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Soccer

Best league in the world? Not England in 2012

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Didier Drogba left Chelsea a winner, beating Bayern Munich for the Champions League crown.

It has been a remarkable year for the English Premier League.

The 2011-12 title was decided in on a heart-stopping final day as Manchester City scored twice in added time to beat Queens Park Rangers 3-2 and steal the crown from Manchester United, whose players were waiting to celebrate on the field at Sunderland. Chelsea was crowned champion of Europe. The British TV rights ended a period of stagnation with a 68 percent leap in value for a new deal. When it starts next summer, the £3.2-billion contract will end the brief reign of Italy's Serie A as the league with the biggest domestic TV deal.

This has to be, as club managers and pundits so often say, the "best in the world," right? Wrong.

The Premier League does not have a monopoly on close finishes. The 2012 finale might not even be the best in English history. In 1989, Michael Thomas scored in added time at Anfield to give Arsenal the Football League title over Liverpool on goals scored. On the final weekend in 2002 alone, Lyon beat first-place Lens on the last day of the season to win its first French title, Borussia Dortmund won to edge Bayer Leverkusen by one point and Bayern by two in the Bundesliga and, in Italy, Juventus won to overtake Inter Milan, which lost. Any league can produce an exciting finish.

Then there is the evidence of our own eyes. Last season, Manchester City was clearly the best team in the Premier League. United produced a remarkable effort to stay close, seemingly running on the habits built by far better teams that won the title 12 times in the previous 19 seasons. The rest, trailing far behind, were pretty mediocre.

This season, five (and a half) of the teams that finished in last season's top six are noticeably worse.

Manchester City seems jaded. The powerful spine of the team is weakened. Joe Hart in goal has become mildly, and expensively, error prone. Vincent Kompany, the captain and center back, looks unfit even when he plays. Yaya Touré, the dominant midfielder in the league last season, now mixes bad days with the great ones. The sight of him kicking Marouane Fellaini as City was held at home by Everton earlier this month was a sign that he is not dominating every opponent the way he did last season.

Arsenal, which sneaked into third last season, has been shorn of the loincloth that was Robin van Persie, leaving it naked and even more vulnerable. Tottenham has also suffered a damaging loss: not Harry Redknapp, the manager who oversaw its startling rise and sorry collapse last season, but Luka Modric, the dazzling playmaker. Despite an excellent crop of summer signings, Spurs plod where they used to dance. Newcastle, which punched above its weight to finish fifth, has subsided, its shallow squad ravaged by injuries.

Manchester United's defense is leaking goals at an unprecedented rate. That might not be the fault of the defenders but a function of injuries or the absence of a true midfield ball-winner to act as a shield. Yet it makes sense for Alex Ferguson to pick his midfield and even his fullbacks to go forward, because United's attack is the one area in which one of last season's top six has clearly improved. The addition of Van Persie has made an already potent unit almost unstoppable.

That leaves Chelsea. It is the European champion. Surely that is evidence of the quality of the Premier League. Yet nobody, even at Stamford Bridge, would argue that the Blues are the best team in Europe. They were a little lucky to beat Napoli in the round of 16, very lucky to edge Barcelona in the semis and fortunate in the extreme as it survived a Bayern onslaught and Arjen Robben's missed penalty to win on penalties in the Champions League final. This is not to belittle Chelsea's achievement. Any player or fan will tell you there is a particular satisfaction in being outplayed and still finding a way to win.

This season has brought home Chelsea's problems. It spent heavily on midfield creativity. Two of the recruits, Eden Hazard and Oscar, have sparkled amid flashes of brilliance from the continuing chaos at the club.

Chelsea's reign as European champion came to a rapid end as it failed to make it out of this season's group stage. Indeed, the Champions League standings make grim reading for those who insist that the Premier League is the best. For the second year running only two of the four English entries survived the group stages. Last season might have been bad luck. The four English clubs collected managed 42 points from their 24 games. This year they were poor, totaling just 35. The four Spanish clubs totaled 49 points and all qualified. The three German clubs also outperformed the English with 39 total points and three places in the last 16.

The top English clubs are not the European force they were. Yet, as the Premier League heads into its annual Christmas fixture frenzy, five of last season's top six (the exception is Newcastle) occupy the top five places in the domestic standings. The rest, good as many of them sometimes look, are just not strong enough to mount a sustained challenge.

Indeed, after West Brom and West Ham drew 0-0 last week, The Guardian asked its readers if this was the worst game involving top-flight players they had ever seen. The Premier League's great games draw the eye, but the truth is that every weekend a lot of the soccer in the "Best League in the World" is pretty awful.

The best teams are declining, yet the Premier League remains deeply unbalanced. This, however, may be about to change. Next year offers a whiff of revolution. That will be the subject for a look ahead to 2013 next week.

Moments of the Year

One could pick 10 moments alone from the tumultuous final day of last season.

? The five goals on the last day of the Premier League season, each representing a huge change in mood and momentum in Manchester City's final game. The finale also offered as a bonus the most surreal red card -- Joey Barton's wild and theatrical exit from what might have been his last Premier League game.

? Former Tottenham backup goalie Marton Fulop's nightmare performance on the last day for West Brom against Arsenal that allowed the Gunners to pip Spurs to third place.

? The 77th-minute penalty by Jonathan Walters that gave Stoke a 2-2 home draw against Bolton and ended the Wanderers' 11-year run in the Premier League.

There were other memorable moments, not all of them positive.

? Didier Drogba's 88th-minute equalizer against Bayern in the Champions League final was a testament to the strength of a great player's will and neck muscles.

? Gareth Bale's slightly over-hit pass to Jermain Defoe in added time at Manchester City. An inch further back or one mile an hour slower and Defoe would have scored instead of hitting the post. City immediately attacked and gained a penalty. City, not Tottenham, won 3-2. City was a title challenger. Tottenham wasn't.

? Those who watched will never forget Fabrice Muamba's collapse on the field at White Hart Lane in March in an FA Cup meeting between two Premier League clubs. People who were there say they feared they were looking at a corpse as the Bolton midfielder was wheeled off the field. He survived his heart attack but has since retired. Life is fragile. Soccer offers an escape but no sanctuary from the realities of the world.

? The real world also encroached at Stamford Bridge in October. After Manchester United won at Chelsea, the home team petulantly accused referee Mark Clattenburg of racially abusing two of its players, Juan Mata and Jon Obi Mikel. It soon withdrew the first accusation but stuck by the second. Neither the police nor the Football Association could find any evidence to back up what was a very serious charge. Racism, with Chelsea often in the middle, has been one of the more difficult and divisive themes of 2012.

Goal of the Year

? I get rather tired of all the long-range shots that dominate the BBC's Goal of the Season poll. I wants some subtlety and also some passing. Like Van Persie's left-foot volley against Everton, but that was in December 2011.

? Of the long-range efforts, the sight of Peter Crouch scoring with an acrobatic 25-yard lobbed volley, like a giraffe lifting its leg to swat a fly nibbling its ear, was quite astonishing. Even better was Papiss Cissé's looping volley over Petr Cech from a wide angle for Newcastle in May, which won the BBC's award.

? Yet, for sheer drama, do we need to look beyond the well-worked and emphatically finished winner under the most enormous pressure with which Sergio Aguero gave City its title. It was the best moment in a great year in one of the world's better leagues.

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