Sport Soccer

Friday 19 January 2018

James Lawton: Sundays not so super as Premier League suffering calamitous decline

Cristiano Ronaldo with the Champions League trophy in 2008
Cristiano Ronaldo with the Champions League trophy in 2008
James Lawton

James Lawton

Shakespeare said a rose would smell as sweet by any other name but he might not have agreed the same was true of a football match lumped into the inflated category of 'super'.

Certainly the Merseyside derby looks like a bedraggled flagship in its High Noon slot in Sky's latest Super Sunday.

Survival Sunday might be the more appropriate description - and not just because Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is desperate to underpin his teetering status after last weekend's life-giving, if somewhat tenuous, victory over Aston Villa.

Also under ever-growing pressure is the idea that the Premier League is any time soon going to regain its reputation for providing some of the world game's most compelling entertainment.

Seven years ago, that had become a largely unchallenged reality. Serial winners or real contenders in the Champions' League, the Premiership was filled with character, power and even artistry - think Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry for giants of skill and charisma.


In the 2008 Champions League final, winners Manchester United and the conquered Chelsea (after a penalty shoot-out) provided everything you would want at the highest level of the club game.

The fall from that high would have looked even more precipitous if United and Manchester City had not turned back a tide of desperate results in the Champions League group action on Wednesday night.

The grim decline was painted starkly by the sickening defeats of Chelsea and Arsenal by such relatively mediocre opposition as Porto and Olympiakos.

Despite the face-saving recoveries of United and City in the games against Wolfsburg and Monchengladbach, it is stunning that claims of English dominance in Europe could have been made as recently as seven years ago.

Consider the limited returns offered by the Mersey showdown - once one of the cornerstone peaks of the English game.

Rodgers might gain another reprieve or Roberto Martinez might just make a stride towards establishing some kind of Premier League stability for Everton despite their limited financial resources. But this is a long way from the old grandeur.

Similarly, the collisions between City and United, and Arsenal and Spurs, no longer have the capacity to persuade their audiences that they are really the best.

How can so much money be poured into a product while guaranteeing nothing so much as steady decline of overall standards?

Maybe, you are tempted to conclude, money is at the heart of it. When Liverpool's Raheem Sterling, of notable talent but extremely limited on achievement, approached the new season in full-blown rebellion mode, he was a dramatic example of the dislocation of ambition and commitment that has become so commonplace.

Some old pros, reflecting on different times, are bemused by the psychological problems they believe must inevitably accompany the explosion of earning potential even for players plainly some way from being the finished product.

"How", asked one veteran recently, "does someone like Wayne Rooney deal with a poor individual performance in a big European game, when say he is removed from the field before the end of the game?

"In my day that would have been nightmare because the need for consistent performance filled your life. Now, you have to wonder if a kid who is getting paid something like £300,000 a week win or lose, brilliant or mediocre, isn't bound to think that at least his bank account isn't suffering."

Such speculation is inevitable, maybe, when the best financially upholstered league in the world is falling so clearly below the levels of the most ambitious teams in Spain and Germany, and with a club like Paris Saint Germain so hell-bent on taking a place amid the new elite of the European game.

Who leads the Premier League counter revolution? Never before in the league's history has there seemed to be such a paucity of authentic leadership.

And not the least dismaying evidence of the trend was Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's anguished assessment of his team's latest failure in Europe.

Defeats by such as Monaco, Anderlecht and now the pratfall against the ill-considered Greeks has plainly worn at his once unshakeable belief that he would lead his team back to the uplands of the European game - and that his most bitter defeat, to Barcelona in the 2006 European final in Paris, would one day be redeemed.

Wenger was reported to be ashen-faced after a Wednesday training session which ended with him berating his expensive players for the ultimate professional sin - a failure to produce basic levels of passion and desire.

Among those who sat, glum-faced and silent, were such mega-earners as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez and two of the brightest hopes of the home-grown game, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Wenger, who reacted icily to the charge that he made his own contribution to the disaster by preferring reserve keeper David Ospina to Petr Cech, sounded like a man who was beginning to face up to his deepest fear.


It is that despite the touch and skill of his players, there is a killing absence of commitment - one that is now threatening to betray what once promised to be an extraordinary legacy in the English game.

But then the spectre is scarcely peculiar to the Frenchman as his rival Jose Mourinho continues to flounder in his struggle to reanimate his imploding champions and City yearn for some of the old authority of Yaya Toure and renewed evidence that Sergio Aguero still has the passion and the edge that once made him one of the world's best players.

Meanwhile, United return to the top of the Premier League with much gratitude for the stealthy touch of young Frenchman Anthony Martial and the impressive resilience of Juan Mata.

Not so long ago, Mata was dismissed from Chelsea by the imperious Mourinho. You have to wonder how much he would give now for the little Spaniard's determination not to go gently into the football night.

Suddenly, after all, it seems that quality is one that even the plutocrat Premier League must now doubt it can begin to weigh in gold.

Irish Independent

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