Hype of the Premier League goes on despite present struggles

For all the bluster, England's top flight has struggled to bring in big names in the summer, and has toiled in European competition of late, writes Ian Hawkey

Thiago Alcantara was targeted by Manchester United but instead chose to ply his trade in Germany rather than the Premier League.
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Every new term in the Premier League begins with a series of boasts. It is hyped as the best domestic competition in the world's most popular sport. Its worldwide audience, it reckons, is the biggest of any league.

Its business model is sound and enduring. In many respects, the Premier League is not far off the mark in claiming top rank. Certainly, it is a juggernaut that the corporate community wants to clamber onto. Across English cities, giant billboards shout out the competing claims of rival broadcasters for their dazzling coverage of the "Prem".

British television now considers the rights to show live top-flight football worth an investment of more than £1 billion (Dh5.7bn).

Globally, the show sells, too, which is why a large number of the 20 clubs embarking on the season have spent much of the last two months jetting across the globe to perform their warm-ups in Asia, Australasia, Africa and America.

Yet behind the bravado, the 2013/14 Premier League campaign begins in an unusually self-conscious, even insecure, state.

The pre-season catwalk which took Manchester United, Arsenal and others to the Far East, Chelsea to the States and elsewhere, and Manchester City to South Africa, has been played out to a background of unfamiliar impotency at the top table of the global transfer market, of targeted individual stars saying no to the English experience and choosing to move elsewhere.

The list features some fine South American strikers: Edinson Cavani, leaving Napoli, preferred Paris St Germain, having been made aware of interest from Chelsea and Manchester City. Gonzalo Higuain, attracted by Arsenal, was instead captured by Napoli.

A pair of Barcelona-bred midfielders, said no to Manchester United. Thiago Alacantara liked the idea of Bayern Munich more, while Cesc Fabregas wants to stay at Camp Nou.

The list extends to the likes of Henrik Mkhitaryan, the Armenian midfielder desired by Liverpool, but more inclined to join Borussia Dortmund. Meanwhile, Gareth Bale, probably the most highly valued British player in the Premier League, has an urge to grow as a player outside the Prem, specifically at Real Madrid.

Money is doing the talking in some of these cases, and though the collective economic might of the Premier League is greater, and the overall level of financial stability higher in English club football than elsewhere, the new United manager, David Moyes, points out there are new compass points in the marketplace that increase the competition on the Premier League as a desired venue for stars.

"The Premier League is being affected by other markets, with new owners going into clubs," Moyes said. He name-checked SG, who in two years of Qatari ownership have set the bar in several transfer windows for big fees, the latest being Cavani's €65 million move from Napoli.

Moyes likened PSG's new financial leverage to that of Chelsea a decade ago, after the takeover of Roman Abramovich, and to the uplift of Manchester City since their Abu Dhabi patrons steered that club in a fresh direction.

"We thought it was Chelsea who had taken the ante up, then Man City came in and now Paris St Germain are the new players, and some of the Russian clubs," Moyes said. "Top players tend to choose between six or seven destinations. Because they are in demand, it's hard to agree a price to get them."

Moyes was offering that analysis almost exactly a year after his predecessor, Alex Ferguson, was celebrating the recruitment of Robin van Persie to United and suggesting that with the Dutch striker, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck on his staff, United had a variety of striking options broader than any club in Europe.

They turned out to be plenty to win the English title, but in an international club context, United finished among the also-rans, a habit that has crept up on English clubs in a Champions League where they used to lord it over the rest.

The Premier League's status in the game's leading club tournament has taken a dent. From 2005 to 2009, every European Cup final featured at least one English club. In the four years since, only two have. Last season's semi-finals were contested between two German teams and two Spanish; half the Premier League quartet were knocked out before the last-16 phase.

Focal points of the Premier League, the figureheads in the narrative that helps give English football its addictive, soap-opera quality for millions, have also left the stage. No individual has fascinated as much as Ferguson in the 21 seasons since the Prem was founded.

It is not just United who feel vulnerable without this giant of his profession, now retired. An entire sporting culture feels the vacuum of his departure.

Paul Scholes is no longer on the cast-list. Scholes, retired, represented the fashionable prototype of the 21st century player - an Anglo-Saxon Xavi or Andres Iniesta - in a country self-conscious about its failure to nurture technical dexterity.

Also retired is Jamie Carragher, a rare example of a one-club loyalist for a Liverpool club who enter the season with many symptoms of vulnerability.

There is nostalgia, too, for the quirkiness of Mohammed Al Fayed, who has sold Fulham after 16 years of owning the London club, who climbed through two promotions and to Premier League stability.

The Egyptian was the first and most charismatic of the many Middle East investors who have altered elite football's landscape in recent years.

Amid these farewells, the Premier League eagerly welcomes the return of another of its defining characters.

Jose Mourinho, back at Chelsea, where he wrote key chapters in the story of England's top flight, brings to the new season an obvious antidote to waning self-esteem.

It may be that his swagger is contagious, his Midas touch - one that deserted him in his final, trophyless, campaign at Real Madrid - means the Prem can preen its feathers as it used to, eyeball its German, French, Spanish and Italian opponents with justified confidence.

But Mourinho may also have the sneaking feeling that he, and the status of his favourite league, are at a watershed moment.