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La Liga

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By ESPN Staff

The Premiership case-study

When I heard that José Mourinho had referred to Michael Ballack as one of Chelsea's 'untouchables', I was surprised. Surely, that was taking things too far, wasn't it? I mean, Mourinho may or may not be plotting his farewell from Stamford Bridge, but there's no need to insult and humiliate people like that only to speed up the process.

Then I realised that Mourinho had not been using 'untouchable' in the Indian sense of the word: 'a member of the lowest class whom others must not even touch'. And he didn't mean 'lying beyond one's reach', either. By 'untouchable', I finally deduced, Mourinho meant: above reproach and impeachment.

Ah, okay. That was more like it and more typical of the man. And I mean 'typical' in the sense of 'being a representative example'. Ballack, you see, has never been 'Wor Mike'. He's never been the terrace yobs' player, or the armchair pundits' player. He has only very rarely been a television panels' player. And, if the reports of unrest in the Chelsea dressing room are to be believed, he may not even be a players' player.

But he has always been a coaches' player.

With one single exception - that of Otto Rehhagel, who never forgave Ballack for declining Kaiserslautern's offer of a contract extension. Every coach who's ever had Ballack in his team is singing his praises and that includes Felix Magath, even though he chooses to keep quiet about the matter these days - probabaly out of loyalty towards the Bayern boardroom. And it goes even for coaches who have not worked with him, witness Jürgen Klopp's attempts last summer to convince a skeptical nation that Ballack had actually played an outstanding World Cup.

I have always felt this should give the critics some food for thought, but it seems they choose to ignore it. Two weeks ago, for instance, when Chelsea only drew 2-2 with Fulham, the German wire reports gleefully noted that the equaliser came thanks to a Ballack blunder. They did not mention, however, that Michael Essien awfully misjudged the cross before it got to Ballack and that Didier Drogba muffed the clearance after Ballack had had his chance.

But be that as it may, I haven't seen enough of Chelsea's matches this season to voice an opinion with any degree of authority. And so, to be a good columnist for you, I decided to rectify that by treating myself to a large dose of Premiership, aka 'The Most Exciting League In The World', football this Saturday.

Since our Bundesliga grounds, such as the Schalke arena, are being misused for things like biathlon these days, my friendly pay TV station offered Watford vs Liverpool at 1.45pm German time, then Chelsea against Wigan at 4pm and Arsenal's trip to Blackburn at 6.15pm. (By the way, biathlon is a contest involving skiers with rifles, in case you don't know.)

But the longer I watched, and the longer the afternoon dragged on and turned into evening, the less I concentrated on individual performances, such as Ballack's. It became more of a case study in comparing the Premier League with the Bundesliga fare I'm used to. And I can't really say that the former came out as hands-on winner.

Let's start with the points scored by England. I certainly got to see a lot more celebrities in shorts than I normally do on weekends. And at times they did deliver - Thierry Henry's goal that put the Blackburn match beyond doubt was one I won't forget in the forseeable future.

By contrast, Germany's leading football magazine 'Kicker' has been depressing us these past weeks by gradually publishing their traditional lists ranking the Bundesliga players. The top two categories are called 'World Class' and 'International Class'. Both were left empty when 'Kicker' ranked the wide men in both defence and offence.

There was also no one termed 'World Class' in offensive or defensive midfield, and just one player in either category made the international class (Frings and Diego, respectively). The same went for strikers: no world class player, just one of international class (Klose). And as regards goalkeepers and full backs, 'Kicker' was equally gloomy: world class - nada, international class - three keepers and just two full backs.

Another thing I liked about the Premiership, apart from seeing some classy players, was the way the Watford fans cheered Jordan Stewart's shot that hit the bar when it was already 3-0 to Liverpool. Bundesliga fans would have been beyond caring at this point. (Provided, of course, that I'm not being too romantic here. Perhaps the Watford fans were being ironic. I doubt it, though.)

But speaking of support, I was a bit surprised to see so many empty seats at the three grounds. True, it could be that this is just one of the drawbacks of all-seater stadia (terraces always look full), as the match stats claim that the Stamford Bridge attendance was just 2,000 under capacity and Vicarage Road's 2,500.

There was a whole section beneath the Chelsea scoreboard that was completely deserted. Mainz, who are in a comparable situation to Watford and have a ground of about the same size, almost always sell out their place, let's just leave it at that.

Then there was the football. I had been told about the widening gap between the glamour teams and the also-rans in the Premiership, but if Saturday was anything to go by, it's more like a canyon.

I can't recall ever having seen two Bundesliga games in a row that were as one-sided as the games in Watford and Chelsea - not to mention that the game at Blackburn, was basically also lopsided, if you take into account that Arsenal were down to ten after all of twelve minutes.

Also, I can't recall having seen two Bundesliga games in a row where the eventual winners were gifted goals so blatantly. Three of Chelsea's four goals were so soft they melted; and both Arsenal goals were scored after two players decided to take on the whole Rovers defence by themselves.

And Ballack? Well, yeah, he was okay, I guess. Can't tell you more, as there was no opposition to speak of. Let's just say he did not leave a lasting impression. Which also went for almost anyone and anything else I saw in those 270 minutes.

  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

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