The promoters keep saying it, and we keep repeating it, like sheep in Animal Farm – “La Liga good, Premier League better!”. We seem to have an endless list of reasons to buy British – more passionate supporters, better rivalries, more goals, a faster game, and, of course, the hugely competitive race for the Champions League.
Whilst in Spain you could bet your house on the winner of the League being either Barcelona or Real Madrid, here you can have three teams that are regarded as genuine contenders. Three teams! Take that, two-horse La Liga! Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are all looking like champions, and Arsenal have bought well too. But let’s not make it a four-horse race yet.
The Spanish league’s argument to supremacy is measured in their star appeal. Ronaldo, Messi, Ozil, Benzema, Xavi, Iniesta, Pique – look through the El Clasico teamsheet and you’ll see at least five players that could make it onto any fan’s Dream Team. Further down the queue, there’s Falcao, Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente.
And whilst there’s no denying that Barcelona’s tiki-taka holds more of an appeal than Stoke’s attempts to emulate rugby league, it seems a little unfair to say that Swansea are the only rivals to the Catalonians. Wigan, West Brom and Chelsea can play free-flowing, attacking football on their day as well.
Spain may even be behind these teams with regards to their attacking play. Four years ago, in the first sowing of the seeds of dominance, they won Euro 2008 by keeping the ball. They played keepball to score. Now, they play keepball so they don’t concede. That’s where the (admittedly quiet) accusations of boring football have come from. But Swansea and Wigan certainly play with their heads up and looking forward, and Albion’s expansive style has won a good few admirers among the more cerebral fans.
But, in the typical British insularity, I have to confess – the fancy-dan foreigners don’t stir the blood like their less celebrated counterparts in the Premier League. Although Tony Hibbert isn’t quite the player that Dani Alves is, he can tackle, and could quite probably score, even if he hasn’t shown any inclination to shoot in his 300-odd games so far. And Hibbert has one crucial advantage over Alves in my eyes, one that makes him the favourite over the Brazilian – when Hibbert is tackled, or fouled, or has his shirt pulled, he gets on with the game. He doesn’t collapse to the floor holding his face/thigh/shoulder/groin/foot (delete as seen in last Barcelona match). He gets up, and makes a few cursory checks:
1) Is there blood all over the pitch?
2) Is a leg bent at an awkward angle?
And then gets on with it. I don’t see Dani Alves manfully hobbling. I see him collapse as if he’s just been shot in the neck in one of Hollywood’s more improbable war movies, falling in slow-motion and hitting the ground like one of Mike Tyson’s sparring partners.
Phil Neville is another. He would inspire a warmer welcome than Sergio Busquets to casa wrexhamrealist, if ever he felt the uncontrollable desire to visit. And Darren Fletcher, back from a chronic bowel problem for Manchester United, is another unsung hero of the Premier League. He may not have the star potential of Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie, but I’d rather have him in my team were I the manager (though obviously I pick Rooney for my Fantasy Football Team, where you focus only on goals).
The players I have picked out – Hibbert, Neville and Fletcher – may not be held up in the future by the FA as proof that the Premier League outshines the competition. But they’re part of what makes the Premier League so British – the determined, gritty competitor who runs for 90 minutes, never intentionally grabbing the headlines, just doing their job for the team, and getting up when they’re tackled.
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