Premier League sparkles in European limelight
LONDON (Reuters) - While the rest of European soccer has downed tools for a mid-season break, the Premier league has stepped into the limelight in style, underscoring its reputation as the most exciting league in the world.
As Champagne corks have been popping throughout the continent, the Premier League has been fizzing on the field typified by Saturday's goal-laden action.
So often pilloried for shunning the virtues of a winter break and blamed for England's failure at major tournaments, the league has demonstrated that the fast and furious nature of its Christmas fixtures can deliver unparalleled levels of entertainment.
Playing for the third time in eight days, many Premier League sides lacked the freshness required to put in a high-intensity rearguard action and the result was a flurry of goals, thrills and spills.
The chaotic excitement of tired players turning out for matches in quick succession was perfectly distilled at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium where the home team conceded three times but still came out on top in a 10-goal avalanche.
When Theo Walcott, whose prowess as a central striker evoked memories of Thierry Henry, netted his hat-trick it was the 35th goal to hit the back of the net on Saturday, a record for a single day this season, and the sixth highest ever in the Premier League.
While Newcastle became the first team to score three in successive Premier League matches and lose them both, having been stung 4-3 by Manchester United last week, there was a sense they had played an equal part in an end-to-end encounter and were unlucky to end up with a drubbing.
It was a similar story at Norwich City, where the hosts pushed champions Manchester City all the way before losing 4-3 in a match that included excellent finishes from two of the world's top striking talents in Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko.
It is a perennial argument that the English football calendar is too punishing to get the best from players and this is often highlighted at World Cups and European Championships where England usually flatter to deceive.
But while this may be true for those who rely on fitness to stifle and contain, attacking talents frequently flourish when heavy winter pitches take their toll on tired legs.
The fans at Loftus Road who saw Luis Suarez tear man-size holes in the Queens Park Rangers defence or at Old Trafford where the Premier League's top scorer Robin van Persie curled home an unstoppable left-foot shot were not bemoaning a lack of quality.
If Suarez was jaded having featured in all but one of Liverpool's Premier League games this season then he hid it well.
"He's a magician," was England captain Steven Gerrard's assessment of the Uruguayan's form.
"He's been brilliant since he's come to the club. These players (QPR) only have to play against him twice a year - we have to train with him every day. Week in, week out, he shows his value."
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was equally fulsome in his praise of Van Persie who has featured in every Premier League game this season and came on as a late substitute to seal a 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
"(Van Persie) changed the game for us," the United boss told the BBC.
Whether or not quality is determined by entertainment is a contentious and perhaps superfluous philosophical debate.
The fact that only two Premier League teams have made the knockout stages of the Champions League this season, compared to four from Spain and three from Germany is a strong piece of evidence for the prosecution.
However, the reigning European champions are Chelsea and English clubs have won the competition three of the last eight seasons, parity with Spain and better than Italy with two and Germany none.
Ultimately, the record 3 billion-pound rights deal the Premier League struck in June, suggests the product on offer is more enticing than it has ever been.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)
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