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Sep 15, 2009

Is English football deluding itself?

So is English football really the best in the world? I pose that question because I tend to think that it is, and that view is shared by so many in this country. However, if indeed Chelsea are the best team in England at the moment, and five wins out of five in the Premier League would seem to indicate that fact as they sit at the top of the table, then the question should really be ... Are we actually deluding ourselves? Three teams in the semi-finals, four teams in the last eight, two teams in the final; we've managed it in recent years, but this season is the acid test. The balance of power has shifted back to Spain, where Real Madrid's £220 million summer spending spree will provide champions Barcelona with a real challenge. After winning Euro 2008, Spain has suddenly risen at both international as well as club level to have every right to say it has usurped England's claim to possess the best league in the world. It is a tough call. This season could be decisive, notably with a World Cup at the end of it. The Premier League's main retort is that it has strength in depth, with all our top-four clubs capable of mounting a challenge in the Champions League, and this season there are a couple of clubs now fighting for a place in that top four, with Manchester City possessing the financial muscle to make an impact in Europe as well as at home. But while Michel Platini attempts to clip English football's wings with financial regulations, one wonders why no one in UEFA or FIFA seems to attack Real Madrid's excessive spending, and when will the authorities take exception to Real convincing the likes of Ronaldo to leave Manchester United? On the field and in the political arena, the English game is under siege from all sides. Little wonder that the Premier League went pro-active and brought in quotas, before UEFA and FIFA imposed them upon the English game in a format not to our liking. There is no time, then, like the present for Chelsea to shake off the shackles of just falling short of winning the Champions League. What are the chances? Not convincing, on the evidence of a wet night at the Bridge where the latest new manager made his Champions League damp squib of a debut for the West London club. Yet, there is a big difference at the Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti has a winning mentality, a proven track record in this competition where he says he is "The Special One" as he has won it twice as a player and twice as a manager. Roman Abramovich specifically hired him to do it again for his club when so many have failed to deliver what has become Chelsea's Holy Grail. However, against Porto, a tricky opponent, but by no means the most powerful in this competition, Chelsea did not look any different from last season or the season before. In their opening qualifier in their elusive quest for the summit of European football, Chelsea looked distinctly nervous at times, even tired as Ancelotti ventured, against Porto, a modest Portuguese club who have the distinction of actually winning the Champions League. Chelsea's biggest problem is that a few of their superstars are ageing and the modern game is played at such a tempo that it favours younger, more dynamic players. Although, of course, there needs to be a balance with experience. But at the season progresses, the wear and tear on the more senior players will tell. And that is why the transfer window embargo will hurt Chelsea, not necessarily in this January window, but most certainly next summer. Having missed some big-name signings this summer, Chelsea thought they would land one or two big fish in a year's time. However, my view is that the transfer window ban will be reduced on appeal - certainly if Eduardo got away with his dive, then Chelsea can expect their punishment to be reduced. But like England, who are under the managerial spell of another Italian with a proven track record, the Blues have a vastly different regime and winning mentality, perhaps even more so than Jose Mourinho. That is why, even without Didier Drogba, the team came through with a winning strike from Nicolas Anelka. Le Sulk even walked off with one of the broadest smiles your ever likely to see from the Frenchman. It's happy days at the Bridge, as long as they are winning, and Ancelotti has every intention of delivering. With Manchester United winning in Turkey, never an easy ride, one could ask no more than two 1-0 wins from the two English clubs, irrespective of how they were achieved.

• Harry Harris has twice won the British Sports Journalist of the Year award. His book Down Memory Lane is now available.

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