There it was, unfurled over 45 educational minutes at the St Jakob stadium in Basle on Wednesday night: the unsustainable hype surrounding English football and the Premier League.
Liverpool had four possible starters for England at the forthcoming European Championships – Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge. And yet they gradually, visibly, disappeared, drained like beer from a glass as Sevilla supped, then supped again, and the Premier League’s credibility went with them.
The best league in the world? La Liga may dispute that. On the evidence of European competition, it is La Liga where the quality resides.
Sevilla have just won the Europa League for a third consecutive season. Next Saturday in Milan, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid will contest the Champions League final. Three of the past five Champions League winners have been Spanish, and by next Saturday it will be four in six. In the Europa League/Uefa Cup, it’s now four Spanish winners in the past five seasons.
These are facts worthy of study. Go back to the Champions League quarter-finals this season and there were three Spanish clubs, two of them Atletico and Real. The third was
Barcelona, who would probably have progressed had they not met Atletico.
Meanwhile, England’s sole offering was Manchester City. City got past PSG but could scarcely have been less impressive against Real in the semi.
Return to last season and there were no English teams in the last eight, but three from Spain. Barcelona won it.
The season before, Chelsea made the semi-finals but lost to Atletico, who joined Real in the final. The season before that, 2012-13? No English teams in the last eight. There is a gripe, sometimes heard within Spain, that Barcelona, Real – and now Atletico – are far ahead of the rest.
But Sevilla’s exploits counter that, as does the fact that Athletic Bilbao reached the Europa League final four years ago and Espanyol five years before that. Valencia are responsible for one of eight Spanish triumphs in the past 13 years in the competition.
In all, that’s seven different recent Spanish finalists. These are serious clubs, who employ that underrated quality, intelligence.
On and off the pitch there is a level of thought behind this accumulation of silverware. Would anyone in Spanish football contemplate paying 21 year-old Raheem Sterling €12.5 million a year as Manchester City do? No, because it’s not very smart.
Of course, there are mistakes made in Spain and there are weekends when it all looks very predictable indeed. But that is no reason for England to pat itself on the back.
Complacency? Is there so much money swilling around that people are too comfortable and managers have forgotten to fashion teams?
Listen to the praise coming for Leicester City and it nearly all centres around teamwork. When Claudio Ranieri made a speech in London last Sunday, he again referred to this.
It’s as if amid all the daily drama of the Premier League, the money and celebrity, forging a team has been shuffled down the pack.
Yet teamwork looked to be what Sevilla had on Wednesday. They appeared to be about to concede two or three before half-time – and this was a team that didn’t win a single game away from home in La Liga this season — but they stuck together, remembered who they were and how to play as a unit in the second half.
Liverpool’s slide into anonymity helped them, it must be said. They seemed to forget who they were. Or maybe the graft displayed in the first half wearied them. Fatigue, mental and physical, is a factor.
It can be argued that the English season is harder due to the greater competitive element and this is not fiction – Luis Suarez has identified this as the biggest difference between domestic football in England and Spain.
In three of Barcelona’s last five league games they won 8-0, 6-0 and 5-0. In all five they did not concede a goal. Leicester’s biggest win of the season was 4-0. They edged to the title with narrow 1-0 wins.
There has been something pleasingly lean about Leicester. Manchester United as a club and Chelsea as a squad have grown fat, and what that does is not just encourage newly prosperous others such as Southampton and West Ham, it means more tales for the Premier League storyboard that we follow like addicts.
And it is interesting, stimulating, there is no denying that, but there is so much circus around the league that the standard of what we’re watching is camouflaged.
It was the same on Wednesday: Jurgen Klopp was this, Liverpool are that, this is the start of a new era.
Sevilla, the seventh-best side in La Liga, exposed that talk for what it is. They brought not just Liverpool, but the Premier League, back to the reality that on the measurement of European success, La Liga strides on.