Premier League race shows mediocrity rises to the top
Should English soccer bosses follow the lead of their US counterparts and place an asterisk beside the name of the 2010-11 Premier League champions?
It's done in the record books for American sports when a team or individual achievement is devalued in some way. That could range from a championship won during a strike-shortened season in the NBA to a Major League Baseball home-run record tainted by the suspicion of performance-enhancing drugs.
No such circumstance will apply to the title race in England. However, the sheer mediocrity of the leading contenders raises the question of whether any of them deserve to claim the 19th edition of the Premier League.
This weekend's break for the FA Cup quarter-finals provides an opportunity to contemplate how unimpressive the top five clubs have been.
Leaders Manchester United are the most likely candidates to clinch what would be a record-breaking 19th top-flight title. Yet this is a team who have lost three of their past five league games and won only four of 15 away from home.
The way the Red Devils capitulated in last weekend's 3-1 loss at Liverpool was a shock to diehard fans and pundits. From an unbeaten and consistent side in cruise control a little more than a month ago, Alex Ferguson's men now look vulnerable, with injuries exposing the inadequacies of the supporting cast.
An often workmanlike midfield has been outplayed in too many games and the defence creaks without skipper Nemanja Vidic and national captain Rio Ferdinand.
With Nani now adding to the cast on the sidelines, Ferguson may need to get it done using smoke and mirrors before replenishing his squad in the summer.
Arsenal's inconsistency has been underscored by their elimination from the Champions League this week at Barcelona and last month's shock defeat in the League Cup final against relegation-threatened Birmingham, extending a trophy drought stretching to almost six years. As pretty as the football that Fabregas, Nasri, Arshavin and Van Persie play, the Gunners are in desperate need of something a lot less eye-pleasing.
Arsenal have sorely missed injured central defender Thomas Vermaelen and are paying the price for the lack of a world class goalkeeper.
Arsene Wenger continues to defend his mentally frail charges and hope they'll heal from recent psychological scars. But instead of his holistic approach in nurturing rising talent, maybe it's time Wenger loosened the purse strings and brought in more experienced players who have a proven track record at the highest level.
Roberto Mancini did that at Manchester City and yet has failed to mount a serious title challenge. The Citizens were booed by their own fans after an abject 1-0 home victory over bottom placed Wigan last weekend.
Like a new machine in the factory that labours and wheezes despite very expensive parts, it is hard to imagine how Mancini's tactics could have been less uninspiring, given the talent at his disposal. Manchester City have won just six of 16 matches away from home and could still miss out on a top-four spot.
Chelsea's fall from grace is a tale of arrogance and mismanagement, which stems from the decision to sack assistant manager Ray Wilkins during a reserve team game last November. At the time, the Blues were top of the table with just one league defeat and felt bulletproof. Four months later, they are fourth after seven defeats.
True, they are starting to play better, even though new boy Fernando Torres has drawn blanks in five games. But the Blues couldn't be blamed if they settled for a top-four finish so they could focus on the chase for Champions League glory.
For the neutrals, Tottenham Hotspur are probably the most likable of all of the teams in the top five. Yet Harry Redknapp would probably be the first to admit they are still a long way off from being anything close to Premier League champions, despite moving into the quarter-finals of the Champions League this week.
Their patchy 3-3 draw at Wolves last weekend proves that Spurs are still coming to terms with being part of soccer's elite. They need to consistently produce more of the defensive grit they showed mid-week against AC Milan. With 34 league goals conceded, Spurs have leaked nine more than Man City, 10 more than Chelsea. Even 11th placed Fulham have a tighter defence.
And as hard as it is to pick a deserving champion, it is equally difficult to say which three teams don't belong in the Premier League.
Given their fighting spirit and attractive game, lowly Wolves, Blackpool and West Ham are extremely likeable. Birmingham are the League Cup champions and will play in Europe next year. And even Roberto Martinez's Wigan have won admirers this season by taking points off Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool.
Only one of the highest points totals in Premier League history will guarantee survival while one of the lowest tallies could win the title. After so many lopsided seasons the strong are getting weaker and the meek are fighting back, which makes compelling viewing.
But as far as celebrating the excellence of the top clubs, this campaign leaves a lot to be desired, suggesting the overall standard may have dropped. So, this Year of the Rabbit may well be remembered as the season of the Asterisk.