Monday 24 April 2017

Standards falling in Premier class

Eamonn Sweeney

The week's events in Europe should stop Sky Sports telling us at every possible opportunity that when we watch the Premier League we're watching the best league in the world.

It won't but the claim will sound utterly ludicrous now that the English competition finds itself without a single representative in the last four of the Champions League. This time last year it was three out of four but it's been obvious all season that the league is weaker at the moment than it has been for some time. Tuesday and Wednesday night provided the coup de grace but the undistinguished nature of the Saturday showdown between Manchester United and Chelsea also underlined the decadence of the world's most hyped sporting competition.

Chelsea's 4-1 home loss to Manchester City would, in a normal season, have indicated that they weren't title material. Ditto United's 3-1 loss to Everton. And Arsenal's series of drubbings by the big two and their last-ditch victories over the kind of teams they would once have swept aside seemed to suggest that they are also a much weaker side than in previous seasons. Yet the fact that the Gunners remain as title contenders is another indicator that this season is very far from being a vintage one.

Both Chelsea and United are aging teams and the problems at Old Trafford have been exacerbated by the lack of a meaningful replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo while Arsenal have been fundamentally weakened by the loss over the past few seasons of the likes of Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini as that glorious future which the team were supposed to dominate disappears further over the horizon with every year that goes by.

It seems likely that Rafa Benitez will be leaving Anfield at the end of this season even if he does deliver a Europa League title to the club. But perhaps the hitherto impregnable duo of Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson have also gone on too long.

Ferguson's xenophobic jibe at the Bayern Munich players as "typical Germans," and paranoid accusations about the targeting of Wayne Rooney's ankle are sadly par for the course these days. It seems that no United defeat is complete without a litany of excuses and complaints from the boss. Once upon a time this stuff used to be dignified by the term, "Fergie's mind games," these days it just sounds like the embittered ramblings of a man who's lost the plot.

And, injuries notwithstanding, Arsenal's demolition by Barcelona, who could easily have ended up winning 10-2 over the two legs, showed the vast chasm which separates the boys from the Emirates from the true elite of Europe. The purring over the aesthetic joys of a trouncing of a Wigan or a Bolton rings hollow now that we know that Arsenal, unlike Barcelona, can't produce the same kind of football against top-class opposition. Wenger may have brought Arsenal as far as he can.

No doubt there will be plenty of excitement as the battle for the title reaches its climax. But that excitement will be tempered by the knowledge that, right now, the Premier League doesn't matter quite as much as we thought it did.

Sunday Independent

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