Since Barcelona and Real Madrid started regularly thrashing everyone and Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would fight it out every week for who can score the most hat-tricks, it has become a widely accepted norm among English fans and pundits that the Spanish league is just weaker than our own.
Barca and Real are great sides, they reluctantly admit, but they play in a two-team league and don’t ever have to play teams like…wait for it…Stoke(!) on a muddy pitch on a cold night up north, so they’re over-rated. In the Premier League anyone can beat anyone, which makes it better entertainment. I’m definitely not arguing with that – especially this season, but in my opinion that doesn’t make it the best league.
Looking at how the English teams have done in Europe this season, it is getting harder to ignore the fact that our best teams have got weaker. It makes for good viewing over here, because instead of a top four we now have a top six or seven, with the best players more evenly distributed among that group. However, that means the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea cannot get the players they used to get with the same ease, for example Chelsea’s failed pursuit of Luka Modric last summer, and United’s emphasis on lesser-known youngsters like Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck. This means when it comes to the Champions League, or as we are even seeing in the Europa League, they can’t impose the same dominance that they did so emphatically in the late noughties, with English teams regularly making the final and semi-finals.
This season we have seen United and City exit the Champions League at the group stages. It looked at first like something of a fluke for United, and maybe an unlucky draw into a hard group for City, but as we are now seeing, the top two in the Premier League are not blowing the Europa League teams away either. Last night City deservedly lost to Sporting Lisbon, currently 4th in the Portugese league, and United were outplayed at home and lucky to lose only 3-2 to Athletic Bilbao, currently 5th in the two-team La Liga.
Of course there was a degree of rotation by both sides, as neither will claim to be prioritising this competition, but they still sent out quite strong lineups which included players such as David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney. There was still little evidence, from United in particular, that they could compete with their European opposition.
Let’s look at the Bilbao side that won at Old Trafford: Upfront they have Fernando Llorente, a Spanish international with 21 goals this season; in midfield they have Javi Martinez, another classy midfielder competing admirably with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Xabi Alonso for a place in the midfield of the Spanish national team. These two are the team’s star players, and have already emerged as targets for the top Premier League clubs. Both have been linked with United before, and will have done their reputation no harm last night.
Even if you go as far down as 9th in La Liga, you have Atletico Madrid, recent Europa League winners and boasting talents such as Radamel Falcao, Diego and Juanfran. If we go to 9th in the Premier League, we have the supposed yardstick by which success is measured, the team that seperates the English game from the Spanish: Stoke City. At Stoke, the best players are probably Peter Crouch, Matthew Etherington and Jon Walters. Need I say more? There’s no doubt that their style of play has made it difficult for the big sides, Arsenal more than any other, but I could never see them playing United off the park at Old Trafford like Bilbao did last night. Valencia, another La Liga team, knocked them out of the Europa League with the minimum of fuss, so I can’t imagine Messi and co would be that phased either.
United and City could still go through of course, especially if they choose to include a few more key players and up their game a bit, but their continuing struggles in Europe certainly show something. Despite our heroics against Milan on Tuesday, we’re already out of the Champions League for this season, and Chelsea are likely to join us next week. We could well have all English sides out of Europe by March.
Meanwhile, Barcelona just thrashed Bayer Leverkusen (not one of those crappy La Liga teams) 7-0 and have already beaten Italian champions Milan at the San Siro earlier in the tournament. Not to mention their recent displays against us and United in the Champions League. They might make La Liga look like easy work, but their victims aren’t confined to the Spanish league alone. Much of the Barcelona team (minus Messi, most notably) have also managed to take their dominance into the European Championships and World Cup. Could it be that Barca and Real are simply two of the best club sides around at the moment, rather than just two good teams playing in an otherwise uncompetitive league?
When do we start to accept that the Premier League has got weaker? Perhaps when we see how United cope on a warm, sunny evening in Spain?