Premier League strength open to question as German sides impress


SOCCER ANGLES:This autumn, Bundesliga clubs are convincing in Europe as English clubs struggle

ARE WE turning a corner?

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell just what it is we are watching. And just how good it is, really.

Statisticians can provide information of a certain kind and in a direct line sport such as sprinting or rowing the numbers can be broken down, analysed and learned from.

But in a team sport that flows in all directions, that is invested with such emotion, external and internal, it is always harder to be exact, no matter how many stats are thrown at us.

For example: how good are Manchester United? It is a very simple question. But it’s not easy to answer. Another is: how bad are Arsenal? Another: is German football beginning to bypass English football?

These were just three of the thoughts that arose from another midweek of fascinating Champions League football, though they have been in the ether for longer.

Manchester United are at Chelsea tomorrow. It is a heavyweight collision between first and second in England and it could tell us much about the eventual destination of this season’s title. It is sure to be intense and part of the intrigue will focus upon how United deal with Chelsea’s new midfield.

It was again praised last weekend for the manner in which Tottenham were beaten 4-2 at White Hart Lane.

Juan Mata scored twice and Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas spoke of “individual brilliance from Oscar, Mata and Hazard”.

Mata’s second took his goals tally to six in his last six matches. He is in fine form yet did not even make Vicente Del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s two recent World Cup qualifiers against Belarus and France.

Mata did not make the Spain squad. Were he English, Roy Hodgson would be constructing a team around him. Witness the fuss that will accompany Jack Wilshere’s return to Arsenal colours.

Mata is a star in the Premier League but he and Oscar started at Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday night – Eden Hazard played 72 minutes – and Chelsea were well beaten. The final score was 2-1 but Hazard’s goal came in the 88th minute by which time Shakhtar had accumulated 23 shots.

Of the two performances in five days, at Tottenham and Donetsk, which says more about Chelsea’s true standard?

And what do they say about English football when combined with United’s odd victory over Braga, Arsenal’s home defeat by Schalke and Manchester City’s collapse at Ajax?

Taken in isolation, a dangerous option, they say that, at the very least, there should be some introspection in the self-styled best league in the world sponsored by a bank fined £290 million (€362m) in June for rate rigging.

After all, Chelsea are the European champions, though their luck in that achievement was not minimal. They may need some more to escape a group that suddenly looks tricky.

But, yes, Chelsea are the European champions and Manchester United were beaten in the previous final. Those are two reasons to acknowledge the strength of the Premier League.

But we should probably also recall that Chelsea were the only English club in the last eight last season. City and United did not make it out of their groups. Arsenal conceded four at Milan in the first leg in the last 16.

The season before there were three English clubs in the last eight – United meeting Chelsea and Tottenham losing to Real Madrid. The previous season, both Arsenal and United made the last eight but both were eliminated, by Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

This cannot be called English domination. Now there are serious questions over City’s European progress and doubts about Chelsea and Arsenal that require quelling. United are top of their group, but they are erratic. (Yet in their last two league games, at Newcastle and home to Stoke, United have scored seven.)

Shinji Kagawa was taken off at half-time on Tuesday against Braga. Borussia Dortmund were meant to have been weakened by Kagawa’s departure to Old Trafford but they defeated Real 2-1 on Wednesday.

Dortmund now top Group D. Schalke top Group B and Bayern are one of three clubs on six points in Group F.

Dortmund’s outclassing of City in Manchester had already raised awareness of German improvement, but it was Schalke’s victory at Arsenal that makes you think the Bundesliga could be easing ahead of the Premier League. (We’ll leave La Liga aside this week).

Last Saturday Schalke won 2-1 at Dortmund in a match reported to be full of attacking verve. If Bundesliga standards are rising it is despite Stuttgart and Werder Bremen selling the likes of Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil to Real, as well as Kagawa leaving for United and Lukas Podolski to Arsenal.

But we must be careful. Bayern have been beaten in two of the last three Champions League finals, but they are an institution apart in some ways in Germany. Schalke reached the semi-finals two seasons ago, but they lost 6-1 on aggregate to United.

It was only this March that Bayer Leverkusen were beaten 7-1 by Barcelona. Just over a year ago Dortmund finished bottom of their group. In fact you have to go back a decade to see the last time two German clubs made the quarter-finals. Leverkusen and Bayern were there – Leverkusen making the final against Real Madrid in Glasgow.

So we need to be convinced. But, this autumn, German clubs are convincing in a manner that English clubs are not.

Previous convictions about league strengths must be queried. A corner may be being turned.

Antrim presence in Mersey camps

COUNTY ANTRIM’S north coast is entitled to feel a little bit proud tomorrow when Everton host Liverpool in the first Merseyside derby of the season. There is Antrim blood in each dugout.

That Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers hails from the village of Carnlough is an increasingly well-known fact. Less widely known is that David Moyes’s mother, Joan, came from Portrush.

Moyes does not overlook this. He was back in the area in the summer to open the Milk Cup, the famed youth tournament now into its 30th year.

“It’s like a homecoming for me,” Moyes said at the time. “My mother was from Portrush and I often come here to visit. I love the place and the people. I think she would be very proud of the fact that I am opening the Milk Cup.”

Moyes’s father, David snr, is an Everton scout now having worked in Glasgow for Rangers for some years. He, too, “has been coming here for years” according to his son.

The north-west of Ireland has supplied three of the current Everton squad – Séamus Coleman, Shane Duffy and Darron Gibson.

There are no Irishmen at Liverpool.

Bar Rodgers.

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