Cup Runneths Over?
When the book finally comes to be written on the slow, lingering death of the FA Cup (working title: ‘Manchester United Ruined our Cup’ – well it worked for Colin Shindler), United’s misadventure in Brazil will of course get a hefty chapter. But surely worthy of a little more than a footnote will be Harry Redknapp’s comment earlier this week about fielding his weakest possible side at Old Trafford tomorrow evening. Many possible reactions suggest themselves, chief among them ‘how will we possibly tell Harry’s weakest from his strongest line-up?’
Then there’s the slight issue of the contempt flung in the faces of those us who’ve been automatically cup schemed into forking out close to fifty quid for the pleasure of being there – not to mention in the faces of his own travelling support. Predictably Harry backtracked a little today, and we can chalk this up as another of his narky outbursts as he gets twitchily near to relegation.
Not that I’m here to whip up some fake outrage at his slighting of the venerable old competition. It’s clearly slid down the list of priorities right across the game and I class it along with the existence of Father Christmas and my love of Erasure as things that illuminated my childhood but have no place in my adult existence. What sticks in the craw is the fact that the real culprits behind the smothering of the cup are the Bolton’s and Boro’s of the world, the clubs that field drastically depleted sides because their sole priority is Premiership survival.
I’m not naïve. I understand the financial expediency behind such thinking. But when they finally find the murder weapon in this case, it won’t just be Alex Ferguson’s fingerprints all over it.
Viva La Vida!
Prior to United’s departure for Japan there was much anxious calculation of exactly how wide the points gap between United and the supposed pretenders to our crown might be when we return. 3? 6? A totally insurmountable 9?
In the event, with Chelsea and Liverpool both letting points slip left, right and centre, it turns out that such speculation was utterly futile. Indeed as I write United have hopped back on the perch that we temporarily allowed Liverpool to occupy. When searching for negatives about the Japan trip, only one stands out – the red-card that will keep Vidic out of the Milan tie. For our impervious to peril Serb is having a season to truly cherish.
While others struggle to sustain their very finest form, Vidic has consistently been the outstanding performer in a red-shirt. That record-breaking run of clean sheets (like all records these days pertaining to no further back than the Premiership age) speaks for itself. Of course no defender operates alone, but, Edwin aside, who is the common denominator in all those games? Need you ask?
In many ways those 10 games without being breached are the defenders equivalent of scoring 42 in a season (I’d say that at this point Vidic is on the equivalent of 28, Johnny Evans is on a very creditable 11, and Rio about 15). Of course if Vidic’s performance was calculated in goals for rather than goals against, he would be strolling to Player of the Year awards. As Fergie himself lamented the other day, defenders rarely earn such plaudits.
Will we survive the San Siro without him? Milan themselves are suffering a slump in form, with Mourinho perhaps distracted by the likelihood of a fat contract at city about to cross his desk, but there’s no avoiding the fact that our task is immeasurably more difficult with Vidic missing from the side.
Feared by the blues...
Admit it, you were worried when you saw the team. It’s taken a while, but you’ve finally come round to the fact that Michael Carrick is the creative pivot of the United midfield. Anderson might have the power, the hair, and the song, Scholes the vintage pedigree, but Carrick is currently the one with best passing range. So to discover that Fergie had seen fit to leave him on the bench and start with Giggsy in central midfield…against Lampard, Ballack and Deco. Optimism levels crashed quicker than the exchange rate.
You were probably less surprised by the inclusion of Fletcher. After all he’s Fergie’s equivalent of your Mum’s best cutlery, only brought out for special occasions like Christmas Day and playing Arsenal or Chelsea. Now you bow to no-one in your admiration of Giggsy, reckon the lad deserves a statue on the forecourt for all he’s done in a red shirt – though the statue should be made of him without one, twirling it above his head at Villa Park, every strand of chesthair loving crafted from marble – but anyone can see that these days all he’s up to is the odd run-out for sentiments sake, and Chelsea with this much at stake is no time for sentiment.
And so, as if we haven’t had enough down the years, here was yet another salient reminder not to doubt Sir Alex. If anyone looked drained of drive and inspiration in that midfield, it was Ballack, all £120, 000 a week of him. Ryan on the other hand, was at his sprightly best, haring all over the place, going on runs that made the years fall away, and leading by example at every turn.
With Benitez having gone into King Kev meltdown mode, it felt like the season finally clicked into focus this weekend. Suddenly the prospect of reeling Liverpool in and then unequivocally surpassing them when they come to OT in March, gives meaning and purpose to what had hitherto seemed a bit flat. Factor in Mourinho getting a well-merited spanking, not to mention the ongoing farrago at Middle-Eastlands and it all looks very tasty indeed.Coda: Obviously a picture of Ryan would have been more appropriate in the circumstances, but that image was just too good to resist. And obviously Wayne played a blinder as well; when doesn't he?
Can a football player ever be considered too highbrow? Not in the sense that he spends his spare time writing poetry rather than writing off brand-new Ferrari's or seeing to his blog via his laptop rather than seeing to lap dancers. Not in that way. But in the way that his appeal is limited to a discerning minority, a rarefied strata of supporters who consider themselves more refined than their lumpen red brethren.
For example I'm guessing that few match-going reds would be chuffed if they pitched up at the pictures to be greeted with a moody East European art-house flick in which nothing ever seems to happen and simply doesn't seem interested in pleasing them, when they expected some kind of high-octane chase-a-minute thrillathon with explosive climax after explosive climax.
Well I think we may well have signed the equivalent of that grainy art-house flick, and as one quite happy to fess up to many a lost afternoon in the Cornerhouse pondering obscure European cinema, I'm delighted. But I'm getting the impression this isn't the general view. Berbatov is a football purists dream. He is like the Citizen Kane of football, every shot a brilliantly thought-out, artfully composed masterpiece. And, like films of that calibre, his appeal seems destined to appeal more to the critics than the paying punters.
Languid is dismissed as lazy. Deft touches and an immaculate first touch are no substitute for racing up and down the pitch in pursuit of lost causes in the eyes of many at OT. Far better Tevez dashing aimlessly about the pitch than Dimitar dabbing a toe at the ball and directing it beautifully into Wayne's path. Such finesse is a precious rarity, but part of me feels that many of those in the ground would prefer to still have Alan Smith toiling up and down the turf.
Piece said, I'm off to read some Proust. Then watch Celebrity Big Brother.