Perhaps we are finally witnessing the reality of that great, bold statement we are frequently subject to from journalists, pundits, managers and players: that the English Premier League is “the best league in the world” (TM). Or maybe, from our front row seats, we are actually seeing the exact reverse.
With just 23 points separating top and bottom as the New Year begins to gather momentum, and a mere 12 points the difference between relegation and a top-six European spot, this must be the most exciting season yet. With bottom-placed Wolves beating the early-season dominators Chelsea last night, yet another scalp was added to the sides occupying positions in the bottom half of the table. Indeed, whilst a Manchester United side which have merely been just good enough throughout most of the season appear to be running away with the title, and possibly the most boring team to seal the crown in recent years, the most excitement is being conjured up at the foot of the table.
For as things stand, just two points separate the bottom 7 sides and any one of those – or most of the teams from 8th downwards for that matter – could be in the bottom three come May. Each week the teams in the relegation zone appears to change as everyone beats eachother. Indeed, this is what our somewhat optimistic and self-centred view of our domestic game has been based upon for the past decade or so, that we boast the “best league in the world” (TM) simply because the bottom teams are good enough to beat the those at the top. Well, as Guillem Balague pointed out a last month, the only available statistics which could possibly come close to proving such a statement gave this belief a massive kick in the gonads.
Certainly, at the beginning of the current campaign we looked set for another douse of predictability in terms of a two-horse race at the top and frequent spankings about to be given out to the ‘bottom 12’. Chelsea seemed unstoppable as they dished out 6-0 bashings to West Brom and Wigan, while Arsenal got in on the act with a similar humping over Blackpool. But slowly but surely, those teams entrenched in the title race have no longer found it easy going when faced with ‘inferior’ opposition.
Arsenal have lost to the promoted pair of West Brom and Newcastle on their own ground, Chelsea were hammered by Sunderland at Stamford Bridge and have come away from Wolves and Birmingham with no points, while the least said about Liverpool the better. Even high-flying/spending Man City have come unstuck against Mick McCarthy’s men as well as at West Brom. Indeed, the only team who have avoided defeat against the Premier League’s lesser lights has been Man United, and this is perhaps why they are currently odds-on for their 19th title despite never really enjoying utter dominance in games, Blackburn aside.
Thus, if a team which has never really looked like world-beaters is running away with the league, and Arsenal remain in with a sniff despite three home defeats should Sir Alex and co. somehow mess it all up (presumably with too many draws, the way things are going), then surely the league is only more competitive because of the poor quality on evidence by the top teams. Chelsea’s recent form is, quite frankly, that of a relegation-threatened team, yet they remain just a point off climbing back into the top four, while it is a distinct possibility that the three promoted teams could all stay up for the first time in years. This isn’t really a reflection of their own quality (I’m a Newcastle fan, I should know!), it’s because the rest of the league has been so poor.
Of course, another argument in favour of our league is the performances given by our teams in the Champions League, with three of our teams reacing the semi-finals on more than one occasion in recent times. Well, if last season was an indication of anything, it could be that this trend may be in terminal reverse, and this year our teams could well find out just how far our backwards our league is going. Of course, it could have just been a fluke last time round and we might go on to dominate the competition once again. Only time will tell.
But until then, let’s just celebrate the increased competition in our league. Travelling to Stamford Bridge (post-Abramovich), Anfield and the Emirates has never been less daunting and the league is better for it, even if it won’t be winning many plaudits on the continent. Indeed, I would much rather see Blackpool with an outside chance of getting into Europe than the same top 8 each season, while my own club don’t appear to be the only team capable of performing their own suicidal ‘fallen giant’ nosedive into the Championship. For once, the Premiership is a fun, unpredictable place to be!