I dragged myself out of bed at 4.30 Wednesday morning to watch the Champions League Quarter Final second leg blockbuster between Manchester United and Chelsea, aka, the ‘Battle of Britain’.
The sky was still as black as midnight, the only sounds the screeching brakes of a garbage truck echoing in the distance. I cautiously made my way from the bedroom to the living room, conscious that I had to remain as silent as possible in an effort not to wake the kids. I had a terrible time watching World Cup games last year, with the newborn timing his wake ups to coincide with kick offs. Of course it would take him 45 minutes to settle – writing off the first half in most cases. I’d get back in front of the box to watch the half time wrap up, then just as the referee would ready himself to blow the whistle and restart a game, another wake up! Amazing.
But I digress.
In the early hours of the morning, especially with a winter chill in the air, the couch can be an unforgiving place. Nevertheless I burrowed into a semi-comfortable position, excited by the prospect of watching a tense and terse encounter that might not deliver quality of Barcelona versus Arsenal, but would certainly get the heart racing and the blood pumping.
And I was not disappointed.
Taking a one nil lead into the Theatre of Dreams put Manchester United in a position of strength. But one goal can be an extremely tenuous thread to hang your hopes on. An early away goal and suddenly you’re under the pump big time.
This was always going to be a game a tactics. And from the outset it was clear that United had more than a goal advantage. Recognising that pairing Drogba and Torres in a 4-4-2 formation was a recipe for disaster, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti reverted back to their tried and tested (and extremely successful) 4-3-3 formation. However...instead of starting the powerful Drogba in the central striking role, Ancelotti opted for the woefully out of form Torres. And Britain’s most expensive player played true to form. An inept display in the first 45 minutes severely hampered a Chelsea side that dominated possession in the opening exchanges and created more shots on goal.
Despite conceding possession all too often in the first half, United looked ominous when in possession. Rooney is working his way into fine form, and excelled in a fluid role playing off the dangerous Chicharito. Rooney’s work dropping into deeper and wider spaces always kept Chelsea on the back foot, and his first touch that had deserted him from the onset of England’s disastrous World Cup campaign last year is finally returning.
I’ll admit to having misgivings when I saw that Sir Alex had chosen a midfield quartet of Carrick and Giggs in the centre, with Nani and Park on the flanks. While Nani has matured...and I use that term very loosely...into a formidable footballer in the Premier League, and the Divine Giggs should never be underestimated (more on him later), the inclusion of Carrick and Park had me extremely worried. If Carrick reads my posts (unlikely I know), he’ll be aware that I’m not his biggest fan. A lightweight midfielder, he is easily bullied and has disappeared all too often on the big stage. Park on the other hand is never bullied. And rarely does he disappear in a big game. However his limitations as a footballer often have me at my wits end. I have a love/hate relationship with Park. I love it when he doesn’t have the ball at his feet, chasing around opponents and the loose ball with the same level of zest, energy and zeal as a 3 year old with too much birthday cake in the system. With the football at his feet I hate Park. He looks awkward in possession, lacks the ability to beat his man regularly, doesn’t have an eye for the defence splitting pass and generally seems troubled by the thought of having to kick a ball. Suffice to say his tireless efforts on the right wing were a highlight of United’s victory, and he put icing on the cake with a sublime first touch and finish to score the second goal and seal the game. It’s nice to know that after watching the highest levels of football for 25 years I can still be surprised. Park you are a legend!!!
Although the first half lacked the Barca, Gunners or even Spurs cavalier approach to the game, there was still some flowing football played, and the class of several players came to the fore.
Florent Malouda, much maligned for not living up to expectation since his transfer to Chelsea, is a football of great skill, despite his frustrating inconsistency. A slalom run from just inside his own half saw him beat a number of flat-footed Red Devils, laying off a fantastic square ball to Fat Frank Lampard. Lampard, with no defenders crowding him and only the keeper to beat, shot tamely into the arms of Edwin Van Der Sar. The tale of these two players was very much pivotal in the course of this match. An in form Lampard circa 2008 would have nailed that chance, and perhaps changed the course of the tie. However the 2011 model looks to be on his last legs, and no longer strikes fear into the opposition.
Van Der Sar on the other hand is slowly making a case to usurp ‘The Great Dane’ Peter Schmeichel as the greatest keeper in United history. While he doesn’t carry the same imposing physical presence as Schmeichel, he commands his defence with authority, and is as integral to United's impenetrability as Vidic and Ferdinand. At 41 years of age Van Der Sar has lost none of his agility, and a crucial moment in the first half displayed why the Old Trafford faithful would gladly welcome him back for another season. A long pass behind the United line saw Nic Anelka skip clear. When Van Der Sar charged out of his box I was ready to throw up the Special K I hadn’t even started eating yet.
O’ ye of little faith...
Edwin masterfully slid into a tackle, his spindly legs making enough contact with the ball to disrupt Anelka’s dribble. He then cleared the ball into touch before racing back to goal. While it isn’t a moment that will make a highlight reel of his greatest saves, it’s a save that few keepers could pull off nonetheless. If Van Der Sar adds another EPL and Champions League medal to his United haul, there’s definitely cause for debate about who is the United’s best Number 1.
What made the save even more critical is that it came directly after United had a seemingly legitimate goal disallowed. Rooney made same space for himself on the right hand side and swung in a gorgeous cross that was met by the predatory Chicharito and put into the back of the Chelsea net. While fans and players alike celebrated with gusto, the linesman put up his flag for offside. Replays show that Chicharito, while not in an offside position when Rooney swung the ball into the box, but was out of position on the build up. Yet another question mark over the passive offside rule that causes no end of confusion and frustration in equal measure.
As the half wore on Chelsea’s dominance began to wane. Michael Essien, a shadow of his former self, not longer has the power and stamina to control games for long periods. And with Lampard in poor form it was left up to the feisty and energetic Ramires to take the charge up to United. Slowly he was overwhelmed. With Giggs and Carrick holding onto possession, O’Shea and Evre started to come forward with greater intent. And with two minutes left in the half it was the combination of O’Shea and Giggs that opened the game right up. O’Shea played a wonderful reverse pass that split the defence and sent the Divine Ryan Giggs streaking toward goal, playing a dangerous ball across the goal mouth. A sliding Rooney came in a half second too late and missed the ball by a stud length. Chicharito did not miss. Johnny on the spot at the back post, the little Mexican added to his collection of tap-ins that marks a wonderful debut season.
SIDENOTE: My man-love for Ryan Giggs: Words alone cannot describe the legend that is Giggs. He’s 37 years old, and has played at the top flight with one club for twenty years. His personal trophy cabinet has more medals than most football clubs can boast. While his hamstrings seemed to be paper thin in his early career, he has avoided any major injury and continues to perform at an elite level. He has transformed his game over two decades, moving from a pacy winger, to a supporting forward, to a central midfielder. Sir Alex has even plonked him at left back on occasion to great effect. He is an excellent dribbler with great vision and has improved his passing range immensely throughout his career. Although he isn’t a powerful player, he shows great courage and has never shied away from more physical opponents. I guess that’s a by-product of auditioning for the first team when you’re a sleight seventeen year old wunderkind. The one hole in his game has been the lack of a killer instinct in front of goal. In saying that Giggsy has scored some classics, never more so than his individual run through the entire Arsenal team in the 1999 FA Cup semi final replay. Phenomenal. And that chest hair!!! I think even Zeus, Apollo and Greek Gods would look on in envy at the thick and proud mane on his torso. Sometimes a good bottle of wine can sit for far too long, and when you open it, it tastes like vinegar. But if you’re really lucky, the wine ages well. When opened it will hold a complex range of flavours, full of character that would otherwise have missed if drank too early. Ryan Giggs is that bottle of wine. Great twenty years ago...even better now. It’s almost preposterous that Giggs, the most decorated of all United players, is rarely mentioned when people argue who United’s greatest is. Some opt for the classics...Best, Charlton or Law. Otherwise look to the courage of Captain Marvel Bryan Robson, the ferociousness of Roy Keane, the sheer brilliance of Ronaldo or the artistry of Eric the King. It seems that sheer force of personality adds to a player’s mystique and thus increases their value in the fans eyes. Giggs has avoided controversy and the spotlight as cleverly as he avoids a sliding tackle from a hapless defender. I love all of United’s greats, but if I had to choose one...I’ll drink to Ryan Giggs.
The second half began in predicable fashion with the substitution of the woeful Torres with Drogba. Has a superstar ever fallen from grace as quickly as Torres? Many quality players have moved to England and failed to live up to hype, expectation and their huge price tags. Seba Veron and Shevchenko spring to mind. Several English players moving from smaller clubs to the Big Four have similar experiences...I’m thinking of you Shaun Wright Phillips. But Torres is a proven EPL performer. He has played on the biggest stages, and at the peak of his powers was one of the most feared and lethal strikers in the game. That was just a couple of years ago. He now seems bereft of all confidence. A shell of his former self. You would think Chelsea would look to sell him in the off-season, but who’d take him now? Maybe a return to Spain is on the cards.
The inclusion of Drogba provided the Blues with power and purpose, and it wasn’t long before he fashioned some nervous moments in the United defence. His ability to hold the ball up, back into defenders, and turn quickly was creating headaches for both Vidic and Ferdinand, who took some time adjusting, particularly after having barely anything to do in the first 45 minutes thanks to Torres’ ineffectiveness.
For the most part honours were even, and United looked comfortable, especially after young Ramires was sent off for a second bookable offence, unnecessarily crashing into the back of Nani. As usual Nani went down as if he was shot with an elephant gun, but it was still worthy of a yellow card. By this stage the sun had started to rise, and my joints had thawed out enough that I allowed myself a small fist pump, thinking at one-nil up and Chelsea down to ten men, game, set and match Manchester United.
But it’s not in United’s nature to do things without some added drama. Many an occasion has past when I’ve either conceded defeat too early, or celebrated a victory with time to spare, without envisioning a dramatic twist or two.
All too often when a player is sent off the opposing team takes their foot off the accelerator. It’s a sign of overconfidence, very similar to a tennis player facing an opponent who is clearly suffering from an injury. Instead of going in for the kill by exerting a greater effort, you believe you can finish off your wounded prey with minimum energy. After taking some time to regroup and regain their composure, Drogba found some space behind the unusually lazy Evre, and his powerful shot beat the stranded Van Der Sar. One all and game on. If Chelsea scores another United will be eliminated by virtue of the away goals rule. Did I celebrate too early?
Barely a minute after the restart and my man Giggs was at it again. Some quick passing between Rooney and Giggsy opened up the Chelsea defence. Giggs spotted the unmarked Park making a run into the box. At the time I cried out ‘don’t pass it to Park!”. Before I could finish my sentence Park had brought the ball down in expert fashion and provided a clinical finish. Park!!! Who would have thought?
The battle was officially over. Down a man and conceding a goal immediately after equalising and Chelsea was sapped of any belief they may have held for a remarkable turnaround. As the minutes ticked by the Stretford End sang victory songs and the United midfield started playing ‘piggy-in-the-middle’. With the ball on a string and little resistance from the Londoners, United kept possession and worked down the clock until the referee finally ended Carlo Ancelotti’s misery.
So Manchester United is through to the European Champions League semi-final where they will face surprise packet Schalke, who dismantled defending champions Inter Milan. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but United has a real opportunity to get through to another final. The other semi final sees the mouth watering spectacle of ‘El Classico’, Real Madrid versus Barcelona. Incidentally these two great rivals will play five times over the next few weeks, twice in the Champions League, once in the Primera League and twice in the Spanish Cup. What a great time to be a football fan. I’ll take five ‘El Classico’s’ over the Rugby World Cup, State of Origin, Cricket World Cup and AFL combined. This is sport at its highest level, both in terms of on field performance, as well as passionate support. It just doesn’t get any better.
This weekend United will face their cross city rival Manchester City in the FA Cup semi final. It’s City’s last chance for some silverware, and Sir Alex’s chance to really put the boot into the noisy neighbour. With Tevez out injured, United have an excellent opportunity to book another Wembley final.
FA Cup semi, Champions League semi, seven points clear at the top of the Premier League. Do I smell another Treble in the air?