31 May 2011

Gory, Gory Man United!

Glory, Glory Man United! That is the song that reverberates around Old Trafford as the Red Devils wrap up title after title in the era of the English Premiership. Indeed, this year, the club went one up at the end of the last season on its fiercest rival – Liverpool FC – by winning the league title for a record 19th time.

The Mancunians, naturally, are entitled to gloat. Indeed, at Anfield on Liverpool’s last home game of the season and with the Red Devils having already wrapped up the league title, a cheeky Manchester United fan could not resist the temptation to sneak into the bastion of the Liver Bird to hang a banner that simply said “19.”

The celebrations were, however, short-lived. Last Saturday, United were at Wembley for the traditional centrepiece event of each European season: the Champions’ League Final. Their opponent, what is arguably the most technically gifted club side of all time: Barcelona.

A life-long Liverpool FC fan, I naturally did not get up for the live broadcast. I was not averse, however, to watching the replays.

I never imagined I would ever be capable of feeling sympathies for my club’s most hated foe; but, seeing Barça’s utter humiliation of Manchester United, that was exactly what I felt. Normally swaggering aristocrats in the Premiership, United was reduced by the Catalans into a team of faltering schoolboys – nay, I have seen schoolgirls play with more fire!

Barça was the neutral’s overwhelming favourite. It had been extremely successful both in Spain and in the European front for the last three seasons. It played a simple game based on ball possession that was lovely to watch. And it had among its ranks the player who is arguably the most influential in the world in the present time: Lionel Messi.

In the first ten minutes of the final, however, United played as though it had not read the script and pegged Barça back in its own half without unduly troubling Jorge Valdez in the Barcelona goal. That was, however, as far as it got.

The moment Barça put together a string of passes, the whole team settled down and there was always going to be one winner. I am not a Barcelona fan, either – Real Madrid is the team I support in La Liga – but the show the Catalans put on at Wembley was utter joy to behold.

The score of 3-1 flattered United. Frankly, apart from the opening ten minutes, United was really never in it. Even the goal Rooney scored – United fans apart – could easily have been ruled offside because Hernandez was half-a-body ahead of the last defender when Rooney played the first pass.

The goal, at least, gave United the sort of respectability its performance did not deserve. I personally think United was capable of so much more; the team just did not show up for the game.

The moment Barça started to string passes together, United’s defence and midfield started to play closer together in front of the penalty box. That, I felt, played right into Barça’s hands. To me, United started to look like a team playing with fear. Had its players sustained its pressing up-tempo start – which apparently unnerved even the mighty Barça – who knows how different the result could have been?

As things happened, the sudden change in United’s approach only allowed Barça’s talented players to get more into the game and enjoy themselves. In the second half in particular, United’s players were reduced to chasing shadows as Barça – at times – played practically at walking pace.

The last team I saw that played with such firm precision was the Socrates-led Brazil in the World Cup of 1982. Like that Brazilian team, Barça’s passes were so precise that their players moved languidly around the pitch yet still held on firmly to the ball. The players so enjoyed themselves that back-heels and behind the legs flicks were routinely executed as though they were in a training game.

I also could not help but notice that, when Barça lost the ball, its players moved forward to chase after it rather than retreat back into its own half as lesser teams rather tend to do. That was Dutch master tactician Rinus Michel’s total football in action; and the Dutch connection at Barcelona is well-documented.

Meanwhile, United’s players finally came out of their shells only in the last quarter of an hour when the score was 1-3 and Barça seemingly on its way to a famous win. It was as though United’s players had resigned themselves to the defeat and – with the pressure lifting – were finally able to play with more liberation. But it was always going to be a case of too little too late; and not that Barça was prepared to give up a goal on the cheap.

My personal hypothesis is that United was weighted down by its own history – or lack of it – in European competition. While its pedigree in the Premiership is unchallenged, in Europe its record pales in comparison even to its fierce local rival Liverpool FC.

The record books may say that Liverpool FC has won 5 European Cups compared to United’s 3. However, United’s first win was over an ageing Benfica team in 1968 at Wembley – practically a home game.

The second did not come until 1999; and even that was something of a fluke. Bayern München was leading 1-nil till the dying embers of the match only for United to score two totally unexpected winning goals. In all honesty – and given its own European pedigree – Bayern gave it away!

The third was just a few years ago; and Chelsea was a very familiar foe. In comparison to United, Chelsea’s record is pitiable both locally and in European competition. To suffer from the jitters would have been unforgivable for United’s players; and even then they only won by a singular goal.

The real aristocrats of European football are Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern München and Liverpool FC. These are clubs others fear because of name alone and regardless of who the current sets of players are. This may not always be true; but all these clubs have benefited from the reputations established by their earlier teams in each of these respective clubs’ illustrious European history.

Surprising as it may seem, but neither does Barça have real European pedigree. Although it has won two Champions’ League trophies in the last three seasons, its tally comes nowhere near that of its rival Real Madrid, which has 9. To a certain extent, I feel that Barça benefited from the fact that it was playing United; and because both teams are – in a manner of speaking – European upstarts only just now starting to adorn their display rooms with European Cups.

Had the two Spanish giants not been drawn in the semi-finals – and had Real Madrid been Barça’s opponent in that one-off final at Wembley last Saturday – I honestly do not believe Barcelona would have won so comfortably and so comprehensively. I even would have fancied a Madrid win.

At things happened, the streets of the Republic of Mancunia were flooded with the red blood of its vanquished warriors after a game in which its team was so totally destroyed. Not to mention the tears of its followers the world over… It was gory!

However, if I were a Manchester United fan, I would be celebrating instead. The last time the club won a European Cup at Wembley, the club went into freefall that saw it – in 1974 – even relegated to the Second Division.

[Footnote: I use the terms “Champions’ League” and “European Cup” inter-changeably because it is one and the same competition. Until the Champions’ League was reformatted to include runners-ups, it was called the European Cup and was only open to the champions of each European country.]

Michael Who?
The Great Liverpool, Man United Rivalry




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