So the 'BEST SEASON EVER' had the most exhilarating finish imaginable. Every neutral could only bask in the magisterial, heart pounding action that took place yesterday. A day of football that had more twists and turns than the Monaco Grand Prix and climaxed with a moment so utterly unbelievable that we may never see the like again. It was Michael Thomas at Anfield. It was Liverpool in Istanbul. It was Manchester United in Camp Nou. It was a day that may well have altered the landscape of English football for the foreseeable future. No one could deny it's significance or the fantastically entertaining way that it all played out. Sky television have their sound bites for the next five years worth of Premier League adverts and fans of the Premier League have their smoking gun to prove that the Premier League is indeed 'the best league in the world'.
Sergio Aguero wins City the title in the most dramatic way possible
This Premier League season has a seen a title race played out in scarcely believable conditions between two clubs from the same city. It has been a truly epic battle between the red and blue halves of Manchester and yesterday it had everyone on the edge of their seats right until the very end. However, the brilliantly entertaining war for Mancunian supremacy has allowed a lot of cracks to be papered over in terms of the overall quality of the Premier League.
When we sift through the understandable hyperbole that Sergio Aguero's 94th minute strike condemned us to yesterday afternoon and examine at the season as a whole, it is hard to escape the notion that England's top flight has regressed in terms of quality. At the beginning of the season the League looked extremely strong. The Manchester clubs were obvious favourites but Chelsea and Liverpool both had new faces and a new lease of life while Spurs were looking to continue from their excellent outing in the previous season. Doubts about Arsenal were cast but they belatedly spent money in the transfer market to boost their squad and people expected six strong sides to battle it out at the top end of the league. The six richest clubs in England all had reasons for optimism and a high quality league campaign looked very likely. It didn't quite happen like that though.
Setting aside the Manchester clubs for a moment, we come to third placed Arsenal who rallied well to secure guaranteed Champions League football next term. It is an achievement that the club should be proud of but this is an Arsenal team so dependent on their only world class player that if he leaves this summer they would be in all sorts of trouble. They have already lost three important players to Manchester City and Barcelona over the past year and Van Persie's exit would surely be a fatal blow to their future aspirations of glory. They have a shaky defence at best, little strength in depth and a dearth of attacking intelligence that has never been seen before in a team managed by Arsene Wenger. They are light years away from the elite sides in Europe and a shadow of the sides that the brilliant French manager has produced in the past. Van Persie's personal excellence and their ultimate eclipsing of Tottenham in the league has taken the limelight off the fact that this Arsenal side simply isn't very good.
Spurs, Arsenal's hated local rivals, secured 4th place despite a recent run of one win in eleven matches. They burned like a shooting star for the first half of the season before combusting in spectacular fashion yet somehow still managed to stumble across the finish line in a Champions League qualifying position. Like Arsenal, they will face a fight to keep their main stars. Gareth Bale and Luka Modric will be in demand this summer and may well be tempted to seek employment elsewhere after an anticlimactic season. Their final (acceptable but not exceptional) league position owes more to the ever dwindling powers of Chelsea than their own performances.
Chelsea, a team that won the F.A Cup and may still lift the Champions League trophy yet conversely are clearly in huge decline. In jettisoning Andre Villas Boas mid season and installing Roberto Di Matteo, they abandoned their initial plan of a much needed full scale rebuilding job in order to squeeze the final signs of life from the remaining former stars of a once world class team. To Di Matteo's credit he has coaxed some phenomenal performances out of some old legs to bring them a domestic cup and to the edge of European glory. However, this Chelsea side are on a downward spiral and their league form proves it. Their main players who have helped maintain some success in cup competitions; Drogba, Lampard, Terry, Essien and the like can't go on forever. They haven't been able to cut the mustard on a consistent enough basis to ensure a top 4 finish this season which is a damning indictment of how far the club have fallen. They require major surgery in the summer and probably beyond and despite a heroic European run they are but a pale imitation of the exceptional sides that Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti led to glory. Regardless of whether they win in Munich next Saturday, this is the weakest Chelsea team of the Abromovich era by a large margin. They have been very poor in the league this season like most of the other 'big clubs'.
Mourinho's Chelsea are a distant memory at Stamford Bridge right now
On we go to England's other former powerhouse: Liverpool. A team that just 4 years ago was ranked as the number one performing side in Europe now resembles a boxer who has hit the deck and is struggling to get to his feet and regain his balance. Despite an encouraging end to last season under the returning Kenny Dalglish and a sizeable financial outlay over the past year and a half they have still finished behind Newcastle and Everton, teams with far less financial clout and much weaker squads. Under Rafa Benitez 3 seasons ago Liverpool amassed 86 points and lost only twice on route to almost winning the title. This year they have accumulated a paltry 52 points and tasted defeat on no less than 14 occasions. It isn't long ago that they we're beating the likes of Barcelona, Inter, Real Madrid and Milan in the European Cup. The simple fact is that they are no longer a top quality side capable of such victories and their priorities next season will be making sure that they can out do the likes of Swansea, Norwich and Fulham rather than planning for trips to the San Siro or Camp Nou. Liverpool's league campaign has been an unmitigated disaster.
After examining the underwhelming supporting cast we come back to Manchester. The two teams who provided us with such an entertaining end to the season are still no great shakes. It is testament to Alex Ferguson that he has amassed 89 points in the this league campaign. This team are no United vintage. Scholes and Giggs at the ages of 37 and 38 respectively remain their most consistent midfield performers. They have some talented young players like De Gea, Smalling, Jones and Wellbeck that offer hope for the future but right now United's relative success seems to be built upon the nous of their illustrious manager and their sheer strength of will rather than true star quality. They are still a very good team but they don't hold a candle to most of the United sides that have graced the Premier League over the past two decades. They have been outplayed by many teams in Europe this season and their crown is slipping despite the continued excellence of Ferguson in the dug out and Rooney on the pitch. This Manchester United outfit bares only a passable resemblance to Ferguson's former teams.
Finally we have Manchester City. The Champions. They have the strongest squad in the league by a distance and are deserving title winners. They may well now go on to dominate English football given their unparalleled wealth in this country. However, the fact that they have only beaten a relatively weak United side on goal difference and their poor showing in Europe shows that they are still not ready to be considered a truly great team just yet. Early in the season it must be said that they did look the part. They were demolishing sides with some wonderful football and looked like they would win the title at a canter. However, in the second half of the season they began to falter and eventually they found themselves 8 points behind United who looked certain to win the league. Somehow, City fought back and won the title by showing incredible mental strength in the end rather than sweeping all before them as they did earlier in the campaign. It would take a brave man to bet against them now going on to become a true footballing super power but even on the evidence of this excellent season they are not yet in the same league as the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Which leads us on nicely to the Premier League's competition. First, La Liga. People have derided the Spanish league as merely a two team competition, 'a sunny SPL' scream the critics and while Barcelona and Madrid's dominance cannot be argued, it needs to be addressed in context. Barcelona and Real Madrid are in another footballing stratosphere right now. The fact that Chelsea managed to defy all footballing logic to squeeze past Barca and Bayern Munich produced a Titanic semi final effort to over come Real in the European Cup does not negate this. Barcelona are one of, if not the best team that have ever played the beautiful game while Madrid's strength in depth takes the breath away. When players like Kaka and Higuain warm the bench most weeks, you know that you are witnessing a special team. The two clubs have produced football that cannot be matched anywhere in the world this season and that is the reason for such a huge chasm from the top two teams to the rest in the Spanish league. You need only look at how well sides like Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have performed in Europe to see that the Spanish league contains other high quality sides. If you picked up the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal and placed them in La Liga it is doubtful that they would be able to get any closer to Madrid and Barca than the rest of the Spanish sides have. In England United and City ran away from the rest of the pack and in Spain Madrid and Barca did the same but the salient point is that Barca and Real did it with far more quality and style than their English counterparts.
The best two players from the best two teams from the best league in the world
Over in Italy Juventus have just completed the astounding feat of winning the title while remaining unbeaten. After the horrendous Calciopoli incident, Juve are undoubtedly back. They have regained their place atop of Italian football and will launch an assault on the Champions League next season. AC Milan remain an ageing but powerful force and while Inter have fallen away this season, Serie A still boasts teams outside the top two that show up their English rivals. While the likes of Stoke prosper in the Premier League with their antiquated and frankly, insulting brand of 'football', sides such as Napoli, Bologna, Palermo and Udinese play with a fluency and tactical sophistication that is rarely witnessed on English shores. Serie A had appeared to lose it's way after the halcyon days of the 90's but it is a resurgent force that boasts a quality of football that is at least equal to that of the more hyped up Premier League.
Alex Del Piero bows out on top with Juventus
Finally, we have the Bundesliga. A league where a Bayern Munich team containing world class stars such as Neuer, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Gomez, Robben and Ribery are merely second best. A league that is on a huge upward curve in terms of finance and leading the way in attendances. Borussia Dortmund now have a phenomenal side which, if they can fend of the circling vultures this summer, will only improve. They play a vibrant, highly technical and exciting brand of football on a relatively shoe string budget and while the Bundesliga isn't quite in the upper echelons yet it appears to be only a matter of time, especially given the recent T.V deal that will enable clubs to spend money on a more even keel to the Premier League clubs.
Arjen Robben's Bayern are only second best in Germany
While the Premier League may have had the most intriguing title race in years and produced some beguiling moments this season, the notion that it is the 'best league in the world' is merely a well promoted fallacy. The strongest clubs in the Premier League do not boast any more quality than those from abroad. The ultimate disparity of points from the Manchester clubs to the rest shows that it is no more a competitive league than Serie A, La Liga or the Bundesliga and in terms of quality of play it is debatable whether English football has any claim whatsoever to being the best. That said, despite the flaws, it has still be one hell of an exciting campaign. Roll on next season.