Strange Week For Premier League’s Big Four
Posted by hiphopmama on November 23, 2008
Talk about bizarre. Aside from Arsenal, who lost horribly to Manchester City 3-0, all the big teams in the EPL finished the weekend in 0-0 draws. ManU drew away at Aston Villa; Liverpool went scoreless at home against Fulham; and Chelsea failed to get on the board at home against Newcastle. So between the big four teams this week, not a single goal was netted.
There has been some talk about the level of competition in the Prem being generally higher this year and, miracle of miracles, that someone outside of the big four might sneak their way into a Champions League spot. Granted, there have been some nice surprises among the “lesser” teams and the bigs have looked distinctly beatable, at least at times. Arsenal in particular look to be on the verge of a bid for the UEFA Cup next year, and ManU have had a hard time getting results against the top teams.
Despite all this, any discussion of supposed parity in European football makes me laugh. I know no one expects teams like West Brom and Wigan to be able to compete with the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, but the notion that the Grand Canyon-sized gap between the top and the bottom of the league might possibly have closed by an inch or two is pretty comical. Let me get this straight. 75% or more of the top of the table is likely to shake out according to form (AKA dollars), but the possible inclusion of Aston Villa or even – gasp – Hull City is supposed to get me excited? I agree that Hull City’s story is amazing, and I’m definitely pulling for them to upset some people come season’s end, but I don’t really see that going anywhere. All the biggies will just retool, probably siphoning off some of the new up-and-comers’ talent, and we’ll be back to square one next year.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for some more competition in the Premier League. It’s just that, coming from a background of American sports which have at least a semblance of a salary cap, the occasional contention by a dark horse team just doesn’t inspire me. The U.S. hasn’t figured out many curbs to capitalism’s excesses, but sports is one area where we’re light years ahead of Europe. It’s not categorically better or worse, just much more even across the board. From what I can understand from my limited experience, that’s not even really the goal in Europe. You have these huge teams, like Chelsea and Real Madrid and Inter Milan, and they drive much of the action. Smaller teams chafe at them when they steal their talent away with a big paycheck, but I don’t sense much of a blowback from anyone with a serious interest in changing the system. Or to put it more directly, I cannot imagine a scenario in which one of those big teams was relegated.
And that aspect of the European game may be a crucial part of the difference. As the analysts are so fond of noting, on any given week, even the lowliest team in the NFL has a chance to knock off a title contender. Who would have thought at the beginning of this season that Atlanta would be 7-4 while Jacksonville sits at 4-7? Injuries play a huge role in leveling the playing field in the NFL, but a strict salary cap certainly deserves some credit as well. On the flip side, there are no special penalties for having a poor season, besides the general ill will of fans and a decrease in profits. In Europe, however, the consequences are harsh, with relegation to a lower league bestowed upon the lowest three finishers. I can’t fathom how big name teams like the Giants and the Patriots would handle the possibility of relegation in an off year, and I can only imagine they would be equally harried in their efforts to do whatever possible to avoid it.
That doesn’t capture the whole situation, because even in a desperate attempt to stay in the top flight, NFL teams would have to do so within a salary cap. But with a relegation system in place, the wealthier organizations would have a big interest in lobbying the league to loosen up the monetary restrictions.
Okay, that was a long aside on the monied interests in European sports, but there it is. Back to the games. The two I saw were much more entertaining than their goalless scorelines suggest. Chelsea blanketed Newcastle in possession, but the Magpies dug in their heels and held on for dear life, only just making it out by the skin of their teeth and a gracious full time whistle. Lampard saw a couple of good opportunities go wayward and Shay Given made a great save or two, but overall Newcastle showed great grit in keeping Chelsea off the scoreboard. Manchester United were similarly frustrated by a surging Villa team coming off an emotional 2-0 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates last week. Aston Villa posed a little more of a threat going forward than Newcastle did, but they also sat back and dared ManU to get one past them. At one point near the end, forward Gabriel Agbonlahor made a game-saving clearance in the box, indicating just how many Villa players were staying back to defend. I enjoyed this one since I hated ManU and Cristiano Ronaldo in particular. He was full of overblown histrionics in this game, rolling around on the ground and grimacing in pain as if he had lost a limb, only to get up and walk off under his own power all the while complaining to the referee. When he eventually went off with a slight but noticeable limp, I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t all for effect, as most things are with him. Whenever I watch him, he seems to be playing as if for a highlight reel in his head, picturing how this is going to look on YouTube the next morning. Hence all the useless stepovers and backheels that are entirely unnecessary and unhelpful to his team. When he is in form, he is an absolute joy to watch as he does things with the ball at his feet that few others can, and even a hater like myself can appreciate his talent. But that doesn’t detract from what a pissy little pretty boy he is. I’m sure he spends more on primping and pampering than any girl I know, including those meticulously waxed eyebrows and that perfectly gelled hair. Am I far off the mark in seeing him as Ricky Martin in cleats?
As for the others, I can only tell you what I’ve read. For Liverpool, Fernando Torres’ return could not offset the loss of Steven Gerrard to a groin injury, and the defensive minded Fulham team stubbornly denied them all game. Benitez’s decision to rest Xabi Alonso was a little surprising given the absence of Torres, although he was brought on in the second half, but it was too little too late. And then there was Arsenal. I’d prefer not to talk about it, but if I have to, I guess I’ll just say that the depleted line-up and lack of any momentum whatsoever really caught them up. They were without Gallas after the former captain was stripped of the armband, and in addition they were missing Fabregas, Walcott, Adebayor, and Toure. Confusion at the back resulted in the first goal by Stephen Ireland, and Robinho chipped one over Almunia for the second. Finally, in the game’s dying minutes, Daniel Sturridge nailed the penalty after a poor challenge by Djourou in the box. Arsenal now find themselves out of the top four, just behind Aston Villa and only a point ahead of Hull City. Frankly, I’m surprised it has taken this long, but I don’t see things getting better any time soon. It seems everyone at the team is under fire at the moment, so it will take a while for things to settle back down. A good run of play certainly couldn’t hurt that process, though.