyalty. We don't leave our men behind, we stick with them." Yet three months later, Mark Hughes was sacked. Turned down by their first choice Guus Hiddink, the owners opted instead for Mancini, who, despite various challenges, has done well to get City to where they are. But there seems little doubt that his task, given the club's astonishing outlay, was to reach the Champions League. Now he must deliver.
When one considers the extravagance of City, a club willing to let £34m Robinho go out on loan, it is easy to see why Spurs boss Harry Redknapp believes all the pressure is on City on Wednesday. Certainly, his future at the club is secure, whatever the result of Tottenham's last two matches.
At a time of financial mismanagement, the London club's achievement is all the more impressive. Over the past 18 months, they have bankrolled £150m of signings but are one of only three Premier League clubs to announce profits of more than £25m in their last accounts. Most interestingly, Spurs have spent only 52% of their turnover on wages compared to a staggering 94% at City.
Finance strategist David Bick, who helped advise both Sheikh Mansour and Thaksin Shinawatra on their respective takeovers of City, told me: "Unlike several clubs, Spurs are run prudently. They keep a clean balance sheet and, for that, the chairman, Daniel Levy, should get credit. They deserve to qualify and, if they do, they'll sensibly resist the pressure to gamble everything and spend excessively. Man City's agenda is completely different. They will now expect a top-four finish every season."
The last time Liverpool failed to finish fourth in the Premier League, they recovered quickly. By hauling themselves off the ropes and dramatically winning the 2005 final in Istanbul, Rafael Benitez's side were granted a reprieve and allowed to play in the competition the following season after failing to gain qualification by the normal route.
Fernando Torres may have played his last game for Liverpool. Photo: PA
Now, however, it is an entirely different Premier League environment. This time there is no fall-back option for Liverpool and their long-term prospects look bleak. Retaining their best players will be difficult without the lure of Champions League football, let alone attracting the fresh talent the unsettled Benitez believes is essential if the Reds are to get themselves back into the reckoning.
The riches of the Champions League have been crucial in helping Liverpool to afford the yearly interest repayments - £36m according to their latest accounts - on the debt owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have saddled the club with. But now they must somehow make do without that assistance, with a sale of their prized assets, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, possibly their only option unless new chairman Martin Broughton and Barclays Capital can seek out a new buyer in the coming months.
It seems we do indeed stand on the brink of a fundamental shift in the landscape of English football's elite. Perhaps the era of 'Big Four' domination is over. The recession and Uefa's determination to tackle over-spending may well combine to ensure a less predictable, more balanced competitive environment.
But for now at least, Liverpool's time in the Champions League has passed and either Man City or Spurs are ready to take their place.