Chelsea, Manchester United, Other Premier League Teams Seem to be Lacking a Spark

Anyone remember that delightful 1990s sitcom, "Mad About You"?

For a while there you couldn't avoid it, either through it's part of NBC's so-called "Must See TV" lineup or in reruns. Now, in 2012, it appears to have disappeared entirely (much like it's female lead Helen Hunt although I read she's in some new movie -- The Sessions -- where she gets nekkid.)

Though I never watched a single second of its seven seasons and whopping 164 episodes, I gleaned enough through commercials and promos that the core of the show was Paul Reiser shrugging to the camera, "Married life, crazy huh." (Essentially the old trope of: women's can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em -- the bedrock of sitcoms through history.)

Since I'm part of the nefarious slim of the "hipster" generation, the only way for me to relate to life is through pop culture, or at least that's what the New York Times thinks, so for me, "Mad About You," or "The King of Queens" or nearly any 90s network comedy set the mark of what married life is supposed to be like -- lots of bickering, the man is always wrong and it's hard to keep the spark going after years of waking up to the same person. Somebody, you know, has to take out the garbage.

Garbage is a fitting term as we pull my classic switcheroo, of starting with something else and then starting to talk about professional soccer, or specifically in this case the state of the English/Barclay's Premier League.

Hard to think I'm alone in this, but is the spark gone?

For about five years this space, every Monday, would be devoted to recapping what transpired in the Premier League over the weekend. This year it stopped, but this script could easily be copied and pasted into every week.

* Fernando Torres struggles for Chelsea under (another) new manager.
* Manchester United looks ordinary, lacks a dynamic central midfielder, plays well for about 10 minutes and gets a result.
* Liverpool struggles to score goals.
* Arsenal might be "back" ... but then the Gunners probably aren't after a limp result against an also ran.
* Manchester City are in "crisis" mode, until a late goal bails them out.
* Mario Balotelli does something to bother Roberto Mancini.
* A referee makes a terrible decision to massively impact a game.
* Tottenham is wildly inconsistent in a win or a loss.
* And for a bonus: somebody may or may not have been racially abused.

Forgetting anything?

It all seems so rote.

Beyond that, this is all anecdotal evidence (heat maps, sadly, don't tell the story), the level of play and excitement seems to have dropped off a cliff.

Manchester United is a pale imitation of the Champions League-winning side that featured Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez -- all at their best. As ordinary as the Red Devils seems, Sir Alex Ferguson still coaxes enough out of the team (and Satan, as United conspiracy theorists would have you believe) to keep them in first place, despite seemingly falling behind in every league game they play.

Defending champion Manchester City? Still don't know what to make of this team. Brilliant in flashes, dire in others, mostly functional otherwise. City, even with its failings in the Champions League, still doesn't lose in the Premier League at home, meaning they'll likely win the title in May even as its two most influential players -- David Silva and Yaya Toure --- both have seen their form drop. (Toure will miss games again in January on African Cup of Nations duty for the Ivory Coast.)

Perhaps its unfair to lump them together, but Liverpool and Arsenal both have become shadows of the clubs they once were. Liverpool has already fallen out of the "Big Four" status, missing out on the Champions League for a couple seasons now. The club's history keeps it in the conversation of the "important" teams, but the on-field product says otherwise -- the top of the table never felt further away. That said, the Premier League certainly seemed better with a healthy Liverpool, at least mounting a cursory challenge at the title.

All Arsene Wenger can hang his hat on nowadays is the fact he's navigated the Gunners into the Champions League each and every season, despite a failure to win an actual trophy since 2005. But hey, it's something and every now and again the Gunners whoop somebody 4-0 at the Emirates and the grand design of playing soccer "the right way" seems justified ... until it's followed up with a flat performance.

The less said of Chelsea, the better. What's disconcerting is that the Blues appeared on track to, despite being thoroughly unlikeable scum, play some fun soccer to watch with Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar all making sweet sweet midfield love to the ball. For whatever the reason, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's prime directive at Stamford Bridge is to cater to Torres, so a slight hiccup in results means Roberto Di Matteo is out and Rafa Benitez is in -- much to the dismay of nearly every single Chelsea fan on the planet.

Tottenham, well, if you want to believe Spurs are elite in England go right ahead, but we all know this is a smoke-and-mirrors team that can never beat the big teams with regularity and is just as likely to drop points at home to Wigan as it is to do anything else.

Those are the alleged cream of the crop in England.

And last Sunday, when City and Chelsea met, we witnessed a thoroughly awful, dull, rotten 0-0 draw with about one shot on target.

The less said about everybody else, except maybe West Brom (in this particular season) and Everton, the better. Why anyone in England would want to pay to watch some of these clubs, namely Sunderland or Aston Villa, in person is beyond me.

Or look at this way.

Fulham is a club near-and-dear to the hearts of a lot of American fans since when the Premier League became readily available on television every weekend, circa 2004, the club had a bunch of Americans in its ranks like Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride. The play of Clint Dempsey at Craven Cottage, culminating with a trip to the UEFA Cup Final, made Fulham a viable club to follow from across the Atlantic.

But where to go now if you've become invested in Fulham? Rooting for a team that, in its best year, might finish sixth and get another trip to the Europa Leauge (which now might be disbanded in favor of a 64-team Champions League.). Maybe a run in the FA Cup?

It's hard to justify investing so much free time in a club that never has a chance to win anything relevant. Feels  like the team is running in circles, hamstrung by the fact its owner Mohamed Al-Fayed is rich, but not that rich.

That's not to make the argument you need a playoff element to spice things up, but the more you watch soccer in England the more you see the glass ceiling of each club -- bar investment from some Arabian Sheikh with oil money to burn. You know at the start of the season who's fighting for the title, who'll be happy to place 17th to avoid relegation and then the rest ... still haven't been able to figure out what thrills placing 10th like a Stoke City gets for you.

More than that, what strikes me as odd about the Premier League in 2012 is clubs are spending more on players, importing more "names," yet the level of play doesn't seem to have improved. Maybe there's a little more parity on a weekly basis. Yes, a team like, say, Reading can pull off a 0-0 with Chelsea (still reigning kings of Europe, mind) on a given weekend, but over the course of the 38 game season the top teams are going get enough points to maintain the current Manchester City/Manchester United/Chelsea hegemony.

Sure West Brom under the tutelage of Steve Clarke have been a nice story, currently sitting in third place and four points off the top, but let's be realistic. By May where are the Baggies going to be? Fifth place, at best, if it all breaks right?

As aforementioned, this is all anecdotal observations. There's no metric to say the play of the Premier League from top to bottom in 2005 was better than it appears in 2012.

My eyes tell me what I'm watching nowadays simply isn't as exciting or thrilling to watch as it was a few years ago on a weekly basis. Suppose it's only natural. The more you watch something and stay with it, the more the warts show up. No matter how long you're married, eventually you're going to let a fart slip in front of your wife.

So excuse me, there's a slew of games on this afternoon, but I have to go take out the garbage.

Married life, right?

What's that about for better or for worse ...