19 February ~ The Premier League's dominance of the Champions League appears to be over. A few years ago, England, along with an admittedly superior Barcelona, dominated this competition, producing three semi-finalists each year between 2007 and 2009. Though the relationship has dragged a little since then, England can still boast seven finalists in as many years. This year, however, following Arsenal's comprehensive first-leg defeat to AC Milan, struggling Chelsea are the Premier League's only remaining hope.
However amusing this all may seem to rival club supporters, watching the bully-boys of the Premier League getting a taste of their own medicine, it did force Roy Keane to make a rather uneasy suggestion at half-time in Milan. Of the Premier League, he said: "The brand is great, but maybe we're not as good as we think."
Keane has a point. Commentators and pundits constantly assure us – though it is not hard to imagine what their motive might be – that we are watching the best football in the world, but how can this be true when we consider our best teams' displays in Europe?
In terms of the more successful teams, Keane is right. Manchester United – who were given one of the kindest group-stage draws they could have hoped for – were arguably masters of their own downfall, but Manchester City and Arsenal have been simply outclassed. Although Chelsea are still in the competition, they were looking the least likely to advance from the group stage three months ago.
Whether Keane is right, though, depends on how you define "good". Perhaps understandably considering his background and the occasion, Keane is thinking about Premier League teams in the Champions League. But these are just four teams out of 20. Compared with the rest of Europe, their quality has declined. But what about the rest of the league?
Since peaking in the 2004-05 season, the disparity between the teams at the top and bottom of the Premier League has been shrinking. The difference between Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and Gary Megson's West Brom, who just beat the drop, was 61 points; the gap between Alex Ferguson's champions and Roberto Martinez's survivors was just 40 points last season.
Statistics aside, supporters of Premier League clubs can instinctively sense the reduced inequality. Were the unbeatable Arsenal of the 2003-04 season or the 95-point Chelsea side any better than today's Manchester City? I would argue not. The reason City have not gone unbeaten and the reason they won't achieve 95 points, is that the teams down the league have improved.
Quality aside, the real reason the Premier League is every bit of good as it has always been is because of its entertainment value. Top of the table ties are no longer cagey, less successful clubs believe they can beat their more illustrious counterparts, and there generally seems to be a lot more to play for.
This season, three teams are going for the title, four are going for fourth place and five teams at the bottom of the table are separated by two points. Maybe the top four are not what they used to be. The overall quality of the league may have declined a little, but the Premier League has never been as good for entertainment. William Turvill