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The Final Countdown

By | 7th May 2009

man-utd-v-barcaTen things I noticed from this week’s Champions League semifinals:

1. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Results lie. Sometimes. If not, then in the last 5 years I’ve been privileged enough to watch the great Greek team of 2004 justly claim their prize as the greatest international team in Europe. I was blessed but a year later to witness the mighty Liverpool team of 2005 rightfully claim their place as the best club team in European football. Just last year, in fact, I was lucky enough to catch the wonderous Portsmouth team of 2008 sweep all inferior opposition aside as they grabbed the FA Cup from the grasp of the brave but brilliant Cardiff City.

Results lie. Sometimes. One thing that never lies, however, is the league table. Okay, sometimes you could push a case for teams level on goal difference or separated by a couple of measly points, but when the deficit is in double figures, there’s no hiding from the truth.

Arsenal like to think they’re near Manchester United’s standard. In fact their reputation and recent history meant that going into this game even most Manchester United fans thought they were close. As Cesc Fabregas so eloquently put it in his pre match interview, “We’re going to get behind them and penetrate them.” How lovely. As it happens, United never gave Arsenal the chance to have their filthy way with them because the European Cup semifinal between Arsenal and Manchester United was one of those occasions when the league table proved its honesty. This night United were one step, several strides, three places and 12 -15 points ahead of Arsenal. And it showed.

2.Whatever happened to the likely lads

Before the game started, English viewers at home were treated to the thoughts of SS Squadron leader Captain Lens Lehman and an animated piece of clay in a wig vaguely resembling Teddy Sheringham. Lehman is, of course, not a Nazi, but he is the most German sounding German I’ve ever heard and would make an excellent goalkeeper were they ever to re-make Escape to Victory (which, given Stallone’s penchant for remakes now-a-days, doesn’t seem far off).

The Sheringham/clay thing is still fighting its long term battle with aging so convincingly that his genes have almost given up the fight to grow him any sideburns and he seems likely to remain in this preserved state forever. Both of these creatures seemed sure we were in for a great game with Arsenal going for the jugular from the off. Unfortunately for them, and many a neutral, the days when Teddy and Jens used to compete in epic tussles appear long gone. Keane and Vieira may have gone, but while United have moved on, Arsenal have stood still staring longingly at the past. There was no fight in that side. Once the first went in they seemed to give up. Vieira would never have stood for that in his day. For all their lovely passing play they lack a big scary man willing to get physical when it matters. There was so little fight in Arsenal in both legs that Anderson decided that he wasn’t going to bother with his usual defensive game and might as well play as a forward. And that said it all really.

In 2003, Manchester United were schooled in the arts of superior European football when Fat Ronaldo came to Old Trafford and demonstrated why he was the best in the world. But that night United kept fighting, even though they knew they’d lost. After the tie was effectively over on away goals they kept going to register a 4-3 win and gave their fans something to smile about – and earned some pride for themselves. Yesterday another Ronaldo taught Arsenal a lesson, but they lacked the fighting spirit (dare I say, the English spirit) to do what United did that night in 2003.

3. Anything you can do…

It’s very hard to compare two players at the best of times, let alone when they both play in different countries and are rarely in direct competition with each other. It’s safe to say however, that Messi couldn’t have done what Ronaldo did eleven minutes in at the Emirates. For all his pint sized genius his game isn’t as rounded as Ronaldo’s. He may well be a better dribbler. He may even have a slightly better brain for intricate link up play, but he can’t head, muscle, and shoot like Ronaldo can.

The Best Player in The World is almost always decided by the Champions League. In 2006/07 Ronaldo played better than most in all competitions, but despite a relatively lackluster Serie A season, Kaka was exceptional in Europe. Last season Ronaldo was the dominant figure in the competition and rightfully won the accolade. This season the world’s media and those at FIFA can’t wait to stamp Messi’s name on the trophy, but he’s failed to stamp his own name on his semifinal. Bar something fantastic in Rome, Ronaldo should justly be named the winner again. He took this vital game by the scruff of its neck and put in possibly his greatest ever big game performance. If Kaka deserved it two years ago, Ronaldo deserves it just as much again this year.

4. I feel the need, the need for speed

Some people like to claim that the truly great goals are the all-inclusive team ones. Brazil’s fourth in 1970. Argentina’s 32 pass extravaganza in 2006. Eric Cantona has long said his perfect goal would be one where every player, including the keeper, takes one touch until the ball finds the net. For me, Ronaldo’s second and United’s third was superior to all of them. It only involved four people and eight touches and it was over in an instant. And that’s precisely why it was so good. It was devastating. No more touches were taken than were needed and it ripped straight through Arsenal like a knife through butter. As Cesc would say, they got behind them and they penetrated them… and they wont call them in the morning, ’cause they’re off to Rome.

5. Stop that train… I want to get off

The big black mark on United’s night was the dismissal of Fletcher. While I’m completely gutted for the lad, I don’t think it’s as controversial a decision as some are making out. He shouldn’t have been sent off, no. That was extremely harsh and a terribly mean spirited thing for the ref to do knowing full well we were cruising and that he’d miss the final. However, it was a foul. Fletcher did get the ball, but he didn’t push the ball far enough away to put it beyond the retrieval of Fabregas. As Fabregas could have technically still gotten possession back, the fact that Fletcher then brought him down in a scissor motion follow through (albeit unintentionally) means that he illegally stopped a goal scoring chance. He shouldn’t miss the final, though, but life’s cruel. Football doubly so.

6. Things are never quite the way they seem

On to the equally eventful Chelsea – Barca semi, and the first thing I’d like to point out is the fact I picked out Iniesta as the real danger man in my last ten things. This undoubtedly makes me amazing and all contributions to my campaign for Prime Minister are welcome.

Joking aside, the most astonishing thing from this game is that Iniesta’s goal was Barca’s only shot on target. This is quite an astonishing statistic for the supposed greatest side in the world. I won’t stoop to slagging off Barca because they’re clearly a quality outfit, but despite their possession in both legs they looked extremely short on ideas. Until I’m proved wrong I stick to my theory from last week. The great Barcelona myth has been debunked.

7. This town ain’t big enough for the both of us

This match was an interesting one for fair play. Drogba spent his usual 90 minutes rolling around on the floor and gesticulating. He went a step further this time by passionately harassing the cameraman like a drunk and unwanted patron in a bar at closing time, whining and whaling that it was a disgrace. No, you are, mate. How any Chelsea fan can bring themselves to love this man is beyond me. How Ballack avoided decking the ref after Chelsea’s fourth unsuccessful penalty appeal is similarly a mystery. He chased him, arms flailing all over the place, but miraculously without making contact like some kind of Benny Hill outtake. Self control at its finest it would seem. That said, the Barca team who so bemoaned the supposedly unsporting behavior of their opponents in the first leg still found the courage to make two useless substitutions in stoppage time. Brave and courageous, I must say. Bravo.

8. Afternoon delight

As far as goals go we witnessed four of the best of the decade, let alone the year, in a mere two matches. Ronaldo’s two I’ve already commented on, but Essien’s opener for Chelsea was Zidane against Leverkusen in high definition with added special effects. A glorious strike with his weaker foot that flew off his foot, then off the bar, and gave the most pompous keeper in the world no chance – regardless of how highly pulled up his shirt sleeves were. Iniesta’s equalizer was a toe punt of the highest order. If you only have one shot on target this game, make it this one.

9. I shot the sheriff

It would be foolish of me to complete this roundup without touching upon the Norwegian referee who’s come in for more stick than a bag of twiglets. Yes, he was absolutely terrible. Chelsea fans can quite rightly bemoan the four penalty appeals that were turned down (two of which were stonewall) but they must also remember the appalling decision to send off Eric Abidal for no more than a brush of Anelka’s leg. Jamie “I don’t really know where I got my looks from” Redknapp brought up an excellent point in the post match analysis, that a Norwegian referee should not be in charge of a European Cup semifinal. He’s right to a degree. There is no way the Norwegian league can possibly prepare you for the pressure of a Champions League semifinal, especially if both teams are as unsporting as these two. I’m sure he’s already regretting taking the job. Let’s just hope Chelsea fans don’t get hold of his address. Anders Frisk can tell him why.

10. The beautiful game

So the neutrals have got what many of them wanted. Manchester United versus Barcelona is the game to end all showpiece games. Manchester United versus Barcelona in the European Cup final is simply the game to end all games. It’s pretty unlikely it will live up to the massive expectations already attached to it, but it’s the dream final and one which will see the fantastic four up against the thrilling threesome. Mouthwatering stuff.

The best thing for United fans is that they have nothing to fear. Chelsea deserved to go through. No two ways about it. Despite the quite ridiculous way their players conducted themselves they were robbed to an extent. I may be wrong, but I really can’t see United not winning this game. They can defend as well as Chelsea and they can attack better. Chelsea showed how to nullify Barca’s attacking game. United can exploit their makeshift defense far better. Michel Platini and all those at UEFA will see this as the evil English versus the gallant Euros.

For me, if United win, there will be no more debate as to who is the best. No more over exaggeration in the Spanish media. No more drooling from the intellectual press in England. No excuses. No regrets. Some things are priceless – for everything else there’s the Premier League and Manchester United.

Oscar is at it once again. Where does this rank in his ten things? Have your say in the comments section below!

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