James Lawton: Arsenal simply not hard enough to take title
It was never going to be a perfect football season, neither on the field nor off it, and if we had any doubt about this it was swept away surely by the name of Qatar emblazoned across the shirts of the game's most beautiful team.
Barcelona agreed, we know, to take around £25m a year from the hosts of the fraudulently awarded 2022 World Cup because their finances are in as much of a mess as Manchester United's.
This, though, hasn't prevented Johan Cruyff, known as the Golden Dutchman by Barca supporters for more than 30 years, leading the protest at the decision to literally sell the jerseys after 111 years of purity, at least in the team's laundry room.
La Liga does, however, enjoy the solace that at least one of its clubs continue to display the game's most sublime ambition in the way it plays.
Here, the self-styled world's most exciting league is producing its own level of toxic behaviour: the arbitrary sackings of Hughton and Allardyce out of relatively blue skies, the blackmail negotiations by players like Tevez and Rooney, the mayhem by whim heaped on Carlo Ancelotti by Roman Abramovich.
Unfortunately, the Premier League is currently disabled in the matter of offering superior circus by way of some distraction. We saw this at Old Trafford on Monday night when the leading contenders Manchester United and Arsenal produced a collision of considerable tension and competitive effort but without ever suggesting that the routine brilliance offered by Barca was anywhere nearer than, well, a little less than a thousand miles.
United, of course, had every reason to be satisfied with both the result and the performance which confirmed their revived status as title favourites.
United's win was marked by an ability to enforce Patrice Evra's sneering reference to Arsenal as perennial trial horses, a team who offer the world but, unlike Barcelona, tend to deliver it not whole but too often in deceiving fragments.
Their manager Arsene Wenger was as taut as he invariably is when one of these moments of truth for his team delivers not a confident statement about the future but another set of doubts.
It is on these occasions that all your admiration for his instincts for the game, and the quality of the football he has provided down all these years dwindles
beside one impatient question.
Why doesn't he for once trade his pride in polishing diamonds for some hard-nosed resolve to smash open the first available transfer window and buy himself a ready made rock, something of sufficient weight to batter, rather then tentatively probe, the kind of strength displayed by unbeaten United this week?
Chelsea, perhaps by way of mollifying Ancelotti after the lightweight Brazilian Ramires was imposed upon him in the summer, and Manchester United, because of a crying need
caused by the ageing of Paul Scholes, have both made clear their desire to steal Bastian Schweinsteiger away from Bayern Munich. This may not happen with reports of a possible accommodation between Bayern and the ferociously committed ramrod of their team, but the need and the ambition has been voiced. But from Arsenal, what? Only that if they do break through and end the long drought it will be according to Wenger's Way. This is so admirable in many respects, but if it worked with Henry and Vieira and, briefly, Anelka, will Wenger ever again have anything like such rewards with Nasri and a Fabregas bedeviled by injury and yearnings for his home-town Barcelona?
Again, the thumbs go down. Not just on Arsenal, perhaps, but the best hopes of English football in an ever diminishing year.