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Apr 26, 2013

How does the Prem compare to Europe?

After the biting, it's back to the football. And not before time. With his "Man vs. Food" antics and resultant 10-game ban, Luis Suarez has single-handedly transformed the Premier League into world football's version of Shark Week. Since Sunday, the carny image of the Player of the Year nominee locking his mandibles around an opponent's upper arm has been over-exposed, powerful enough to shunt Manchester United's title-winning triumph into the shadows.

Thankfully the action is poised to recommence this weekend, which means London's finest -- Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham -- will resume their bruising race toward third and fourth place.

Prem Spotlight: RvP returns to Arsenal

Quinela: CL to cause Barca, Real slip-ups

Tottenham travels to a wobbly Wigan, a team struggling to execute its annual escape act by proving it has unilaterally treated its first 30 games as a preseason. Chelsea hosts Swansea City, a vacation-minded club playing out its schedule as if the players have traded their cleats in for Havaianas. In the weekend's most intriguing game, in-form Arsenal faces champions Manchester United, a clash that promises the wrenching spectacle of Robin van Persie, clad in a rival's jersey, receiving a guard of honor from his former team. This Sunday we will discover if the hosts are forced onto emotion-searing terrain, familiar only to the likes of Jennifer Aniston, as they witness an ex-loved one in the arms of another.

Such telenovela-grade drama is only enhanced by the compressed cycles of the Premier League. From game to game Arsene Wenger is judged and re-judged, derided as a confused, old malcontent one week and a wizened campaigner the next. Similarly, Spurs are poised to be either the league's ultimate chokers or a potent force on the rise while Chelsea may ultimately be deemed a menacing team in transition or a surreal, self-harming cuckoo's nest.

The too-close-to-call nature of English football's last top-of-the-table race -- combined with the fact it is a trio of local rivals duking it out for the $43.3M on offer in the Champions League group stage -- serves only to reinforce the death-match quality surrounding the competition.

Yet intoxicating as this race may be, after witnessing Bayern Munich and Dortmund defang Barcelona and Real Madrid in a tournament in which no English team made it past the last 16, the question must be asked: what quality of football does this Premier League battle for third and fourth place truly represent?

It's an inquiry that carries extra relevance in a week when Manchester United's canter to Premier League glory has largely been attributed to its rivals' mediocrity. Where do the three London pretenders lie when viewed through the broader lens of Europe's shifting balance of power?

"A simple way of looking at the issue is to examine goal differential this season," explained Paul Carr, senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. "It seems crude," he said, having crafted a league table of the goal difference achieved by clubs in league and European competition. "But over a long season, goal difference is generally more predictive than a team's record or points."

The top five teams Carr identified will come as little surprise. Bayern Munich (plus-91) leads Barcelona (plus-70), Real Madrid (plus-59) and Juventus (plus-52). Man United (plus-45) and Chelsea (plus-40) come in seventh and eighth position while Arsenal (plus-32) and Tottenham (plus-21) lag behind in 10th and 16th place respectively.

When Carr viewed trends over the course of the past three seasons, the patterns became even more striking. For example, the Spanish giants appear to be in decline. Carr wondered out loud if "they have peaked" as he examined Barca's numbers (95 to 110 to 70) alongside Real's (88 to 115 to 59). Bayern Munich (up from 51 to 91), Juventus (up from 10 to 53) and PSG (up 19 to 52) have consistently improved their return, yet the English clubs have largely remained consistent -- except for Manchester City, a fact that Carr easily explained away. "They're simply not scoring goals as much and down 27 percent from last year," he declared.

Though scoring differential is at the heart of every trusted algorithm used in Las Vegas to calculate betting odds, Carr was quick to throw in a caveat. "The teams are obviously playing at different levels of competition in their domestic leagues," he admitted. "I don't think there are major differences between the bottom halves of the five leagues, but some people might."

This is where the Soccer Power Index (SPI) becomes a useful tool. SPI is a predictive system able to measure top teams' performances against each other and its gatekeeper, Albert Larcada, an analytics specialist at ESPN Stats & Information, indulged me by constructing the kind of European Super League only a Qatari sheikh could make real. Larcada built a hypothetical 20-team league comprised of the top five squads from England, Spain, Italy and Germany, playing out a 38-match competition based on the traditional home and away structure. He then computed the outcomes 10,000 times, sorting the final league table according to each team's average finish.

After mapping out the outcomes for the past three seasons, Larcada's computations were a somber sight for those who typically view European football through a Premier League lens.

"The top-tier teams -- Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich -- have shuffled positions within the top 3," he said. "Although Dortmund has closed in on them followed by Juventus, Manchester United and recently PSG, most of the English clubs, like Chelsea and Arsenal, remain in the third tier." Larcada paused for a beat, before delivering his withering verdict: "Arsenal is a lot closer in quality to the likes of Napoli and Atletico Madrid than it is to Dortmund."

Larcada's analysis conjures an image of European competition as a stage of the Tour De France in which the Bundesliga teams have sprinted off from a breakaway crafted in tandem with the La Liga duo, leaving the Premier League teams to pursue with a spiral of cash blowing out of their fleshy wallets as they fall back toward the mediocrity of the peloton's belly.

I ventured to ask Larcada if this season's lackluster showing by English clubs in the Champions League can be written off like a poor vintage wine, but he remained insistent the slump was a result of more permanent factors. "Viewed over the past three seasons, the Premier League teams have actually overperformed by getting to the final," he declared. "Statistically, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham should reach the Round of 16, some years the quarterfinals, and go no further."

To what extent does this pedestrian vision of the Premier League recast the nature of the race for third and fourth place?

Reset by Larcada within the new European order, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham suddenly appear as middling as West Ham and Fulham are in the Premier League. It's a realization that may be sufficiently startling to force a re-appreciation of the role played by Luis Suarez's tabloid-titillating teeth and its role in reinforcing the Premier League's strongest claim as the world's most dramatic competition.

If this really is the case, then the battle for third and fourth place suddenly appears to be the rough equivalent of a Best Supporting Actor award at the Daytime Emmys.

SPI projections for a hypothetical 20-team European league by Albert Larcada, based on 10,000 computations

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