Lev­el­ling out

The Premier League, that bas­tion of hype and hy­per­bole, has grown aware of its re­duced sta­tus.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FOOTBALL - by RoRy SmiTH

Self-aware­ness is not a trait as­so­ci­ated with the glitz and the gilt of the Premier league. for 18 years, the top di­vi­sion of english foot­ball has ex­isted in a world un­en­cum­bered by mod­esty, a con­cocted re­al­ity of show­downs and shootouts and su­per sun­days, of re­lent­less self-pro­mo­tion, a con­test con­ducted at the sort of deci­bel level more com­monly as­so­ci­ated with a stan Col­ly­more ra­dio phone-in. It screams for at­ten­tion, de­mands your rev­er­ence.

Yet per­haps Bri­tain’s only re­main­ing boom in­dus­try is be­gin­ning to emerge from its years of he­do­nis­tic nar­cis­sism. There was a time when the Premier league styled it­self the best league in the world. There had been no ref­er­en­dum on the sub­ject, of course, no pub­lic vote. There hadn’t even been a Bri­tain’s Got Tal­ent-style au­di­tion.

now, though, those words are rarely heard. In­stead, the prat­tle and the blurb which spews from the mouths of the Premier league’s un­of­fi­cial Min­is­ters for Pro­pa­ganda – richard Keys, I’m look­ing at you – cen­tres on the idea that this is the most ex­cit­ing com­pe­ti­tion on the planet, more grip­ping than a Glouces­ter­shire Cheese rolling con­test, a sword­fight and Glad­i­a­tors put to­gether.

It re­mains some­what galling, yes, and it is a sim­i­larly un­demo­cratic ap­point­ment, but it in­di­cates that even the Premier league, that bas­tion of hype and hy­per­bole, has grown aware of its re­duced sta­tus. even in the sky stu­dios, they know that the best play­ers in the world now play in spain. They know that the best teams in the world last year were in Italy and Ger­many.

and, look­ing at the ta­ble, they must know that ex­cel­lence is in short sup­ply in the Premier league it­self. Be­fore wed­nes­day night’s round of fix­tures, there are 10 points sep­a­rat­ing the Cham­pi­ons league and the rel­e­ga­tion zone. The bulk of the league is suf­fer­ing from its most pro­nounced con­certina ef­fect since 2002 (when just nine points sep­a­rated third and 18th af­ter 11 games). what was once a league de­fined by im­bal­ance, by the im­per­vi­ous bril­liance of the elite and the scrap for sur­vival of the im­pov­er­ished masses, has be­come a level play­ing field. ev­ery­one is mid­dle-class now. even at the ex­tremes, there is no great chasm of abil­ity. Chelsea, as they proved at an­field on sun­day, might look likely ti­tle-win­ners, but they lack the ruth­less ef­fi­ciency of pre­vi­ous years. It is a mat­ter of some mar­vel that Manch­ester United are yet to lose a game. west Ham are not sig­nif­i­cantly worse than Black­pool, wolves have al­ready beaten Manch­ester City.

To many, that is a good thing. for too long, the haves have swat­ted aside the have-nots. now, the likes of Bolton and Black­burn and – sig­nif­i­cantly, for it is their muti­nous at­ti­tude which now per­vades the di­vi­sion – stoke are un­will­ing to kneel be­fore them. Many of the lesser lights are even, to take the cliche, ap­proach­ing things in the right way. Black­pool and west Brom play at­trac­tive foot­ball. They are not just power and pace.

There can be no ques­tion that makes for a bet­ter con­test. liver­pool, locked in cri­sis for three months, might have been two points from fourth place had re­sults gone in their favour on wed­nes­day tonight (it didn’t).

Teams rise and fall, po­si­tions ebb and flow, and it’s all very in­ter­est­ing. Very ex­cit­ing.

But is it any good? Does a strong com­pe­ti­tion make for a strong league? The temp­ta­tion is to com­pare the Premier league, favourably, to spain, its nat­u­ral ri­val. There, the an­nual two-horse race is al­ready un­der­way, as en­gag­ing but more ex­clu­sive than ever. Yet to dis­miss la liga as the scot­tish Premier league in the sun­shine is disin­gen­u­ous. Vil­lar­real, atletico Madrid, Va­len­cia and sevilla, even Mal­lorca, are all good foot­balling sides. The league is of a high qual­ity. There is strength in depth. Barcelona and real Madrid are just ex­cep­tional.

The more nat­u­ral com­par­i­son is with the Bun­desliga or serie a. There, too, no side this sea­son ap­pears likely to dom­i­nate, to excel. There, too, the com­pe­ti­tion is more ex­cit­ing for all 20 teams. The rea­son? In Ger­many and Italy, as in eng­land, there has been a re­align­ment to the re­al­ity of this post-lehman world. The age of aus­ter­ity has set in. The dif­fer­ence in spain is that real Madrid have been able to keep spend­ing and Barcelona have been able to keep nur­tur­ing (and spend­ing)*. foot­ball as a whole – with two no­table ex­cep­tions – is lev­el­ling out. ev­ery­one is aware of their sta­tus in the new world or­der. It is in­trigu­ing, per­haps more so than for many years, to fol­low. But there is no point pre­tend­ing it is as good to watch. – © The Daily Tele­graph UK 2010

*City are ex­cluded from this pet the­ory be­cause they are not spend­ing from a po­si­tion of strength.

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