Friday, May 23, 2008

Blind to their own sins

The final of the European Champions League in Moscow on Wednesday was an exciting match between Manchester United and Chelsea, which the Manchester club won 6-5 on penalties after a 1-1 draw after extra-time. Thus the two English teams who were almost inseparable in the Premier League were similarly very close in the European final.

In one sense this was a Russia versus America clash. Manchester United is owned by the Glazers; they were bought with borrowed money in one of those levered deals that the Free Market is prone to. Chelsea is owned by the fabulously wealthy Russian oligarch Abramovich who made his money from the privatization of Russian oil fields under Yeltsin.

United's coach is the veteran Sir Alex Ferguson, an abrasive Scot who has won everything before, but who has been the most successful football manager in the world for the last decade. Chelsea are coached (at least for now) by Avram Grant, a podgy middle aged and softly spoken Israeli who doesn't even hold the appropriate coaching certificate. Both teams comprise the best footballers money can buy from all over the world, and although United did manage to field six Englishmen to Chelsea's four, one of United's six was an ex-Canadian who has played most of his football in Germany.

The style of football is different between the two teams. United play a rapid passing game, plotting intricate patterns on the pitch, which is perhaps less beautiful than that of Arsenal at their best, but which more frequently produces spectacular goals. That end-product is perhaps chiefly due to the young Portuguese, Ronaldo. Tall, fast, delicately balanced and highly skilled, he has been the chief goal-scorer for United all season, often bewildering the opposition with his footwork. It was he who scored first in the final. For the first 40 minutes United dominated the game, hardly allowing Chelsea a touch. The assist came from Wes Brown, the United right back who is of mixed race and ginger haired, and who has been in dispute over his contract for most of the season. Cutting inside from the right he crossed the ball with his left foot and it was met by the head of Ronaldo who forced the ball into the net from ten yards like an old fashioned English centre forward. It could have been Tommy Lawton or Nat Lofthouse or even Tommy Taylor, the United and England centre forward killed just 50 years ago in the Munich air crash that wiped out half the United team. That's 42 goals for the season for Ronaldo, a fantastic run of form that made in footballer of the year in England and may yet give him the pan-European title.

Brilliant moves from Rooney and Tevez, youngsters from respectively England and Argentina, should have put United three goals to the good, but the finishing touch was just missing or the Chelsea goalie, Petr Cech, saved amazingly. Then just when we thought that the game was to be a one-sided romp Michael Essien, the Ghanaian makeshift right-back surged forward. One of the problems of teams like Chelsea is finding space for all their players. Essien is the most expensive player to come out of Africa, costing Chelsea nearly £25 million. But he is a mid-fielder, and Chelsea already have Lampard, Ballack and Makalele as mid-fielders. There seemed no room for Essien. The solution is to play him at right back with an mandate to attack from there at every opportunity. To counter this Sir Alex was playing Ronaldo on the left wing so that Essien had to mark him. All through the first half Ronaldo was running rings around him, exposing his inexperience as a defender. Now in injury time at the end of the first half Essien abandoned Ronaldo and carried the ball forward and unleashed a shot at goal. It wasn't much of a shot but it bounced of the two United central defenders, from the thigh of Vidic and the back of Ferdinand to fall at the feet at the in-running Frank Lampard. Lampard has had a distressing few weeks with the death of his other at a relatively early age. He now found himself with the ball at his feet and the goalkeeper out of position because of the ricochet. It is a simple matter to slot the ball home for the equalizing goal.

Scoring just on the stroke of half time gives a team a psychological advantage and in the second half Chelsea began to take control. It wasn't just psychology, there had been a change in tactics. In the first half the two mid-fielders, Carrick and Scholes had been allowed too much time on the ball so they were able to control tactics. Chelsea had had to bring back Joe Cole and Malouda leaving the giant Ivory Coast international Drogba isolated and ineffective. Now Lampard and Ballack were instructed to close down Scholes and Carrick and take the game to United. Scholes, in particular, was beginning to tire and for a long period Chelsea were in control. In this period Drogba hit the bar, but Chelsea could not score. They forced Ferguson into a tactical change, bringing Rooney back to right wing and moving the strong tackling Hargreaves into the centre of midfield. This had the effect of limiting the attacking options of both sides. So full time came with Giggs on for Scholes and the score at 1-1.

European finals quite frequently go into extra time (or overtime, if you like). They play another 30 minutes. It is an opportunity to bring on substitutes to see if fresh legs will resolve the deadlock. There were two significant near misses. Lampard hit the post and Giggs having a certain goal saved by a last minute header from the Chelsea captain John Terry. Both players had a reason desparately to want to win. The veteran Ryan Giggs was the only player who had played on the previous occasion that United had won the European Cup, and in this match he had set a new record of appearances for Manchester United, surpassing the previous record holder, Bobby Charlton, who had lifted the European Cup for United on the first occasion they had won it 39 years previously. Bobby Charlton, survivor of the Munich air crash and scorer of the most goals for the English national team was there in the stadium watching the match. John Terry had been captain of Chelsea and Captain of England, but with a new England coach he had been displaced from that post by the United captain, Rio Ferdinand. Terry had dislocated his elbow in the last match of the season and he was playing in this match in pain.

As the 30 minutes of extra time drew to its close, players everywhere were going down with cramp. Some players run more than 12 kilometers during the course of a 90 minute game, and to play an extra 30 minutes takes it out of them. A convention has arisen that if a player is injured, someone on the opposing side will kick the ball out of play so that the player can get treatment. When the game restarts it is considered sportsmanlike to return the ball to the side that was in possession before the interruption. On two occasions United had kicked the ball out, but on each occasion Chelsea had returned the ball to them, but in such a way as to put United at a disadvantage. Now the opposite happened. Chelsea kicked the ball out of play, but United returned it far back into the Chelsea half. Chelsea went wild. And here is the point of the whole article. We are blind to our own sins but angry when someone sins against us. In the melee that followed Drogba slapped Vidic round the face. Jostling is winked at. Abuse is allowed. Even a bit of kicking is passed over, but raise your hand at the other fellow and there is only one punishment - a red card. Drogba was sent off. There is only a minute to go, so it won't much affect the match except that now the last substitutions are made. On come those who are good at penalty kicks and off go those who are not.

Now we come to the penalties. You would think it a simple matter to score from 12 metres when the goal is eight metres wide. That without reckoning without the nerves. How many golfers have missed a three foot putt for the championship? How many tennis players have missed a simple smash? How many cricketers have dropped a dolly when the pressure is really on? Alex Ferguson later confessed that none of his teams had ever won a penalty shoot out.

Each team has five penalties. United went first. Each side score their first two penalties easily. Up steps the wunderkind Ronaldo. He is United's regular penalty taker and he seldom misses. His technique is well known. In his run up he has a little hesitation to trigger a move to one side from the goalkeeper so that he neatly slots it to the other side of the goal. He does his little jink, but Cech does not move. Ronaldo has hesitated too long and when it comes he does not have enough momentum to kick the ball hard enough. It is a tame penalty that Cech saves. Chelsea score with their third and fourth and United with their fourth and fifth. All Chelsea needs is to slot home their fifth penalty. This should be Drogba's job. Their best forward should be given the most nervy task. But Drogba has been sent off. None of the other forwards wants the job. Up steps the captain, taking control. Score and the Cup is theirs, miss and he will always be notorious as the man who lost the trophy. Terry steps up without nerves but his standing foot slips on the newly laid pitch and he kicks the ball wide of the goal. The scores are equal at 4-4. United score their 6th and so do Chelsea. United score their 7th and Chelsea nominate Anelka, the temperamental French forward, bought for next season when Drogba is expected to leave. It's a soft shot and Van de Saar saves. the match is over and United have won.

Despair for Chelsea. John Terry is in tears. Joy for United. Ecstasy! Paul Scholes gets his medal - he had been suspended for the game nine years previously. The United team is led up to receive the trophy by none other than Bobby Charlton, now a United director and half a century after he stepped out unscathed from the ruined plane at Munich, 39 years since he lifted the trophy himself as captain of United.

On the radio today a Liverpool supporter gives grudging praise to Ferguson. He is a good coach, perhaps a very good coach, but not a great coach. Bob Paisley, now he was a great coach. He took Liverpool to three wins.

Blind to his own sins; vigilant for those of others.

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