Tonight at Eastlands, Manchester City take on Tottenham in what may well be the decisive game in the race for fourth place and the final Champions League spot. The media have worked themselves up into a proper frenzy, but does it much matter? It could, I suppose, but whatever the result it’s unlikely in itself to constitute a significant breakthrough or herald a new world order in the fashion that’s being made out in many quarters. The real reason the clash has attracted such interest, besides the prospect of seeing someone different in the top four, is probably more down to the intriguing contrast between the circumstances of the two sides.

For Spurs, qualification would be about the money at least as much the prestige, the chance to bridge the financial gulf that currently separates them from the top tier, and particularly Arsenal. The potential rewards are indeed huge – here’s a quick reminder of some of the figures, from the 2009-10 competition:

Just for reaching the group stage there’s € 3.8 million, plus another € 3.3 million (550k per game) for bothering to turn up. Then € 800k for a win and € 400k for a draw. Once in the knockout stage there’s another € 3 million for playing the in the last 16. So potentially nigh on € 15 million already, just for reaching the knockout stage. And that’s just the prize money, which, according to this survey by sponsors Mastercard, represents less than 30% of the income involved. Another similar size chunk comes from the Market Pool payment, a share of UEFA’s own commericial revenues – this is weighted in favour of those clubs whose countries have the biggest TV market, so English clubs score particularly well – then there’s ticket sales and the clubs’ own sponsorship and commerical revenues. The report suggests that those clubs qualifying for the knock-out phase of the tournament have already earned an average of € 50 million, with the promise of plenty more to come with further progress. Even those clubs who played in the group stage but didn’t get through earned an average of € 32 million.

Should Arsenal contrive to lose their final game against Fulham, it’s still possible that Spurs could pinch third place and gain entry direct to the promised land. More likely, they’ll have to play a qualifying round. The qualifying rounds for champions and non-champions are kept separate, so rather than getting the league winners from a lesser country, they’ll be drawn against another club in similar circumstances. Which means that – like Everton who came up against Villarreal in 2005 – they could easily get an awkward tie against another club from one of the major European leagues. This of course makes access to all that cash uncertain and makes it tricky to know how much of a risk to take in assembling a squad over the summer. Everton missed out, but then you wouldn’t want to go the Leeds route and gamble the money first.

For City, with their virtually unlimited cash, the situation is very different, and their need for the Champions League is about bridging the credibility gap. There’s an assumption in some quarters that fourth place now is all it’s going to take to enable them to kick on to the next stage – Mark Lawrenson on MotD this week said he expected City to be looking at winning the title within a couple of years if that happens.

I’m far from convinced. The Kaka debacle hasn’t been forgotten, and so far the higest profile players they’ve managed to sign have been ones who have fallen out with their previous clubs for whatever reason. It’s difficult to see that a spot in the final qualifying round for the Champions League is going to be enough to make them suddenly an attractive prospect for the kind of top rank players they really want to sign – Ribery, Torres, Villa – particularly with ongoing doubts about the stability of the current management regime and the level of continuity within the squad. The suggestions seem to be that there will be big changes this summer, with a whole host of names being linked and a mostly new squad being thrown together. Always a dicey business – it might work, they might be brilliant, but it might equally be a shambles reminiscent of the early 80s, and such doubts are what will continue to make it difficult to get the best players in. Let’s face it, if there were ever going to be any club in the world who might be capable of spending half a billion quid and still screwing up, it’s Manchester City.

None of this, of course, is to suggest that fourth place would not be a good thing for either of these clubs – in their different ways it will provide a tremendous opportunity which, with good management, might just prove the stepping stone to greater things. But it’s not going to be part of any sort of natural or straightforward progression. In City’s case I’m sceptical they have the right management in place at any level of the club to take full advantage, while the experiences of Everton, Leeds and – going further back – Newcastle should remind Spurs that Champions League qualification has yet to prove the turning point for anyone to break into the top echelon on any sort of permanent basis.

The club for whom the top four place, or lack thereof, will probably make the most critical difference is the one who have already missed out – Liverpool. Again, I don’t want to overstate the case and present it as the factor which will determine their entire future, but given their straitened circumstances it is just possible that it will be a tipping point. If it sees the departure of the couple of key players on whom they’re heavily reliant, if it makes the club that bit more difficult to sell and leads to a season of boardroom turmoil, they might well be in for a difficult time, and for every season they spend out of the top four it will become progressively harder to get back in.

And maybe it’s this factor that provides the most encouragement for both City and Spurs going into tonight’s game. Even if they miss out this time, or lose the play-off, they’ll both know that fourth place is still up for grabs next season and the chance to make real progress will still be there.

That’s for the future. In the meantime there are a couple of schools of thought as to what we should want to happen tonight. There are those who just want to see the current hegemony broken up, and seeing City as the likeliest candidates to do so, want them to get on with it as quickly as possible. Tempting though such a line of thought is, I can’t really agree. If the cost of such a challenge is having another gazillionaire to distort the competition then it’s not a price worth paying, and the novelty of having a different club involved will wear off pretty quickly if it’s on those terms. Regretfully, despite my lifelong antipathy to them and despite the involvement of Harry Redknapp, I find myself having to support Spurs this evening. It’s not going to come easily, but morally I know it’s the right thing to do.

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