The headline news from last night’s Europa League quarter final ties is that Spain is dominating the competition once again, with three of the four semi finalists playing their football in La Liga. Athletic Club, Atlético Madrid and Valencia all ran out fairly comfortable winners over two legs in UEFA’s secondary club competition, while Real Madrid and Barcelona remain favourites to battle it out for the title of European champions in Munich on May 19. Not only are the Spanish dominating European club football, the national side are also reigning World and European champions. So are there people still insisting that the Premier League is the best in the world?
Ok, it’s not simply a case of pointing out that Spain are world champions and that Manchester United were easily outclassed by Barcelona in last season’s Champions League final. Or that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi play their soccer in Spain, therefore the Primera División must be better than the Premier League. Rather than having a Graeme Souness-style aggressive knee jerk reaction, it’s nice to think carefully about football once in a while.
On the face of things, Spain would wipe the floor with in England in a Davis Cup-style football showdown. However, those defending the Premier League will point out that thanks largely to television deals, Barcelona and Real Madrid are becoming more and more like the Old Firm, with the rest of the clubs a long way from even considering competing with the top two in Spain. The Premier League is far more diverse than La Liga and is able to attract stars from all over the world. And even though it becomes a two horse race by Easter every season, there are more than two clubs capable of challenging. The Big Four no longer exists, thanks to a combination of Tottenham’s resurgence under Harry Redknapp, Sheikh Mansour’s billions at Manchester City and the shambles that is Liverpool. The Football League will also generate far more excitement than second or third tier football across Europe. Supporters of clubs in the Football League will regularly tell you how anyone can beat anyone on their day, while the Play-Offs give hope to half the division, not just the few challenging for European football. Those sitting in mid-table have something to play for that the top tier sides just don’t have. Once Premier League survival is secured, club’s may find it difficult to motivate themselves.
But while you could argue that La Liga has become a two-team league, with no one interested in anything but the two El Clásico fixtures every season, English clubs could still learn a thing or two about how the game is played on the continent. Liken the Primera División to the SPL all you like, but don’t forget that Manchester United were ripped apart twice, not by Barca or Real Madrid, but Athletic Club. Meanwhile, Stoke City’s kick and rush approach was no match for the ground passing style of Valencia in the Europa League. And Chelsea are surely set to follow suit and bow out of Europe at the hands of Spanish opposition in a couple of weeks. We must return to the point that Spanish clubs are dominating in both the Europa League and the Champions League, playing football on another level to English teams.
If you take the time to watch the likes of Barcelona or Athletic Club, you’ll notice that they enjoy the ball. Everyone is comfortable in possession and every player is trusted on the ball. English football is too much about pumping the ball up to the other end as quick as possible. Particularly in lower level football on Sunday mornings, the object seems to be to lump the ball down the pitch towards the opposing goal with as few passes as possible, preferably a long ball to the big lad in the box, before slamming it as hard as you can into the onion bag. Smaller, skillful players are pushed aside while the big lads clog the shite out of each other. Imagine a player like Xavi Hernández or Cesc Fàbregas on trial at Stoke City. A good game is not necessarily a fast game.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville made an outrageous comment during the North London derby at the Emirates this season. Shortly after Tomáš Rosický had completed the Arsenal comeback, the former United defender blurted out the old ‘Premier League Best in the World’ line: “People talk about Spain, they talk about Italy, but they don’t give us games like this.” Sorry Gary but Tony Gubba’s ISS Pro commentary (“Surely that had to be a penalty” for every tackle outside the box) circa 1998 contained more accurate statements. Now the likes of Neville and Jamie Redknapp are clearly encouraged to take as little interest as possible in football outside the Premier League, but taking a shot like that is just wild. Unfortunately, that immortal line is trotted out willy nilly by today’s pundits. Before you can say ‘think it through’, the likes of Andy Gray or Alan Shearer will assert, based on absolutely nothing, that the Premier League is the greatest on the planet. Their insistence loosely translates as ‘we can’t be bothered to watch any other football, therefore ours must be the best’. Ask these guys to name five Primera División coaches. It’d be game over after Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho, if not before.
In footballing terms, the Premier League is certainly not the best in the world. In terms of excitement, it’s probably not even the best league in Britain. But throw in a four-team Play-Off for that final Champions League spot and we could be in business! After all, it is definitely the best marketed league in the world. Selling it to Liverpool would certainly be no problem.