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Europe finally put in decline by the weight of english resources

Surely Liam Brady is suffering a bad case of TV analyst's fever. For how, in the name of Lionel Messi, can he claim that it is on Sunday at Old Trafford against Chelsea and not the Blessed Barca at Wembley later this month where Manchester United have the chance to shape the season's supreme achievement?

Disarmingly though, Brady, who was the author of such beautifully subtle performance for Arsenal, Juventus, Sampdoria and Internazionale, shrugs his shoulders and says he is merely reacting to a growing reality.

It is that when you cut through the kudos heaped on an exceptional, some even say historically unique Barcelona, there is one overwhelming fact -- that the Premier League has because a tougher challenge than the Champions League.

Brady says you can see it each week in the trenches of places like Stoke and Bolton.

Schalke 04, deeply embarrassed by the ease with which a patchwork United, saving their key troops for Sunday's collision with Chelsea, dismissed them from Wednesday's semi-final, might well be called as Brady's first witnesses, but this is hardly a one-hit argument.

Indeed, the more you look at it, the less startling Brady's theory becomes.

It is also true that if the fate of the Bundesliga team both in their own Gelsenkirchen stadium and at Old Trafford was bound to provoke questions about the overall strength of the European game, there is no shortage of accompanying evidence.

Inevitably, unavoidably, both Schalke's sporting director Horst Heldt and coach Ralf Rangnick said they had been browbeaten by the evidence of an extraordinary depth of competition in the Premier League.

Heldt, who looked somewhat shell-shocked, declared: "We lacked courage and of course we are disappointed.

"When you see the Manchester United team-sheet before kick off, then of course that gives you hope. Yes, you have to say they put out a B team but they are still top-drawer. We were just unable to match them in both games."

Rangnick went even further. He seemed to be in denial that his team had been picked apart by a skeleton United.

"If you look at that so-called second XI, Manchester United's quality stands out with Dimitar Berbatov, Anderson and the central defenders. It showed that they are at an exceptional level. Most Bundesliga teams would be happy with that quality, possibly with the exception of Bayern Munich."

Can it really be so, can the old aura of Europe -- Barca apart -- be finally dwindling beneath the sheer weight of Premier League wealth and the resulting depth of player resources?

As Brady suggests, there is no shortage of accumulating evidence. Even Arsenal's serial failures in the domestic league have to be balanced by the fact that if Nicklas Bendtner had converted a simple chance in the closing minutes at the Nou Camp it would have been Arsene Wenger's men, outrageously reduced to 10 men, who confronted Jose Mourinho's palsied Real Madrid in the semi-finals.


Brady's point is even harder to refute when you consider the barbed wire through which United and Chelsea have had to battle this season for their place in Sunday's potentially winner-take-all collision.

A non-vintage season, we have declared repeatedly, yet if the likes of United and Chelsea, Arsenal and the super-rich Manchester City and the impressively talented Tottenham Hotspur have all failed to strike consistently unanswerable veins of form, could it indeed be because they have encountered sharply stiffening levels of resistance in places like West Bromwich and Blackburn?

From his vantage point at Arsenal as the director of some of the most gifted youth in all of football, Brady sees a Premier League eliminating, quite relentlessly, those clubs who in the past could easily be placed in the soft-touch category.

When Barca and Real stumble in Spain, it is a sensation; when Wenger hurls the water bottle in places like Newcastle and Bolton, it is just another routine skirmish in a war of attrition.

And then there is the Champions League, cauterised against the possibilities of sensational reverses.

When one happened at the San Siro when Schalke, such lame ducks against United, erupted against the reigning champions Internazionale, it was of course promptly exposed as not so much a freak as dramatic evidence of the erosion of strength in the Serie A.

Before losing their nerve against Real, Tottenham had already made the point with their sweeping defeat of Inter at White Hart Lane and their ejection of Serie A leaders Milan.

This is not, of course, the way the Champions League was supposed to develop. It was Uefa's defence against the emergence of a super league breakaway, in which clubs like Manchester United, Real, Barcelona, Milan, Juventus, Bayern and, maybe, Benfica would create their own dazzling theatre, the apex of the game to which the worthier labourers in the domestic vineyards might one day, with sufficient brilliance or timely windfalls from places like Arabia, aspire.

Yet as the projected super league sheds glamour, outside of the Nou Camp, and any truly compelling intrigue in the group stages, the Premier League looks that little bit more iron-clad.

With Manchester City at the gates of Europe now, Roman Abramovich plainly intent on buying his way, with or without Carlo Ancelotti, to his first European Cup and United celebrating their third final appearance in four years, the groundswell of power is, again, resisted only by the exotic brilliance of Barcelona.

Of course, Europe could have no more thrilling holder of its banner -- yet three years ago en route to Moscow they had been left behind by United and one Spanish observer said of the hard-fought triumph over Chelsea two years ago: "Only English football could produce such a game -- so filled with speed and power. It is the football of the future and Europe will just have to learn to compete."

Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona have done better than that. However, Brady is maybe not so fanciful when he talks of the new football reality, the one that says it is in the Premier League, as never before, that the hardest victories have to be won.

Irish Independent