Champions League gives a better idea of the Premier League's elite

Clive Rose

Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea have all struggled to varying degrees so far in the Premier League, while Arsenal have been hyped up as title challengers. How the teams fare in Europe will give a better idea of the state of things.

Amid the varying crises suffered by the Premier League's big three so far this season, it's become increasingly difficult to find out exactly what the hell is happening. It's a common theme for behind-the-scenes stuff, with an ever-increasing level of propaganda, PR and spin confounding any attempts to get to the truth, but it was never supposed to be this difficult to find out what was going on on the pitch.

Chelsea have perhaps been the biggest surprise of all, who seemed to have the perfect new team to match their perfect old manager, with their home defeat to Basel and loss to Everton difficult to explain away. José Mourinho has come under an extraordinary amount of scrutiny over his selection policies, but it doesn't explain why his side have been so utterly ineffective at times.

Manchester City were next to join them as they lost to Aston Villa. A strange side, their opponents, who were touted as a potential early surprise package while languishing near the bottom of the table, having put in some far better performances but ended up as bad as they were the previous year. Yet thanks to the Premier League's new TV deal, the club had at least bought the sort of players that should make the defeat a lot less embarrassing than it would have been the previous season.

That new deal, which amounts to a large, uniform amount of cash being pumped into the coffers of all clubs in the league, clearly benefits the lesser teams in that it evens up the playing field slightly more. Great teams and great players have always existed because of advantages which, in reality and on the field, are relatively minor. It's become very easy for mid-table clubs to acquire very good players, while the top clubs, in order to maintain their position, have to go and seek out truly great players which are difficult to acquire.

In that context, it's only natural that the league would condense somewhat, and the also-rans like Villa would catch up to their supposed betters. The deal also clearly gives them a huge advantage over clubs of comparable size and stature in Spain and Germany, and that's where we'll be able to better compare their progress since last season.

Manchester United have struggled more than Chelsea or City, of course, and it's been alternately blamed on the managerial changeover and years of under-investment. The case has often been made, however, that David Moyes had inherited a squad which coasted to the league title in the previous year. This was short-sighted for a number of reasons, but mostly because all of their rivals had strengthened significantly whereas United had not.

In that sense, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that United's best performance of the season so far came against Bayer Leverkusen. With no new money to boost their chances, continental competition can provide fewer variables than the newly-improved mid-table outfits of the Premier League.

That may not be the greatest comfort to United fans even if their club progress through their group without a hitch, particularly with David Moyes insisting the club cannot progress through the later stages of the competition anyway. But it allows them to better understand the position of their club, and the differences between their problems and the likes of Chelsea, who did not fare so well in their first fixture in Europe this season.

While United, who may have lost a great deal of their psychological effectiveness over opponents at home, will struggle with smaller teams having increased confidence about taking them on, their victory against a far superior Leverkusen side showed that they still have the quality to win in fixtures placed in a less important context, particularly in Europe where fewer risks are taken. For Chelsea, there was little difference, pointing to their problems as being more structural as Mourinho looks to give his team an effective style of play.

Whether any of the clubs can go on to actually win the trophy is highly debatable, but it wouldn't be a surprise for at least the early stages to offer much smoother sailing than domestic competition. Finding it easier to travel to Ukraine from Old Trafford than the Etihad Stadium is an odd state of affairs, but so is the situation in which the English elite find themselves.

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