English sides have been exposed by superior continental opposition this term but this is as much a reflection of the Premier League's competitive strengths as its weaknesses
Meet the new champs, same as the old champs. With Manchester City displaying all the resolve and gritty determination of Mario Balotelli trying to walk past a spot of bother, the Premier League's title race appears to be coming to a premature and anticlimactic conclusion. The promised fun and games seem mostly to have happened in the earlier part of the season, leaving the rest to turn into a procession, though it must be conceded that Newcastle United's remarkable attempt to turf a London club out of the Champions League places has provided a wholly unexpected excitement to the annual scramble for fourth.
Most people seem to agree that this has not been one of Manchester United's finest seasons, and that if City had managed to get their act together properly the 19-times champions were there for the taking this time. Even Tony McCoy was at it in the Guardian sports pages on Tuesday morning. "Fergie's a genius, because let's face it, United are shit right now," the champion jockey told Donald McRae. "If Fergie had Man City they would be 15 points clear by now."
Not sure about that, actually. If Fergie had Man City he would never have signed Balotelli, for a start, and Carlos Tevez would be playing for someone else too. It is debatable whether City's challenge would have been enhanced or weakened without those two, and in turn it depends on whom Fergie might have signed in their place with all the money at Roberto Mancini's disposal, but surely the main reason why United seem to have the title wrapped up at the moment is that their manager and some of his players have been in situ for the past 20 years and have seen just about everything before. Now you can see why course and distance is not an expression that is applicable only to horse racing. Pundits and managers may have been boring people to death by banging on about United's experience and City's lack of it for the past couple of months but in the final furlong, so to speak, these things become important.
That's enough about the title race, though, the only point I was trying to make is that United have been far from invincible or all-conquering this season, and if no one from the chasing pack of City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur could overhaul them it does not say a great deal for English league standards. Nor does the present situation in Europe, as commentators have practically been queuing up to point out. Not only were United dumped from the Champions League by the combined might of Basel and Benfica, neither they nor City found the going much easier in the Europa League. As a result, both England's leading clubs were out of Europe completely by mid-March.
So anyone wishing to assess the relative strengths of the Premier League and La Liga, say, need only look to the last fours of the two main European competitions. Spain has Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals, and most people imagine one of those two clubs will be lifting the trophy, whereas England can only offer an increasingly frail-looking Chelsea. The Europa League is even more damning, with no English interest and three of the four semi-finalists from Spain. Coupled with the excellence of Athletic Bilbao in beating Manchester United over two legs last month, that seems to represent an open and shut case. Bilbao are not even in the top half of La Liga, for goodness sake. The Spanish league cannot be a perennial two-horse race after all. There must be strength all the way down. Bilbao are in roughly the same position in Spain as Stoke City are in England and, while the Potters did enjoy a decent run to the knockout stages of the Europa League before losing in both legs to Valencia, there was never any real sense that Tony Pulis's side might be able to go all the way and win the thing.
So having established that progress in the two European competitions proves beyond doubt that Premier League standards and competitiveness are inferior to La Liga's, I will now attempt to argue otherwise. Because I am not yet convinced that English clubs take the Europa League seriously. Certainly the two Manchester clubs did not seem to, once they had negotiated their initial ties against glamour opponents in Ajax and Porto. One would hesitate to suggest that they threw the subsequent stage, or deceived their public in any way, but it was clear all along that once the Champions League was out of the way the overriding priority was the battle of Manchester for the English title. This was not a distraction that Valencia, Bilbao or Atlético Madrid had to factor into their calculations. Indeed it could be supposed that precisely because mid-table Spanish clubs have no hope of knocking Barcelona and Real Madrid off the top of the league they can afford to prioritise "winnable" competitions such as the Europa League.
So could Stoke, one might say, and indeed they could. Except that Stoke were competing in Europe for the first time in decades and do not yet have the pedigree of opponents such as Valencia, who have been in Champions League finals in this century. Plus when Stoke actually came to play Valencia in mid-February, they found themselves going into the game on the back of four straight league defeats, a run that dropped them as low as 13th in the table. A solid start to the season meant that there was no real need to worry about relegation - Stoke had more points at that stage than Queens Park Rangers or Bolton Wanderers have now – yet because the relegation scrap usually involves half a dozen or so teams in England there was little scope for complacency. No team in the bottom half of the table likes to lose four league games in a row, and by the time Stoke's European adventure came to and end it is doubtful whether too many people in the Potteries were unhappy about being able to turn their full attention back to the league.
What this season's European competitions have proved is that the best teams around, the really top sides, are not from England. Not only would Barcelona and Real Madrid beat anyone from this country, but Bayern Munich probably would too. Not to mention Athletic Bilbao. English teams were a long way off the pace in the Champions League this year, even if Chelsea's impressive revival against Napoli holds out a glimmer of hope. But domination of the Europa League is not yet such a reliable yardstick. It is doubtful whether any of the English competitors this season sincerely regretted departing that competition, because they had priorities elsewhere. And that could be taken as a compliment to the competitiveness of the English league, not the other way around.