Sport Soccer

Saturday 16 December 2017

Praising mediocrity wearing very thin

ONE of the great anomalies in sport is confusing entertainment with quality. In boxing, many would rather watch two men slug it out in the manner of drunks on a street corner rather than marvel at the evasive skills of somebody like Floyd Mayweather Jnr.

In rugby's Super 14 last week, the Waikato Chiefs beat the Lions 72-65 in a game which saw 18 tries and one player kick nine conversions. If the over-riding emotion of the players involved wasn't embarrassment, they should think about taking up Sevens.

It's the same story in the Premier League, which is starting to resemble an athletics final where competitors stroll around for a few laps before making a mad dash for the line, creating the illusion of a superb contest even if none of the athletes are anywhere near their personal bests.

This season the "Race for the Title", "Fight for Fourth Spot" and "Battle to Survive The Drop" -- to give them their full, hyperbolic titles -- are all likely to be exciting but mostly because no team looks capable of emerging from their respective pack.

It's probably true that, among Europe's main leagues, England is the most cut-throat but a scenario where every team is capable of beating everyone else is more of an indictment than a compliment to a competition determined to ram home the message that it's the "best league in the world".

"We took a point from one of the best teams in Europe," is a regular comment from managers who have seen their team get something from games against Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool.

"We only drew with a team who lost to Burnley and Fulham," would be an alternative perspective for those managers who share the points with United while defeats for Chelsea against Wigan, Arsenal at Sunderland or Liverpool in Portsmouth skew the notion of the apparent dominance of the Big Four Behemoths.


Then, there's the battle to enter the Champions League which, unlike any other sport, makes finishing fourth an achievement rather than a disappointment.

Just in case mediocrity wasn't being well-enough rewarded in the Premier League, the proposal of a play-off for the final Champions League spot means teams finishing as low as seventh could qualify for a competition whose name suggests they should be six places higher. In most other sports, there's a reason why the podium only has three positions.

If the scenario was in place this season, Tottenham, now in fourth, would probably be involved despite dropping six points to Wolves in the course of the season and Manchester City's hundreds of millions in spending could be rewarded even if they can't beat Stoke or Bolton and drop five points to Hull.

Aston Villa haven't added hugely to the squad that fell away so dreadfully at the end of last season while Everton are now being mentioned as outside chances despite their manager admitting on Saturday that it's only now they can afford to look up the league table rather than down.

And then there's Liverpool, whose game against City yesterday could have been an advert for the proposed play-off system -- instead it turned into a video nasty where the ball was treated as an enemy and the nets were only ever troubled in the warm-up.

As ever, Rafael Benitez spoke about control and being compact, yet this is a team which has dropped 36 points with 11 games remaining compared to 28 for the whole of last season.

Such is the speed of the slow bicycle race for the title that anything approaching similar form to last season would have given Liverpool their best chance of ending a 20-year wait for a title that has them veering towards the sleeping giants tag. Instead, their supporters and players are supposed to be happy if Benitez delivers on his "guarantee" that they will finish fourth.

Between them, Stoke and Birmingham have scored 51 goals in 52 games yet this has been enough to keep them at a safe distance from a relegation scrap which, if it were to be judged on football merits, would have six or seven teams relegated on principle.

Bill Shankly once said that if Everton were playing in his back garden he would "close the curtains" but given the inability of most teams in the league to do anything but hoof the ball upfield, Shankly would, today, have had to reinforce his windows as well.

There was a time when 40 points was the magic number for staying out of trouble but such a tally this season would probably take 50 games to achieve.

Yet, in the coming weeks, those scrambling to stay aboard the gravy train will convince themselves that "two or three wins" in their final 12 games will keep them up despite averaging about one win in five to this point.

Under normal circumstances, yesterday's capitulations by Burnley and Bolton would send punters scurrying to bet on them to be relegated but, with the standard of teams around them, they can still be justifiably confident of survival. Next weekend, Bolton play Wolves and Burnley face Portsmouth in games that will be of such commitment and importance that it's tempting to describe them as nine-pointers because six just doesn't do it justice.

It would probably do less damage to a football purist's eyes to stare into the sun for the duration of either game yet both will be packaged as "full-blooded", "committed" and, if there's some comical defending, "a great advert for the Premier League".

If a decent-quality football match happens to break out, it will merely be a bonus.

Irish Independent

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