Soccer | PREMIER REPORT

Gap between big and small clubs a real issue

by Christopher Davies

You could imagine the Sky Sports executives’ expressions as they heard soccer pundit Jamie Carragher at halftime during Manchester City’s 1-0 win at Newcastle on Wednesday.

“It’s not just Newcastle, but the Premier League in general, when they come up against the top six, certainly at home, it’s becoming embarrassing,” he said.

“The Premier League now is becoming a bit of a joke league, with the top teams being so far ahead of the ones at the bottom. For those clubs, it’s almost like they are accepting they are going to lose the game, as long as it is only one or two-nil. The Premier League has been built on every team having a go, that’s why everyone around the world wants to watch it. Will they keep watching if they keep seeing football like that?”

Sky Sports certainly hopes so. It paid £5.136 billion to the Premier League for the lion’s share of U.K. television rights from 2016 to 2019. Understandably the paymaster is very sensitive to such criticism, which is why top-spin is the order of the day with Premier League coverage and each weekend we have a Super Sunday. Sky Sports did not pay over £5 billion for a joke league. Yet few would disagree with Carragher, one of the most eloquent and popular of analysts. City’s domination — more like absolute rule — of the Premier League this season has diluted interest. The title race generally becomes a two-club race by February, but the fat lady is already gargling as the second half of the season gets underway. This season it’s not a race, it’s a procession.

For Pep Guardiola and his City slickers, such a TV turnoff is the ultimate compliment and an indication of their superiority is that the gap between the Blues and fourth-place Liverpool is now as big as between fourth and relegation-threatened Bournemouth in 17th position. The statistics are mind-blowing. Another 13 wins and City is the champion.

Intriguingly, the 13th match would be the derby against Manchester United on April 7. Even if City loses 15 of its remaining 18 league games and wins the other three, it would still end with more points than two seasons ago when it qualified for the Champions League.

You cannot even accuse City of winning ugly. The victory at Newcastle was Guardiola’s 42nd Premier League triumph with City, but only his second 1-0 win, the other coming against Chelsea in September. Incidentally, Newcastle was on the back foot so much that its 13 outfield players completed a total of 115 passes during the match; City center-back Nicolas Otamendi completed 122.

City has won 58 points from a possible 60 and victory against Crystal Palace on New Year’s Eve will equal the major European league record of 19 successive wins by Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in 2013-14. Oh, and equal the current longest winning streak in top flights around the world — 19 — currently held by Lanexang United of Laos according to one anorak.

Statistics apart, City has been simply sensational. At Barcelona, Guardiola almost perfected the six-second rule to win back the ball and the speed at which City regains possession is frightening (for opponents).When it has the ball, City is breathtaking. It is difficult to think of two more influential central midfielders than Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva with the Belgium international already registering nine assists plus seven goals so far.

Raheem Sterling, particularly, is benefiting from de Bruyne’s radar-accurate passing, scoring 17 goals. When England returned from Euro 2016 with its tails between its legs having lost to Iceland, Sterling became the target for tabloid media vitriol. One front (yes, front) page headline was “OBSCENE RAHEEM,” criticizing the winger for buying his mother a house. He was accused of “insulting fans” by “flaunting wealth” and “showing off blinging house.”

How dare a 21-year-old treat his mother like that?

In reality, Sterling is a polite, warm young man who somehow became an easy target for some in the media and the keyboard warriors who these days jump into action if someone sneezes. With the guidance of Guardiola, who is also a father figure to Sterling, the England international is looking like the player he was destined to be.

When Guardiola arrived at City last season, Sterling had a reputation for scoring “easy” goals — the fourth in a 4-0 win. This time around he is scoring crucial late goals, such as the 82nd-minute equalizer against Everton, the stoppage-time winner against Bournemouth, the 88th-minute winner against Feyenoord, the 84th-minute winner at Huddersfield plus Wednesday’s first-half winner at Newcastle.

“He is winning games, now he is a winning player,” said Guardiola. “Before, OK, he would make good actions, but now he is able to win games. He is now strong,keeping the ball. Before he would lose a lot of balls, now he is keeping the situation much, much better.”

On Sunday, Sterling, who began his career with Queens Park Rangers before joining Liverpool seven years ago, returns to London as City hopes to make more records against Crystal Palace, which has lost only one of its last nine league matches under Roy Hodgson after losing its opening seven games without scoring a goal.

Palace’s improvement since Hodgson took over is as remarkable as it was unexpected. In Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend, Palace has wingers whose speed can trouble any defense, as they did when combining for the latter’s goal in the 3-2 defeat by Arsenal at Selhurst Park on Thursday. If center forward Christian Benteke is in the mood, then Otamendi and company could be in for an uncomfortable 90 minutes.

There is a feeling, backed up by no logic other than City must lose a match at some stage, that its unbeaten run is more likely to be ended by a team outside the top seven, and Palace had been in good form before the Arsenal setback.

However, Palace is one of the league’s lowest scorers with 17 goals this season. Only Brighton, West Bromwich and Swansea have managed fewer, so going up against the league’s best defense that has had three shutouts in the last four games looks, far more logically, a mismatch.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.