After Chelsea's surprise Champions League exit at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday, one of the post-match arguments revolved around the declining quality of English football, a decline that the Blues' defeat seemed only to highlight.
It looks highly likely that both Manchester City and Arsenal will exit the Champions League next week after Liverpool failed to escape the group stages, so England could be without a quarter-finalist in the competition. Meanwhile, England will not have a team left involved in Europe at all if Everton fail to beat Dynamo Kiev in their Europa League last-16 tie.
That disappointing state of affairs has led many to suggest the Premier League is declining in quality, that the influx of money into the English game has not been spent wisely and clubs on the continent are producing far better squads on much leaner budgets.
All of that might be true, but it is not something that can be assessed solely on recent results. The Champions League is not a competition designed to weigh the relative strength (or weakness) of Europe's many domestic leagues. If it was, the format would be entirely different.
As it is, we can observe general trends to make a broad assessment of the fluctuations in the quality of, say, the Premier League—but nothing more than that.
"The only thing to speak about the Champions League is that if we win the Premier League we are top seeds next season," Jose Mourinho said on Friday, per the Chelsea website. "All we can do now for ourselves and our club is win the Premier League. It’s only one competition for us now. Our situation is good, everyone would love to be in our position.
"A season with the Premier League and the [Capital One] Cup is a brilliant season."
Chelsea's defeat to PSG does not mean the Premier League is floundering. They did not actually lose either game, as they only went out on away goals, and they were playing against one of the few teams on the continent for whom money is also no object—and that is assuming Chelsea are even in that group any more.
As last season's tie proved, these are two evenly matched sides, and as is usually the case with tight matchups, the fine margins ultimately decide who progresses.
Chelsea could have drawn Porto in this round and breezed through, just as Arsenal could have faced Basel or Manchester City could have drawn Schalke or Bayer Leverkusen and done the same, but that would not mean the Premier League was suddenly stronger because three participants reached the quarter-finals.
Circumstance and luck have too much of a say in the Champions League for us to focus on anything other than the head-to-head battles involved.
The criticism Chelsea have received this week is not so much for going out of the competition, but the manner in which they went out of it. It is an important distinction.
Of course, that is not to say that the general arguments do not have some merit. But there are other factors at play. The English league is undoubtedly one of the most competitive in Europe, and that, coupled with a lack of a winter break, leaves many squads suffering horribly with fatigue in February and March—right when European games return.
“I think that we don’t help ourselves with our fixture list," West Ham manager Sam Allardyce said, per the Daily Express' David Wright. “Playing as many games as we play through Christmas and New Year and not having the opportunity to shut the league down for a couple of weeks gives every club that plays in Europe a disadvantage.
“When they come back into playing in Europe they may have a considerable amount of injuries in certain areas, or fatigue and mental fatigue kicks in on players.
“And it’s bound to have an effect when other teams have had the opportunity to take a break. So I think that has something to do with it."
What is certain is that the Premier League will not be losing its fourth Champions League spot any time soon. Along with Germany and Spain, English football remains dominant in UEFA's coefficients (as explained here by Gerard Brand of Sky Sports), and it will take a few seasons and a specific set of circumstances for Italy or another league to overtake them.
UEFA's coefficients are about the only tangible measure of a league's strength, and they currently underline that English football remains pretty much as strong as it ever was. Chelsea's midweek demise may have been damaging and disappointing for English football (as it was for the club itself), but it was not symptomatic of a wider domestic malaise.
Week 29 Fixtures
All games 3 p.m. GMT (11 a.m. EST) unless otherwise stated.
Crystal Palace vs. Queens Park Rangers (12:45 p.m.)
Arsenal vs. West Ham
Leicester City vs. Hull City
Sunderland vs. Aston Villa
West Bromwich Albion vs. Stoke City
Burnley vs. Manchester City (5:30 p.m.)
Chelsea vs. Southampton (1:30 p.m.)
Everton vs. Newcastle (4 p.m.)
Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur (4 p.m.)
Swansea City vs. Liverpool (8 p.m.)
1. What to watch out for this week
Arsenal's other snubbed old boy
Cesc Fabregas is not the only former player Arsenal declined to re-sign in the summer. Alex Song was ready and willing to return to the Emirates after Barcelona made it clear he would be allowed to leave, but Arsene Wenger decided not to make the deal happen.
That choice was far less controversial than the Fabregas issue—Song, while in theory a player Arsenal could have done with to bolster their defensive midfield ranks, in practice lacks the required discipline—but could nevertheless harm the Gunners on Saturday, when he will arrive with West Ham determined to make a point.
“They are one part of my life and, because I went there when I was 17, I always say it is my family,” Song said, per the Guardian's Ian McCourt and Toby Moses. “I know this is a special game for me, but that is football and I have to take all the emotion out and just try to play my game, to play the best football I can to help the team to win.”
West Ham need a win, although even three points will not elevate them back into the Champions League discussion they were in only a matter of weeks ago. Song would dearly love to make his own point, however, and Arsenal will have to ensure there are no mistakes—even with an important second leg against AS Monaco looming in midweek.
Can Southampton punish Chelsea's flagging stars?
Will the intensity of 120 minutes of midweek football hinder Chelsea this weekend against Southampton, or will the blistering disappointment of their loss kickstart a reaction? Mourinho has already impressed upon his players the need for them to respond in the right way, but Southampton will be keen to exploit any lingering hangover effect.
Fatigue seemed to play a part in Chelsea's demise against PSG—they looked a step slower for much of the game—and you do wonder if the efforts of the season are starting to catch up on a squad that has been rotated with circumspection by Mourinho for much of the season. With on-loan winger Mohamed Salah cutting teams apart in Italy, you wonder if perhaps he was one player the Blues erred in allowing to leave.
Southampton have had their own issues with fatigue, of course, and Graziano Pelle's goalscoring touch has deserted him entirely in recent weeks. But the Saints have every reason to believe they can cause the Blues problems (they've just seen another team do it) and compound the London club's current misery.
"We have 11 more matches to finish the book. Let’s see if the last page of the book is with the Premier League trophy in our hands," Mourinho said, per Dominic Fifield of the Guardian.
Will Berahino make another point this weekend?
As Harry Kane became only the fourth player in history to win back-to-back Premier League Player of the Month awards on Friday, Saido Berahino must have watched on with a certain amount of consternation.
The West Brom striker was in the last England squad more than three months ago (although he did not see the field), but the emergence of the Tottenham forward means it is debatable whether he will still be included when Roy Hodgson names his next selection next week.
If Berahino misses out, it would be harsh on the young striker, who has 18 goals in all competitions this season for a team that lacks even half the attacking threat of Kane's Spurs.
Saturday's game against Stoke gives him a final chance to impress Hodgson before the England manager makes his selection for the games against Lithuania and Italy at the end of this month. A goal or two in that fixture may just prove every bit as compelling an argument to Hodgson as Kane's growing collection of awards.
He could also do with a goal to sate some recent speculation, after he was seen at Old Trafford for Manchester United's FA Cup defeat to Arsenal.
“Saido’s been brilliant," Baggies boss Tony Pulis said on Thursday, via Bill Howell of the Birmingham Mail. "His attitude is first class. He was in my room again yesterday, having a cup of tea with me.
"He’s been first, first class. He’s really got his head in gear, concentrating on what he should be, which is his football.
"There’s always going to be speculation. He’s got 18 goals this season? Which for a 21-year-old is a wonderful, wonderful return.
"So he’s got lots of talent but the most important thing for him to do is keep producing that talent and we’ll see what happens from there.”
2. Video of the week
3. Player to watch
Andrej Kramaric (Leicester City)
Can Leicester still survive this season? There probably is still a scenario in which they clamber out of the bottom three (Sunderland did it last season, after all), but it probably requires them to get something out of Saturday's game against Hull City. And by "something," I mean a win.
Leicester have generally been competitive all season long, but they have paid the price for the occasional egregious defensive mistake and a lack of cutting edge in front of goal.
Much was made of Andrej Kramaric's decision to join the Foxes over Chelsea in January, but the Croatian forward will find himself playing in the Championship next season if he does not help Nigel Pearson's side turn things around with haste.
With two goals to his credit so far (one of them in the FA Cup, and both of them in eventual defeats), Kramaric has yet to make the expected impact for his new team, despite impressing in all his performances so far.
Premier League status is often decided on fine margins, and if Kramaric can turn his smart play into a goalscoring touch, it might also help Leicester launch their great escape.
"We still have a strong belief in our ability to stay up this season," Leicester boss Pearson said, per Laurie Whitwell of the Daily Mail. "Whether other people share it is not that important at the moment. In house there is a feeling we can do it.
"Saturday is a game both sides want to win. But Hull may be happier with the draw than us. We certainly need to win the game."
4. Game of the weekend
Manchester United vs. Tottenham
Is the loser of this game out of the Champions League qualification race? Perhaps not (and certainly not, if United are the losers), but it would certainly be a blow that would leave either side with plenty of work to do to recover over the last nine games of the season.
It is in these sorts of games that United's season will be defined, as the Spurs fixture is the first of a number of games against other top-seven sides they have to negotiate before the end of the season. Liverpool at Anfield awaits next week, and Louis van Gaal will want to go into that game with at least some sort of advantage to protect.
Lose both games, however, and Manchester United's season might be effectively over. If that happens, it will be interesting to see how perception of the Dutchman changes.
The game might be more pressingly important for Spurs, but only marginally. Defeat will likely leave them six points from fourth position (assuming Arsenal also win this weekend), a problematic—albeit not impossible—gap to overcome in just nine games.
Spurs have won on their last two visits to Old Trafford, under Andre Villas-Boas and then Tim Sherwood. However, both men failed in reaching the standards demanded of the club's chairman. Pochettino might look better placed than both his predecessors to finally do so, but he will need to emulate one aspect of their legacies this weekend if he is to keep pace with the other sides competing for a top-four place.