In 2009/10, for the first time since 2003, the Premier League failed to provide any Champions League semi-finalists. This campaign provides a chance to reassert its authority, writes Richard Jolly Modesty and marketing are not natural bedfellows. In the case of the Premier League, they appear mutually exclusive. "It is the world's most watched league and the most lucrative - attracting the top players from all over the globe," it states. "It must be regarded as the world's best league football competition - on and off the field."
"Must"? Advocates of Spain's Primera Liga may differ, but the Premier League does not do self-effacing. The ambition that has propelled the division over the past 18 years, from its comparative humble beginnings as a domestic concern featuring a mere 11 foreigners, is invariably evident. Yet this has been a chastening year for both English football and the Premier League itself. For the first time since 2003, it failed to provide any of the semi-finalists for last season's Champions League. It was quite a comedown for a division that had supplied three of the final four in each of the previous three years. Serie A, in the form of Inter Milan, beat the Bundesliga (Bayern Munich) in May's final.
The World Cup provided a celebration of Spanish skill and a triumph for the Primera Liga. The men who illuminated South Africa plied their trade either in Spain (Diego Forlan, David Villa, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol), Germany (Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben) or Italy (Wesley Sneijder). The Premier League's contribution was more peripheral. It was, Cesc Fabregas, the Arsenal captain, who supplied Iniesta's winner in the final, but his heart, for most of the summer, appeared to be in Barcelona, not London.
The other English-based World Cup winners were the out-of-sorts Fernando Torres and the unused Jose Reina. Among the beaten finalists, Robin van Persie mustered a solitary goal while Johnny Heitinga, sent off in the showpiece, and Nigel de Jong, who was fortunate not to be, were two of the culprits as mentions of Dutch cloggers had nothing to do with footwear. By a process of elimination, Dirk Kuyt, that most English of Dutch footballers, was probably the Premier League's leading man in South Africa. This was serious sweat, not the sumptuous skill that captures the imagination. Elsewhere, reputations founded in England floundered on foreign soil; never more so than in the case of the men who should have showcased its strengths.
The England team enjoy benefits their predecessors did not, of experiencing top-level European football on an annual basis and partnering the world's elite every week. Yet those who have remained immune to the Premier League's charms could be excused for wondering what the fuss surrounding Wayne Rooney, its outstanding performer last season, is about, why Frank Lampard is routinely described as a goalscoring midfielder, or why John Terry is regarded, in some quarters, as a paragon of defensive excellence.
There was a knock-on effect. Manchester United are sometimes deemed the world's biggest club, but they did not supply a single quarter-finalist at the World Cup. Nor did a Tottenham Hotspur player take the field after the last 16. It is a strength and a weakness that the Premier League appears to have an ability to exist in its own vacuum, to ignore setbacks. It is a paradox because, despite its global appeal and the league of nations among the playing personnel, something of an island's isolationist approach persists.
So as the 2010/11 season starts, the Premier League is in need of an assertion of authority. It could benefit from a reversion to the days of English excellence in Europe, though we will have to wait until spring for definitive proof of that. In the short term, it would be revitalised by reminders of the exciting football that have tended to account for its popularity. And, after their anti-climactic outings in the colours of their countries, it would be aided by the supposed superstars delivering the kind of marketable magic that has been their trademark: Rooney, Lampard, Torres, Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda were all underwhelming in South Africa; Fabregas, Van Persie, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba and Carlos Tevez were better without reaching their considerable peak; for various reasons, Michael Essien, Andrey Arshavin, Luka Modric, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were absent altogether.
In the past, enthusiasm has been generated by expenditure. That is less of an option now that, aided by the Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore's laissez-faire approach to large debts, United and Liverpool continue to suffer because of leveraged buyouts. After the exercise in embarrassment that Portsmouth became last season, some measures have been adopted, but it is a belated gesture.
Amid a global recession and with austerity more apparent across the division, thrilling newcomers may be a rarity. The sheer speed of United's Javier Hernandez makes him an exception, however, and Manchester City's largesse means they continue to intrigue. Jerome Boateng, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Aleksandar Kolarov are the latest additions to the Eastlands emporium of talent. They are reasons, too, to believe that the Premier League retains its allure; not in themselves per se, fine footballers as all are, but because of the consequences to the status quo.
Because it is hard to envisage anything other than the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona dominating in Spain, while the evidence of the Champions League is that Italy and Germany have one team that is vastly superior to their rivals. Accusations of predictability have been levelled, often correctly, at England before. This is a league that has only been won by three clubs in the past 15 years; United have never finished outside the top three, while Chelsea have been ever-presents for the last seven seasons.
But they suffered a combined total of 13 defeats last season. Now the sense is that this is a more competitive league. Burnley, Wigan and Sunderland showed it was possible to upset the odds over 90 minutes, Tottenham that others are capable of disrupting the Big Four. And if by the best league we mean the most dramatic, the Premier League might just justify its own hype. Especially with a revolution at the division's summit. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Top four 1. Chelsea - A fit-again Michael Essien should mean they remain the strongest side. 2. Manchester United - Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson combo will keep them in contention. 3. Manchester City - Missed out on top-four spot last time. They should get one this year. 4. Arsenal - Keeping Cesc Fabregas should mean Champions League again. Relegation zone 18. Stoke City - They lack goalscorers 19. West Brom - A swift return to second tier 20. Blackpool - Too weak in every department