Chelsea won in a blaze of glory Wednesday night to become the EPL’s only representative in the last eight of the UEFA Champions League. That is a shocking state of affairs for a global sporting brand that considers itself to be the biggest and best show in town. Can we really say that the Premier League is still sitting alone in its ivory tower, mocking the achievements of its continental rivals? Is there even a viable contender for the throne to be found amongst the big leagues of Western Europe?
What makes something ‘the best?’ If it is purely determined on the basis of success in European competition then the mantle must surely be passed on. From the mid part of the last decade, English clubs have enjoyed a level of success in the European Cup only previously witnessed during the five straight victories in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The Heysel Ban saw the Italian clubs, particularly AC Milan, return to prominence, whilst by the late 1990’s, Real Madrid were top dogs. Looking at this pattern, one would assume the periods of dominance merely goes in cycles with one of the ‘Big Three’ leagues taking top spot for a time. Two titles and five runners up spots in six seasons is impressive stuff and certainly counts as an era of dominance for EPL’s top teams. The fact that circumstances have shifted so suddenly leaves us to ponder our place at UEFA’s top table. Spain has two teams; Real and Barca (who else??) whilst Portugal, France and even Cyprus have a place in the last eight. These facts and figures give further credence to the suggestion that the crown is starting to slip.
If ‘the best’ means high quality football being played by a plethora of world class players the EPL comes once again under scrutiny. La Liga has the two, undisputed, greatest footballers on earth. Both sides of the El Clasico divide are stacked with World Cup winners and players capable of technical brilliance week on week. The Premier League has lost Ronaldo and Fabregas in recent years, lessening the ‘Wow!’ factor on display. It has however gained Aguero, Silva and Suarez, all three of whom are thrilling on the eye. Our best sides are still able to put on a show occasionally; be it a period of sustained possession, a slick passing move, a breathless change of pace, a devastating shot. Rooney, Van Persie and co. are having no trouble unlocking English defences with their technical prowess, but increasingly find themselves unable to fool top European stoppers with the same tricks.
Opening up the debate, we have seen some great football exhibited at the Liberty Stadium and some highly effective percentage play at Stoke and Sunderland. The Potters have transported this style, with a degree of success, into the Europa League, proving also that our continental brethren ‘don’t like it up em’. Is that football better or more effective than the brand played at Lecce or Osasuna? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Whatever its merits, he physical, high-tempo nature that has long typified our play both at home and abroad appears to have run out of steam, or simply the rest have grown wise to it. Napoli’s fluid style combines kamikaze defending with speedy counter attacks, tearing up the clichés that hang heavy around the neck of Italian football. This tactical shift gives problems to English sides more used to allowing European opponents time on the ball, only to punish them on the break.
If being ‘the best’ means highly competitive football then the EPL still stands astride the rest. The Bundesliga runs it close but the unpredictable nature of the results on any weekend continues to make it the most captivating league around. Even with the Manchester clubs romping away, no result is a given. Each fixture is, with a few notable exceptions, hard fought, and both physically and emotionally draining for the players. The best sides no longer appear to have the quality to compete with the very best sides in Europe and that fact is being reaffirmed week on week at home. No longer are the ‘Big Six’ able to rest their players for ‘home bankers’ on a Saturday for the crunch UCL group stage match on a Tuesday evening. Each and every point is vital, forcing managers to either rotate or field heavy legged players in those crucial encounters.
The slight dip in quality at the pinnacle of the EPL and the steady improvement of teams lower down (and don’t forget the Championship too) has contributed to a much stronger league as a whole. This strength has, in turn, produced weaker entrants into European competition. Barca and Real Madrid, for example, hold such supremacy in Spain that a game played only in second gear can still yield three points. There are other reasons too. Many of the great players with Champions League pedigree are ageing, no longer the force they once were. The bigger clubs are cutting costs and looking longer term with their transfer policy with only City bucking the downsizing trend.
Is the Premier League still the best? Only just. The football is exciting and competitive and quite rightly still attracts huge global audiences. Germany and Italy are on the march, the former making giant strides in recent years, and even teams from the so-called ‘lesser leagues’ are enjoying success against the top teams (Ajax, Basle, Sporting Lisbon). If complacency sets in, standards will slip further.
The EPL holds the throne, but it is not sitting comfortably.