James Lawton: Napoli's taunts point to a league lagging behind

 

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The Independent Online

When a visitor had his windscreen smashed by a large brick and saw his wallet whisked off the dashboard while driving down a vertiginous side street he reflected: "It may be true about seeing Naples and dying but it won't be from boredom."

Manchester City would no doubt agree after their ambush by Napoli at Stadio San Paolo this week but then they were hardly alone in their agitation.

Indeed, the most mischievous taunt of their conquerors' president and benefactor, the film-maker Aurelio De Laurentiis, might have been aimed just as maliciously at fellow Premier League plutocrats Chelsea.

De Laurentiis's suggestion that his rather better-heeled City counterpart Sheikh Mansour (above) could be in search of a new toy if his team's latest Champions League pratfall leads to expulsion before the knockout phase was no doubt at the very least premature, but in a bad week for the Premier League – and world football's two richest clubs – it surely brushed a nerve.

Chelsea's Roman Abramovich has had eight years of frustration now and the team's latest breakdown in the last minutes against Bayer Leverkusen, coupled with another stutter by Manchester United on the big stage, certainly provokes a wider question.

It asks whether the world's richest, strongest, most watched, most thrilling – fill in the blanks wherever you choose – league is really developing anything like a serious clue about how to close the gap on the most sophisticated football being played by Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Maybe – after paying due respect to Arsenal's renovation and impressive march to the next phase of the competition – we could put the question slightly differently. Perhaps we could ask: what is the Premier League for?

We know its purpose for the American owners of Manchester United: a cash cow created by stupendous levels of debt loading. We know the charge it will give Chelea's patron if he ever gets round to celebrating a Champions League triumph.

We certainly know the dreams of triumph the sheikh has excited in the long-suffering hearts of City fans. But where is the Premier League really going, as it hurtles towards Europe's financial fair play cut-off point with receding hope that it can live with the kind of brilliance being displayed by Barça and Real.

There is also the dispiriting fact that while the Spanish giants fuel the epoch-making achievements of their national team – along with displaying the cream of the world in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – the Premier League tumbles ever further down the table of those who cultivate home-grown talent, languishing behind Spain, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany.

No, it's not been a great week for the financial behemoth of world league football – and certainly not one to underpin the recent surreal claim of United's Nemanja Vidic that the chasm between Barça and the rest of football is steadily narrowing.

The young and now flailing Chelsea manager, Andre Villas-Boas, had reason to be thankful that his latest conqueors were not Napoli because if De Laurentiis was eager to bait City's owners, heaven knows what the target of Abramovich and his treatment of managers might have inspired. Whatever patience Abramovich finds if things do go wrong, he will surely also wonder quite what happened to the show of strength the Premier League produced so relentlessly beside the Moscow River three and half years ago.

Manchester United and Chelsea produced an awesome show of strength in that Champions League final. Then John Terry slipped and missed his penalty. What no one could have guessed at that moment of drama was that all the wealth and the power he represented was also heading for a fall.

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