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Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Quality of play this season really weak


LONDON — The most popular league in the world?

Christopher Davies

Undoubtedly.

The most lucrative?

Easily.

The most exciting?

Probably.

But when it comes to quality, technique and world-class players, the Premier League is no longer the best. Not only that, English stock in Europe is dropping with Spain, Germany and Italy showing England the way at the highest level.

This is the worst Premier League I can remember in a long time. None of the traditional heavyweights, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and especially Liverpool, have improved since last season; indeed, they have gone backward.

The best domestic football I have seen this season has been played by Michael Laurdup's seventh-place Swansea, which has a strong Spanish influence provided by leading scorer Michu, midfielder Pablo Hernandez and defenders Angel Rangel and Chico.

Man City crashed out of the Champions League with the worst record of any English club in history, winning a dismal three points. Its defeat by Borussia Dortmund meant it did not even qualify for the Europa League, European football's equivalent of an ingrowing toenail, though few tears were shed at not having to play in Belarus on a Thursday ahead of a Premier League match three days later.

However, the perceived most demanding of schedules of the Europa League did not prevent City from winning the title last season.

Man City's embarrassing Champions League form underlined the gulf between it and Europe's leading clubs. Unbeaten in the league at home, City failed to win a single game against Ajax, Borussia Dortmund or Real Madrid, and while Roberto Mancini said they had nothing to be embarrassed about, his players and supporters disagreed.

Man United advanced with two matches to spare, but it is leaking goals. The 4-3 win at Reading was the seventh time it has conceded at least two goals this season and the 1-0 home defeat by Cluj was the 15th time it had fallen behind in 23 games. The 21 league goals it has let in is only one short of the total for the entire 2007-08 campaign.

Sir Alex Ferguson is unsure who his No. 1 goalkeeper is: Anders Lindegaard or David de Gea; neither has the presence of Edwin van der Sar.

The defending has been appalling at times, with United crawling over the finishing line mainly because of the spirit and determination that mirrors its manager's personality and demands, plus some moments of brilliance from Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez.

This is not a vintage Man United, but it knows how to win games when not playing at its best, which has been most of this season.

Chelsea has pressed its self-destruct, changing managers (again) with banners reading "We want our Chelsea back" at Stamford Bridge.

In the pre-Abramovich era Chelsea was not in the Champions League, so at least the fans have that experience again after its exit this week.

The victory over Nordsjaelland was the most hollow of 6-1 wins as Chelsea created ignominious history by becoming the first Champions League holders to bow out at the first stage.

The negativity at Stamford Bridge will not go away while Rafa Benitez is there, but if the supporters believe Roman Abramovich will be swayed by their protests against the interim manager, they will also believe there will be six inches of snow in Dubai on Christmas Day.

Chelsea is third in the Premier League, but a poor third, and the celebrations of Munich are a distant memory at a club where managerial stability is banned and controversy mandatory.

Next week, Chelsea plays in the Club World Cup in Japan, so the world champion side could be playing in the Europa League, a contradiction in status which was not really why Abramovich invested so much money.

Arsenal has been on a downward slide for three years, selling its best players and replacing them with mediocrity. The fans almost feel guilty by criticizing Arsene Wenger, but seven trophy-less years are taking their toll.

That Wenger has not been able to compete with their three main rivals in the transfer or salary market is not an excuse accepted by the Emirates faithful, who forget that the Frenchman is almost single-handedly responsible for the financing of a superb new stadium.

Wenger's 16-year reign has seen some of the finest players in modern times wear the Arsenal shirt; now they have Gervinho, Marouane Chamakh, Andrey Arshavin, Andre Santos, Sebastien Squillaci and Abou Diaby or to give him his full name Abou Diaby (injured).

Arsenal is again in the knockout stage of the Champions League, but a starting XI with eight full internationals lost 2-1 to a weakened Olympiacos, which had one eye on this weekend's wonderfully titled Derby of the Eternal Enemies against Panathinaikos.

In such an inconsistent Premier League, Arsenal could still once again finish third which says more about the dumbing down of the so-called elite league than any Arsenal stardust, and its only realistic hope of landing a first trophy in nine years is the F.A. Cup.

Closer to home, Sunday sees the less romantically named Manchester derby as United travels to Etihad Stadium after a week in which Roberto Mancini's managerial ability has been questioned.

Had Mancini been in charge of Chelsea, he would almost certainly have been fired in the wake of a Champions League exit, but Man City's Abu Dhabi-based owners are made of different stuff to Roman the Russian.

In fact, most owners are.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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