- sport -
I always try to make time to watch Manchester United play, and it hurts to admit that, of late, it has sometimes been a painful experience. Perhaps the fault lies partly with the opposition. Soccer is best served with speed and skill, and against teams that seem to play nine defenders, that can be hard to achieve as the flow is often broken up.
Truth be told, United have actually had a pretty decent season, one that could have seen them top of the table in another year, if not for Chelski's machine-like efficiency spoiling the market. United have fundamental squad problems, though, and are capable of long stretches of mediocrity before moments of magic.
The most glaring hole, in central midfield, makes one tremble. Where once there was Keane and Scholes, ably backed up by Butt, P.Neville and Veron, now stand Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea. Scholes remains but is not getting any younger, and Alan Smith is really a striker. Personally I think Park Ji Sung is a valid option, but he doesn't often get picked.
To be clear, Fletcher is not a bad player at all. It is just that, charitably put, he is not first-team material - perhaps in a few years, but definitely not now. And O'Shea, or Smith, or both of them for that matter, is obviously no Keane. So what we have here is a strong attack and a solid defence tacked onto a decidedly average engine room.
Not that the other departments are perfect. On the wings, Cristano Ronaldo remains an enigma. Having largely ditched his patented 1,001 stepovers, he too often still tries to beat one man too many. Tellingly, a Giggs short of a yard of pace generally looks more dangerous on the dribble. Even Park plays more effectively. To Ronaldo's credit, he's always ready to run and penetrate deeply, something few of his teammates try to do.
If there is one bright spark in the whole United team, it's Wayne Rooney. At twenty, he has carried United for too many matches already. Sadly, on his off days, he sometimes remains United's best performer. Unshakeable off the ball, he's a primal force when taking it forward. Spotted at leftback, right wing, indeed everywhere other than in goal, it's hard to imagine him getting much better.
In contrast, Ruud van Nistelrooy pales. Certainly he is a prolific poacher, but I sometimes wonder if quite a few other forwards can replicate his results given United's overall quality. He refuses to shoot from outside the box (with one exception), and is no threat to explode past the last man a la Henry (or Rooney, for that matter). Too often isolated when playing with his back to goal, he must desire Beckham back so they can form their old package deal.
Ah, the match itself. The first half had stalemate written all over it. Liverpool had the better attacking opportunities, but the United defence was comfortable. Which didn't say much for United's own chances, of course.
I wasn't too concerned when Cisse blasted over from point blank range in the second half, as the linesman appeared to have his flag up. It was only when replays showed that Ferdinand was still on the line after his saving clearance that the enormity of the miss sank in. Pleasingly, United then upped the tempo in front of their home crowd.
Had it stayed goalless, I would still have been satisfied with the attitude and confidence shown as United finally began looking like the home team. Rooney came frighteningly close from at least twenty metres, with a grounder that went just wide of the right post. Then came injury time, and new hotshot Ferdinand's fantastic headed goal that Reina got a hand to but could not stop.
It's hard to maintain a courteous silence while leaping up and down waving your hands, but what could I do? It is for moments like this that I watch soccer.
Soccer may be the king of sports, but it is not the easiest of games on the eye when played too tactically, too cynically. Basketball has its 24-second shot clock and halfcourt rule, in rugby and American football it makes no sense to retreat anything but the smallest of distances, and so on. Only in soccer can there be "Mexico" plays intended to run down the clock, where players not liking what they see in the penalty area can hoof the ball all the way back to their keeper.
But it is also precisely because of this nature that the goals are treasured more than comparable achievements in any other ballgame. A team can win all the corners and hit all the bars they want, but there is no other currency in soccer. No fractions, no minor credit, no judges' decision. Just the goal. And what a game it was, what a game it is.
It is at moments like this that I remember the Treble of 1999, and Oliver Holt's words. "In two astonishing, almost surreal, minutes at the end of the last European Cup final of the 20th Century, the gilded youth of the most famous of clubs left excellence behind them and found the greatness they have been searching for."
If United fail to dominate the English game as they did for the nineties, if they retain that never-say-die spirit, they cannot have let anybody down.
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