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Aug 4, 2014

Where have the stars gone?

Luis Suarez secured his dream move to Barcelona this summer.

They were words that didn't do too much for Steven Gerrard's relationship with Arsenal, or say much for the Premier League, given that the London side remains one of the competition's finest sides.

"I would have been really sad and disappointed to see Luis [Suarez] go to Arsenal," Gerrard said of the Uruguayan's mooted move to the Emirates last summer. "With all due respect to them, I said to him that he was too good for Arsenal."

Yet while the Liverpool captain was no doubt specifically speaking about the status of his own club in relation to Arsene Wenger's side, there was a more general truth to his words. It was not just that Suarez was too good for Arsenal. It was that he was too good for pretty much anyone else in the English top flight, too.

Consider the career paths of all the previous Premier League stars to have the reached the level Suarez played at last season, that truly dominant world-class plane very few individuals on the planet can hope to touch.

Thierry Henry went to Barcelona after years of being chased.

Cristiano Ronaldo went to Real Madrid after years of being chased.

Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid after a year of being chased.

Real Madrid spent almost 200 million euros to lure Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo from the Premier League to La Liga.

Then, consider the other side of it: None of them were stars when they first played in the Premier League. They gradually rose to that level, only to then be signed by clubs with grander scope as soon as they were ready.

In that, Suarez is just the latest in a sequence that the English division has become all too used to, and goes back much further than when the Premier League became a truly global competition after the turn of the millennium.

Just last week, this writer argued that Real Madrid and Barcelona stand alone as apex predators at the very top of the transfer market food chain. It has really always been like that.

For reasons from history to climate to prestige to pure cash, the Spanish two have always represented a pinnacle, a glossy stage the A-listers always want to work on.

"The foreign players' big dream is to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona, that's a fact," Gerrard said.

For evidence of that, you can trace a line from Alfredo Di Stefano through Ferenc Puskas, Diego Maradona, Romario, Rivaldo and Zinedine Zidane.

There have really been only two periods in history when the Clasico duo were any way rivaled and both times were down to truckloads of Italian cash. The first was in the mid-1960s, when Spain actually enforced a ban on foreign players, and Serie A was enjoying a spell of being sprinkled by stardust known as "the lure of the lira."

The second was in the early 1990s, when the business model put in place by Silvio Berlusconi at AC Milan revolutionised the Italian game. Money generated from broadcasting allowed the Italian club to pay fortunes for the best players in the world, not least the likes of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. It was a model that the rest of Italy soon tried to mimic, and even played a part in the foundation of the Champions League.

By the early 1990s, though, all of the world's major stars were either to be found at the Clasico two or Serie A's top clubs ... and even some beyond. Every Italian side seemed to have at least one star.

- Delaney: The transfer market food chain
- Premier League ins and outs
- Transfer Center

The English top flight has simply never operated on that level. Even when its clubs were dominant in Europe -- between 1976 and 1985, and then, more relevantly, between 2004 and 2009 -- they were not really defined by bringing in the most brilliant stars.

Consider those teams' players, most of whom were top professionals or superb supporting actors, rather than absolute A-listers.

George Best and Bobby Charlton were produced by Manchester United, while Liverpool made Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish.

The line followed by Henry and Ronaldo was started long before. There are a few reasons for that.

Climate and culture are two big ones, as is the English cult of the manager. Unlike Real Madrid or Barcelona, Premier League clubs have never been as willing to sacrifice a coach to an overbearing but overachieving player.

There has also been something of a reluctance to really spend astronomically, although Manchester City or Chelsea -- or perhaps even Manchester United, if chief executive Ed Woodward is to be believed -- may eventually change that.

As such, Suarez does not just leave a distinctive gap in the Liverpool team. He also leaves a gap in the Premier League.

Someone else can now take centre stage. The candidates are there, as has always been the case. If Sergio Aguero can stay injury-free, he has the talent to reach Suarez's levels in a different way. Eden Hazard certainly has the ability, but just needs to add that consistency of quality.

Robin van Persie had possibly been on a par with Suarez throughout 2012-13, and is finally playing under a manager who suits him again. Daniel Sturridge may well thrive as Liverpool's main forward. Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, should arguably be on that level already. His second season with Arsenal could be sensational.

In the meantime, the stars have merely gone where they've always gone. The Premier League must just respond by doing what it's always done.

Miguel Delaney

Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.

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