Understanding the lack of domestic competition this season

by Alex Keery

Van Persie UnitedWednesday’s meeting between Real Madrid and Manchester United was an evening of mixed priorities.

Mourinho’s time with Los Blancos is lumbering towards its inevitable end. With board members dissatisfied with his legacy upon the club, as well as his usual flirtation with a return to England, this is surely his final chance to win the coveted 10th European Cup for the club.

While Ferguson et al would hardly be satisfied by an eventual defeat, as unlikely as it may now seem, they can console themselves with the almost inevitable recapturing of the Premier League.

United have streaked 12 points ahead of their stuttering City rivals, while Madrid have been powerless to stop a relentless Barcelona – so much so that they have found themselves in third place, an incredible 16 points behind the Catalans. Sitting 15 points ahead of Dortmund, Bayern Munich may as well be awarded the Deutsche Meisterschale today.

From the neutral perspective, the perceived lack of competition is disappointing.

The domestic titles of three leagues in Europe are all but concluded, and we’ve barely covered half of the shortened month of February.

Like the leagues of the countries previously mentioned, the competitiveness of the English league as a whole has somewhat suffered from a duplicity of power. Even back in August, it was obvious that the title was Manchester-bound; it was merely a question of red or blue. The acquisition of Robin van Persie, who stated that he always want to go to Old Trafford, has clearly made the difference. The Dutchman’s experience and guile have already brought him 19 league goals, as well as allowing Wayne Rooney to drop deeper into his seemingly preferred role which toes the line between centre forward and no.10.

Ferguson’s men have also benefitted from Michael Carrick hitting the form of his career. Prone to a division of opinion amongst fans in the past, few can deny that his metronomic passing and control have created the midfield foundation upon which van Persie and Rooney do their best work. Rafael has finally began to play like their heir incumbent to that #2 shirt, and despite the over the top media scorn, David de Gea has been solid.

Manchester City have been unable to settle upon their best striking partnership, with Mancini rotating Dzeko in and out of the Argentine pairing of Aguero and Tevez. Once the histrionics and back page drama of Balotelli became too much, he had to go, leaving the club somewhat short up front. The departure of Yaya Toure to the African Cup of Nations was a bitter, if not inevitable, blow. So much of Mancini’s successful attacking movements arrive directly from the giant Ivorian. Without him, Gareth Barry and David Silva simply cannot utilise their own abilities.

Even Vincent Kompany, last year’s Premier League Player of the Season, has found it difficult to live up to his own standards, denied the safety and understanding of a consistent partner in the middle of defence. Mancini has partnered his captain with Lescott, Nastasic, and even Kolo Toure, none of whom look up to the task. It would appear that the hype bubble protecting Joe Hart from scorn has finally burst, the English goalkeeper making a few errors and failing to command his box as he has done so authoritatively in the past.

While shrewd transfer business and player form can go some way to explaining the gulf between the Manchester clubs, it is much more difficult to explain what exactly is going on in Spain. Each week seems to bring forth the latest Mourinho controversy, from a lack of faith from the boardroom, to a divided dressing room. With 15 games left to play, it is utterly inconceivable that the Portuguese can defend his league title, and none shall be more of aware of this than the Special One himself. Real Madrid have been comfortably surpassed by their city rivals, a Falcao-inspired Athletico occupying 2nd place, 4 points ahead of Mourinho’s men.

Even the unfortunate health concerns of Tito Vilanova have not distracted his side. While there were some who feared the hangover effect of losing Guardiola last season, their fears have not been fully justified. The Catalans have won 20 of their 23 games, losing only once. Messi has remained as prolific as ever, already tallying 35 league goals. However, the defence has been a cause for concern. While Gerard Pique has regained some of his past form, the club have, by their own standards, been leaking goals.

Finishing as La Liga runners-up last year, they limited the opposition to just 29 goals all season, better even than Mourinho’s champions. This year, they have already conceded 26. Perhaps the attacking intent was always going to steadily remain the same, enough to overpower the weaker teams in Spain, but the side appear to be missing out on Guardiola’s renowned knowledge and understanding of exactly how their opponents would attack. This is not to detract from Vilanova’s stewardship; he worked extensively under Guardiola, and is surely more familiar with his methods than any other.

On the subject of Guardiola, his future looks comfortable. He will inherit a Bayern Munich side fresh from a resounding Bundesliga success. 15 points separates the Bavarians from their nearest rivals, Dortmund, who now seem more focussed on their European campaign. 2 away goals in a draw in Donetsk on Wednesday have given them an excellent chance of progression.

Of the 3 leagues I have so far examined, the Bundesliga presents by far the clearest picture. Bayern have simply been too good for the majority of the league. Kroos, Ribery and Muller have been in the form of their careers, while the summer captures of Javi Martinez, Mario Mandzukic and Dante have enforced an already powerful team. Manuel Neuer has only had to retrieve the ball from his net 7 times. Few would bet against them powering beyond Arsenal in this stage of the Champions League. The future is bright for the Bavarians.

Perhaps next season will see the much-touted return of Mourinho to Chelsea. Perhaps Mancini will return to Italy. For the sake of the sanity of the neutral fan, something must change.

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