Chris McGrath: The greatest players of all are battling it out – and the World Cup hasn't started yet

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The Independent Online

It may be too credulous an instinct, at the end of a week when the duel for the title itself stimulated less curiosity than one between Tottenham and Manchester City, for the privilege of losing to Werder Bremen in August. But is it possible that a fissure of hope is beginning to divide the final reckoning from the bottom line?

True, nothing has especially altered the cynical precept that you could save yourself a lot of bother by dispensing with nine months of football and settling each league according to the respective wage bills of its clubs. The difference between the resulting tables would probably prove as marginal as City's failure to claim fourth. At the same time, however, a remarkable symmetry in the concluding dramas of their various leagues implies that Europe's elite may not be quite so petrified as had begun to seem the case.

Admittedly, the stagnation of the game's hierarchy is offensively manifest in the ceremonial roles generally being reserved for Wigan and Stoke tomorrow, in their respective journeys to Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. And the pernicious exaggeration of its financial castes by individual negotiation of television rights is dizzily apparent in the abyss dividing second from third in La Liga. But the very fact that the status of champions is being contested to the bitter end in Spain, England and Italy surely implies a dynamic renewal of competition in zones previously menaced with an endemic futility. Likewise, the open and exciting title races only recently settled in France and Germany. And likewise, again, the wholesome diversity restored to a Champions League that had started to asphyxiate in the Premier League's financial headlock.

The loosening of that grip, of course, is itself a function of spending, which has conspicuously diminished among the four clubs who together seemed to have taken out a 1,000-year lease on the top places – most obviously at Liverpool, but also at Manchester United and Chelsea. And while he has not matched City in the gusto of their spending, we should be under no illusions how Harry Redknapp assembled perhaps the strongest bench in the league at Spurs.

But if the terms of Champions League admission remain discouraging, there has been no apocalypse, no final atrophy. Its rewards were thought to be self-fulfilling, but the overall picture across Europe suggests that qualifiers cannot get away with going through the motions at home.

It is fitting, then, that a day habitually dominated by fans clinging dolorously to the precipices of relegation is sooner dedicated to a different type of cliff-hanger. The two clubs condemned to join Portsmouth have long ago volunteered themselves, their football entirely consistent with the mediocrity implicit in the notion that finishing 17th in the Premier League, every year if necessary, is a dignified ambition for any football club. (It sufficed for Fulham two years ago, of course, but not since. Hindsight might even discern in the theatrical nature of their survival the seeds of a more honourable sense of purpose.)

Fittingly, it will be the best players on the planet who define what is not only the climax of the European club season, but also the prelude to a World Cup. Success and failure will in both cases hinge upon courage as well as class.

Consider the contrasting exhibitions produced by two of the sport's most magnetic figures. First there was Cristiano Ronaldo, who requires none of his undoubted braggadocio to compare his single-handed, three-goal evisceration of Mallorca with the impact made by Lionel Messi against Arsenal at the Nou Camp. Last weekend Real Madrid had depended on Ronaldo for the last-minute winner that sustained their pursuit of Barcelona. Whatever might be read into the humiliating gap of 24 points to Valencia, in third, the possibility persists that Ronaldo's transfer last summer will ultimately determine the league title in both Spain and England.

Then there was Francesco Totti, whose rejuvenation, at 33, has not only fuelled Roma's spectacular challenge to Internazionale, but even prompted him to consider reversing his retirement from international football. Well, he can forget all about that now.

Wednesday's Coppa Italia final between the clubs duelling for the league produced a filthy game which reached a breathtaking nadir when Totti – deranged with tension – was sent off for a homicidal kick at Mario Balotelli. (The knowledge that Totti somehow failed to break his victim's leg exculpates anyone who discovers the video a source of hilarity, rather than outrage.)

Few, meanwhile, will be surprised that a 1-0 success left Jose Mourinho on course for his precious treble. Or that he afterwards declared that Roma would now have to pay Siena to beat Inter in the league. Or, worst of all, that Lazio wilted so obligingly last weekend and ensured that Inter – whose goals were celebrated lustily by the Lazio fans – would retain an advantage over their city rivals. Inter, meanwhile, have somehow contrived to unite much of Europe behind a German team, Bayern Munich, a situation that naturally suits Mourinho.

Even those of us long seduced by Serie A cannot pretend that its denouement, absorbing as it is, is terribly flattering. But it is comforting that the competitive energies of Eastlands on Wednesday should be replicated tomorrow, in a strange extension of these other parallels, by a showdown for fourth between Palermo and Sampdoria.

No place, then, for Juventus – who find themselves in a similar pickle to Liverpool (and so might seem to be proposing a rather eccentric solution). Barcelona, meanwhile, have an awkward trip to Seville, themselves hoping to make the Champions League. Barcelona's lead, like Chelsea's, is just one point; Inter's is two.

Of course, they all have something to pay with; but at least they still have everything to play for.

Twenty20 beano strips cricket of its judgement calls

Call me old-fashioned – and call me, moreover, negligent of the way one-day cricket energised the Test game. The way it infected batsmen with bravado, fielders with flair and captains with ambition. But this Twenty20 beano in the Caribbean none the less renews my dread of any encroachment on the conduct or primacy of Test cricket.

The essence of cricket is the exquisite tension between attack and defence. A batsman, according to the situation, must act on his judgement of each delivery, and decide where to draw the line of acceptable risk. In Twenty20, however, he is absolved of any such responsibility. He can hardly be rebuked, on returning to the pavilion, for trying to smear another six.

Twenty20 is a necessary form of coppicing, if cricket is to intrigue those whose infantile attention span is matched by a disposable income. But just because the Twenty20 batsman no longer has to distinguish between adventure and recklessness, that does not mean everyone should do the same.

Is it bad form to suggest that Capello has erred?

Though the principle is admirable, Fabio Capello has rather painted himself into a corner by insisting that he will only take to the World Cup players who are palpably flourishing for their clubs.

On his stated terms of business, how can he do anything but hasten Adam Johnson into the squad against Mexico? How could he conceivably favour Emile Heskey over Peter Crouch? How, come to that, could he uphold the fantasy that Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, respectively on grounds of fitness and form, have played their club seasons with the faintest resemblance to the indispensable core of his international defence? Regardless, between them Ledley King and Michael Dawson have suddenly made Matthew Upson's dry runs look a waste of time.

Clearly, there are sound reasons for sticking with the men who prospered in qualification. But if Il Capo is to be true to his word, he may find himself conducting 11th-hour experiments that might, in less respected predecessors, have invited alarm over clarity of intention.

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