Sheffield United could face European play-offs as UEFA insist football holds sway over history

UEFA have ruled the European fates of clubs like Sheffield United can only be decided on “sporting merit”, not past glories, and could even be decided by play-offs.

GUIDELINES: UEFA want to ensure qualification for next season's Champions League and Europa League is based on "sporting merit"
GUIDELINES: UEFA want to ensure qualification for next season's Champions League and Europa League is based on "sporting merit"

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There had been suggestions that if the 2019-20 Premier League could not be completed, European co-efficients might decide who qualified for the Champions League and Europa League. That would favour teams like Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur with a European pedigree, but who lag behind the Blades in the table. Chris Wilder's side have never qualified for Europe, whereas Spurs reached the knockout stages of this season's Champions League, and Arsenal were last year's Europa League runners-up.

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But UEFA ruled that out at Thursday's executive committee meeting.

European football's governing body urged its associations “to explore all possible options to play all top domestic competitions”, which is what the Premier League and Football League have repeatedly said they want to do. There is also the FA Cup to consider. Sheffield United were drawn at home to Arsenal in the quarter-finals.

The FA Cup winners qualify to play in the Europa League.

There is, however, an understanding the coronavirus and government restrictions in various countries may make completing seasons impossible, and UEFA has therefore issued "strong recommendations" on how European qualifiers should be chosen, including suggesting play-offs.

“The ideal scenario, should the pandemic situation permit it, is to have the currently suspended domestic competitions completed enabling football clubs to qualify for UEFA club competitions on sporting merit in their original format,” said a statement. “Should this outcome not be possible, in particular due to calendar issues, it would be preferable that suspended domestic competitions would restart with a different format in a manner which would still facilitate clubs to qualify on sporting merit.”

UEFA reserved the right to refuse teams a place in their competitions if they were “selected (via) a procedure which was not objective, transparent and non-discriminatory so that the selected clubs could not be considered as having been qualified on sporting merit, (or) there is a public perception of unfairness”.

It had warned leagues their clubs could be barred from European competition if their seasons were not completed without permission, but they backtracked on that this week.

The Blades are seventh in the Premier League, but with only goal difference keeping them below Wolverhampton Wanderers, they would move up to sixth in a points-per-game table.

Ordinarily, England gets four Champions League places, plus three for the Europa League. They go to the fifth-placed team in the Premier League, the FA Cup and League Cup winners, or the next highest teams in the league if either cup winner has qualified through the league.

Manchester City won the League Cup and are unlikely to finish below fifth, but have been banned from the Champions League and Europa League for the next two seasons for financial fair play breaches. That means the next team down the table would get each place, so the top seven, plus eighth or the FA Cup winners would qualify.

There is, however, the possibility City could appeal their ban and if it is not heard in time to decide next season's placings, apply for a stay of execution. All the top ten sides apart from City and Sheffield United were said to have written to UEFA demanding they not be allowed to do this.

The Blades have 10 league matches remaining, with all their home games against sides with hopes of qualifying for Europe. They are also due to play fifth-placed Manchester United and third-placed Leicester City away.

UEFA's calendar working group is drawing up two contingencies for the resumption of domestic and continental football. They both work on the basis league football will resume first, with the later stages either in parallel with the European cup competitions, or a clean break between the end of the leagues and the UEFA matches starting at the beginning of August.

The medical sub group is drawing up a set of guidelines and protocols for a resumption.

UEFA will support leagues finishing early if national governments did not allow matches to go ahead but it is also prepared to accept “insurmountable economic problems which make finishing the season impossible because it would put at risk the long-term financial stability of the domestic competition and/or clubs.”

A total of £61.1m will be released early to help clubs through the financial crisis.

Clubs would have received money as compensation for their players appearing for their countries this season and in the summer, before matches were postponed due to the pandemic. A payment was due after March's international break. Around £43.6m would have gone to teams such as Sheffield United, Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday who had released players to any of the 39 countries not involved in the play-offs, and £15.4m to clubs who had players with those that were. A further £2.3m will be paid after the play-offs, due for the autumn.

The men's European Championships will continue to be branded as UEFA Euro 2020, even though it will now take place in 2021. As expected, the women's equivalent has also been pushed back a year until 2022.

The next executive meeting is scheduled for May 27.

UEFA's guidance is only for the top end of the top divisions, but how seasons are ended and resolved is not just an issue there, with Championship Leeds, League One Rotherham United and Conference North York City all in automatic promotion places when their seasons were postponed and in York's case, abandoned. Barnsley are in the Championship relegation zone.

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