James Lawton: Napoli's taunts underscore a league lagging behind again

The Premier League tumbles further down the table of those who cultivate home talent

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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, 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 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 blank spaces 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 the likes of 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 in a slightly different way. 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 Chelsea's patron if he ever gets round to celebrating a Champions League triumph.

We certainly know the dreams 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 game in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – the Premier League tumbles ever further down the league 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 gap between Barça and the rest of football is closing. This week it looked as wide as ever when Barcelona dissected a spirited and not totally uninspired Milan with fresh evidence that Messi is now pushing back the known borders of individual brilliance.

City's defeat placed upon Roberto Mancini the old fear that a failure to master the special demands of the Champions League – which undid him despite a run of domestic titles with Internazionale – might undermine the sure strides his team have been making at home – and he also had the old worry that if Mario Balotelli has provided plenty of evidence of major talent he is maybe one of the few visitors to the shadow of Vesuvius who could add to the local store of volatility.

But then it is also true that the City project, unlike the one at Stamford Bridge, is still at a relatively early stage and if Mancini continues to indulge in the odd touch of perversity – why not play from the start the eager Sergio Aguero in the city that adores his father-in-law and where he would have been hell-bent on making a striking impression? – and it is not too hard to imagine that some of the authority of the Premier League campaign can be recaptured in the final group game against Bayern Munich.

The trouble is that increasingly the Premier League is providing a poor guide to Champions League performance. Neither Napoli nor Bayer Leverkusen, superbly served by Michael Ballack, an old warrior with a point to prove, suggested themselves as potential European champions but in the end they had enough organisation and technical ability to get their results. Understandably enough, it left Mancini tetchy and Andre Villas-Boas pretty close to distraught.

The young and now flailing Chelsea manager had reason to be thankful that his latest conquerors 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.

Villas-Boas now has to go for a 0-0 draw or any kind of victory over the prolific Valencia in the last game. Plainly, he should either forget about the goalless draw or perhaps put David Luiz on a slow boat to Brazil.

However this particular issue is resolved, and whatever patience Abramovich finds himself able to produce if things go more profoundly wrong than any point in his eight-year reign at Stamford Bridge, there are surely reasons to 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 played themselves to a standstill in the Champions League final and the rest of European football could only look on in a state of considerable awe. Abramovich had all his friends in town and, no doubt, vast amounts of champagne on ice. A Spanish observer said with something close to a gasp: "Only the Premier League could produce such strength and speed."

Then John Terry slipped and missed his penalty. What you couldn't 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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