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Most exciting Premier League ever? Possibly, but certainly not the best
CLASS ACT: But Liverpool's Luis Suarez is perhaps the only truly world-class player currently playing in the Premier League
SEVEN weeks of the season to go, and the Premier League title race promises to be one of the tightest and most entertaining ever.
With just six points separating the top four teams, it is impossible to predict the identity of the eventual winner with any confidence. Yet excitement and unpredictability should not be confused with quality.
Chelsea striker Samual Eto’o may have scored in midweek in the Champions League, but he is well past his best
This is not 'the best Premier League ever' because the sides involved at the top are simply not a match for some of the teams who have lifted the trophy in previous seasons. In fact, it could be argued that there is not a truly top-class team among this year's title rivals.
Some have used this week's Champions League action to suggest otherwise, but the days when English sides could justifiably claim to be the cream of the footballing crop are long gone.
That isn't a development that has emerged from nowhere, as there was not a single English side in the quarter-finals of last year's Champions League. With that in mind, it could be argued that Chelsea and Manchester United's passage to the last eight represents positive progress from a domestic point of view.
But while Jose Mourinho's European track record means it would be foolish to write off Chelsea's chances of springing a surprise in the latter stages of the competition, a routine two-legged victory over a dreadful Galatasaray side should not be regarded as a cause for celebration.
Similarly, a poor Manchester United team were merely able to find one of the few sides in the last 16 that were even more limited than they were. One suspects that the quarter-finals will expose a gradual decline in standards relative to the rest of Europe that is showing no signs of slowing.
In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have long been disappearing over the horizon, with the emergence of Atletico Madrid in the last 12 months negating any criticism of La Liga as a two-horse race.
Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are now comfortably superior to the best English sides, while money-rich Paris St Germain are threatening to eclipse their leading Premier League rivals both on and off the field.
Should that matter? It depends on your perspective. This has been a superb season in the English top-flight, with genuine unpredictability at the top end of the table, all the leading title contenders suffering unexpected defeats to teams well below them and some truly unforgettable matches.
But the overall standard has been poor, and for a league that is the richest in Europe by a distance, that says something about the sums that are being squandered on players who can no longer be considered the best in the world.
Comprise a Best of the World XI, and how many Premier League players would be in it? Luis Suarez perhaps? Eden Hazard? Maybe Yaya Toure at central midfield?
Start thinking about their potential rivals in those positions, however, and it is hard to make too compelling a case for any of the trio's inclusion.
Despite the seemingly limitless finances that are swilling around, the world's best players no longer come to England. Hence, this year's title race will be won by a side that will not be anything special in a historical context.
Too harsh? Assess the four contenders one and by one and their limitations are almost as obvious as their strengths.
Chelsea, for instance, are top of the table, even though they do not have a single centre-forward worthy of the name. Samuel Eto'o's best days are long behind him, Fernando Torres is like a marksman who has lost his gun, his bullets and any semblance of what he's meant to do with them anyway, and Demba Ba has barely been seen since he left Newcastle.
Would a side with such obvious limitations have beaten some of the great Manchester United sides of the recent past? Or Arsenal's Invincibles? It's extremely unlikely. Take Hazard out of the equation, and Chelsea are merely functional. It says much that that might be enough.
What about Manchester City, the team that remain favourites because of their games in hand? On paper, Manuel Pellegrini's side create a powerful impression, but the whole does not equate to the sum of its parts.
Having started the season like a house on fire, City have not really played well for the last two months. Their away form has been rocky all term – resulting in defeats at Cardiff, Aston Villa and Sunderland – and their back four tends to implode in the absence of Vincent Kompany.
The likes of David Silva, Jesus Navas and Sergio Aguero have flickered into life sporadically, but none of City's key attackers have produced a sustained spell of excellence this season. Again though, it might not matter.
Liverpool's improvement has been the most pleasurable aspect of the title race, with Brendan Rodgers' nurturing of a crop of predominantly young English players having shaken things up dramatically.
In Suarez, Liverpool boast not only the best player in England, but perhaps the only Premier League player who could hold down a place in any other European side. Steven Gerrard is also enjoying a new lease of life in his deeper midfield role.
Beyond those two though, Rodgers relies on a youthful squad who are at a formative stage of their development. The likes of Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson have come on in leaps and bounds, but they should be even better in a few years time and are far from the finished article.
If they were to be crowned champions in May, it would be a massive boost for Roy Hodgson's England side ahead of the World Cup. It would not say much, however, about the strength of the opposition.
Arsenal? With just a four-point deficit to make up, they're still very much in the title race. But their age-old failings are as evident as ever, with their post-Christmas wobble having exposed both defensive deficiencies and a lack of squad depth that Arsene Wenger appears either unable or unwilling to solve.
In the last three months, Arsenal have conceded six goals to Manchester City and five goals to Liverpool. Championship material? In this far from vintage battle, it might be.
CHAMP OF THE WEEK
The Irishman bowed out in style as his final appearance in international rugby helped secure a 22-20 victory over France that earned him a second Six Nations title. O'Driscoll has won 141 Test caps and will be remembered as one of the greatest centres in world rugby.
CHUMP OF THE WEEK
The Durham all-rounder burst onto the international scene in spectacular fashion in Australia, but he will have to curb his wilder side if he is to fulfil his abundant potential in an England shirt. He will have to sit out the World Twenty20 after fracturing his hand by punching a dressing-room locker in the West Indies.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
ENGLAND vs ITALY
They couldn't manage what was required to win the Six Nations title, but England were still hugely impressive as they racked up 52 points in Rome. No one else has done that in Italy's backyard in the last few seasons, and Stuart Lancaster's side can look forward to next year's World Cup with mounting excitement.
BET OF THE WEEKEND
It's four wins on the spin, even if last weekend's victory came courtesy of West End Rocker's third place in the Midlands Grand National. Alan King's veteran was tipped each-way at 20-1. With the charity profits rising, follow @scottwilsonecho on Twitter to discover Saturday's selection. Running total: £19.38
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