If Premier League is bad, Ireland have real problems
THERE are many reasonable explanations for the lack of an English Premier League team in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but if you're of a mind that there's one good player between Argentina, Brazil and England, it's not surprising that rational debate can be squeezed out of the picture.
Manchester City were in a group containing two teams who are favourites to reach the semi-finals; Chelsea used up all of their luck last year in winning the competition; Manchester United were beaten by Real Madrid, which is hardly a crime; and Arsenal were eliminated by Bayern Munich.
Arsene Wenger reckoned that this was "a big wake-up call" for the Premier League but, when his team have been under such scrutiny all season, it's not surprising that he would rather perform a little bit of subtle deflection into a broader discussion relating to the state of English football instead of answering questions about why his Arsenal team can only perform when they are on the edge of disaster.
The Premier League might be over-hyped but, from an Irish perspective, to describe it as over-rated rather underlines the size of the task facing Irish football at the moment because for all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the dropping standards in English football, the reality is that Irish players still can't get near its best teams.
On Saturday, Giovanni Trapattoni announced his squad for the double-header against Sweden and Austria with a list of players from clubs who won't be troubling the engravers of elite division trophies for a long time.
The absence of Kevin Doyle's name was the main talking point, but looking beyond the names and to a list of the clubs gives a more sobering reality to how the players are regarded by a league that, for all its faults, is certainly among the best in the world.
The list reads: Millwall, Sunderland, Motherwell , Sunderland, Leicester City, Aston Villa, Stoke City, Everton, Reading, Toronto; Stoke, Wigan, Leeds, Norwich, Derby, Sunderland, Millwall, Hull City; LA Galaxy, West Brom, Derby, Stoke, Nottingham Forest.
That means Ireland have two players who are currently in the top half of the Premier League (Seamus Coleman and Shane Long) and none in the current squad who have played Champions League football this season. James McCarthy might be the one to make the breakthrough if one of the top six teams decides to try and tempt him away from Wigan but, McCarthy apart, the next Irish player to consistently play elite European football seems a long way away.
After scoring in the final as captain of the FA Youth Cup team, Dubliner Conor Clifford was understandably thought to have a bright future at Chelsea, having helped them win that trophy for the first time in nearly 50 years.
That was in 2010, but the reality of just how difficult it is to break through came after loan spells at Plymouth, Notts County, Yeovil Town and Portsmouth failed to help him make any ground at Chelsea before he was released at the beginning of the year.
He is now at Leicester, a club 26th overall on the English football table.
If those outside of England are excluded, the average league placing of the teams represented on the Ireland squad is 20th in English football – that is, on average, they are good enough to be bottom of the Premier League.
It's an enormous contradiction to claim that the Premier League is over-rated and then complain if Ireland aren't competing among the top nations in qualifying for either the European Championships or the World Cup, but that won't stop the floodgates from opening if things go wrong in the next fortnight.
When Trapattoni took over in 2008, Robbie Keane was in the process of scoring 15 Premier League goals that season and Keane will almost certainly lead Ireland out again in Stockholm despite his current employment of the semi-retirement home of the MLS.
After narrowly beating Kazakhstan last September, Trapattoni made reference to the 5-2 defeat against Cyprus in 2006 to underline his point that, Ireland "are not Real Madrid, Argentina, or Bayern Munich or England or also Germany". As cases for the defence go, it felt akin to boasting about being the tallest pygmy.
Ireland's fortunes have dipped to the point where they now find themselves ranked 40th in the world, one place higher than they were when Trapattoni took over five years ago.
Throughout his career, Trapattoni has been accustomed to managing elite players, but the really great managers don't complain about what they don't have and instead make the best out of what they do. If Trapattoni can't do that in the next nine days, his and Ireland's qualification fate will be sealed.