James Lawton: An exciting league season? Without a doubt. But the best ever? No chance
If the Premier League has cause to claim superiority over rivals, it is not at this time
There are two things to say about the Premier League season which is being so widely hailed as the best ever, if only to placate some of the more overwrought Manchester City fans who now seem to believe that what happened at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday afternoon was right up there with the relief of Mafeking and the storming of the Winter Palace.
The first is that City undoubtedly deserved their first title in 44 years. They were the better of only two serious title contenders by a margin their goal difference advantage over the defending champions Manchester United could never begin to indicate adequately.
They won two of the three games between the clubs with much authority and in the one they lost, following the absurd dismissal of their brilliant captain Vincent Kompany, they showed, at least to some of us, that they indeed had the mettle of potential champions.
The second is that if the Premier League of 2011-2012 produced an extraordinary degree of intrigue – right up to added time in its last decisive game – it could not be said to be the best.
There are two reasons for this. One of them is the meaning of football achievement and the other is the meaning of words.
Best is the superlative of good, which means that if you detach the effects of mere excitement, the last question of the season concerns where you find the sustained body of work which quite fits into this exalted category.
You don't. You have to concede that despite the magnificent contribution of such key players as Joe Hart, Kompany, Yaya Touré, Sergio Aguero and David Silva, City were still extremely close to throwing away the crown with just five minutes left in their last game. This provided plenty of tension but not an overpowering urge to reach out for any kind of superlative, except in relation to the nerveless salvage work provided by Aguero.
Not, certainly, if you do not mistake movement for superior action, not if you are unprepared to substitute the vagaries of happenchance for the glow of satisfaction that accompanies the most masterful performance.
Events at the Etihad were surreal and absorbing to an extraordinary degree; they had the compulsion of an unfolding road smash and the uplift of a miraculous escape and indeed they reminded you of all the thrilling possibilities of the world's most popular game.
In this respect the game was in the company of such emotional tours-de-force as Liverpool's Champions League final triumph in Istanbul, United's unlikely and in some ways larcenous triumph over Bayern Munich in 1999 and Chelsea's recent defiance of Barcelona in the Nou Camp. There was also, in the little ground of Sarria just a few streets across town from the Barça fortress, Italy's ambush of a brilliant Brazilian team in the 1982 World Cup.
But can you really say the win over QPR was the last piece of a season so vigorously and near universally larded with the title of the best? Only if you are prepared to put aside all that went before and only if you want to swallow whole the hype of a football corporation that makes no connection between thrill-a-minute action of often dubious technical distinction and the fact that the two teams who dominated utterly the domestic season were so brusquely dismissed from the first and second tiers of European competition this season.
How, on another front, do we explain away the fact that Arsenal spent the first part of the season defining futility, with a defence that even by Premier League standards was plainly unfit for the highest purpose, and then won just one of their last five games, and still finished third?
Do we push this aside as conveniently as the fact that but for United the old elite of English football – once Tottenham's engaging run for the high ground faltered and then plunged – were never in contention for anything except the minor places?
By yesterday the acclamation of so many pundits had become thunderous, to the point where the decibel level likely to greet a Chelsea triumph in Munich at the weekend could only be anticipated with some trepidation. However, if it should happen then let us be sure of the scale of this particular achievement.
It might defy a considerable amount of football logic, but it would have an epic quality – in terms of sheer bloody-minded consistency of resolve since the appointment of Roberto Di Matteo – which would invest some of the wilder claims about this past English season with several degrees of enhanced credibility.
For a start it would be a feat forged outside of a domestic arena in which the runaway leading participants had frequently failed to impose their authority.
It would be an example of an effort of will that, once formed, had withstood every obstacle including the talent of the team said for so long to be the best in the world.
So, if it should happen, here is something we might just be excused for describing as the best. Not the best, most luminous football, the best organised defence, the most subtle midfield strategy, but a statement of enduring ambition which, for all his theatrical capers, has been expressed most persuasively by Didier Drogba.
Outside of such a possibility, we are left with the disproportionate clamour over a Premier League season which no doubt will linger in the memory for some arresting reasons.
Of course it was fascinating to see how well Roberto Mancini held together a team that at pivotal moments threatened to disappear over the cliff edge and if you couldn't help noticing that he was required to suffer right up to the end, there is certainly no hardship in acknowledging that he pulled off the first vital phase of his project.
How City progress from here, how hard they inflict their advantage over a United who are now required to throw in every scrap of their resources in an effort to remake themselves, is obviously the raw material for at least one more season of continuing drama.
So, too, we have to presume will be the efforts of Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Newcastle and Liverpool to punch with the kind of weight which might just threaten the Manchester duopoly which, at the cost of some scorn, some of us noted was effectively in force from the first few weeks of the season.
The most basic truth is that at the heart of a "best season" of a league which likes to claim it is the greatest in the world we have to have a level of achievement which separates it from the rest.
Gary Neville insists that the Premier League is in a class of its own, but how can that possibly square with the reality of City and United's abject failures in Europe this season and the fact that, as he points out so often in his impressively acerbic TV analysis, so much of the Premier League excitement is caused by a defensive frailty that in Spain, Germany and Italy would be a source of recurring horror?
After granting that City plainly have the strength and the resources to build on their achievement this season, it is still necessary to say that if the Premier League has ever had cause to claim superiority over all rivals it is not at this time.
When Arsenal produced their "Invincibles" and then came so close to beating Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final, when Manchester United and Chelsea slugged it out in Moscow in 2008 and then, a year later, a referee granted Barça virtually free passage in another semi-final at Stamford Bridge, a formidable argument was undoubtedly forming.
Indeed, in Moscow an awed Spanish observer – of all people – whispered that only English football could have produced such a show of power.
For the moment at least it has passed and whatever the promise of the future – and maybe the empire of Manchester City – there is not enough bluster in the world to hide the fact.
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