There is no God but Zlatan

Manchester United – Southampton 3-2 (Ibrahimovic ’19 ’87, Lingard ’38 – Gabbiadini ’45 ’48), EFL Cup Final, 2017-02-26, Wembley Stadium, London

I have to admit, I did feel sorry about Southampton having a disallowed goal for about half of the game. I stopped feeling sorry for them after Oriol Romeu got away with elbowing Herrera in the face (would have been his second yellow card). Instead, he struck the post 2 minutes later. So yeah, horrible decision by the ref and valid goal for Saints after 10 minutes of playing, but the referee mistake have this habit of evening themselves out in the end. And as far as key referee mistakes go, this was not one of them (here’s looking at Maradona’s hand of God in 1986 or Geoff Hurst’s goal that never was in 1966).

Having said that, they did batter us and it is the first game this year when United are outplayed. Pressing high, defending tight (with a couple of obvious exceptions), crowding the midfield so that they suffocate the creativity of our superstar players and having some very incisive attacks, these were the tools with which Southampton tried to spoil our party. In our corner, I find it telling for how far United have come under Jose Mourinho that even when tired, battered, outplayed and pulled back from two goals up, the team still maintained a positive outlook and an attacking focus. None of the fear and slowing down the play from Moyes’ nightmare year, none of van Gaal’s over-cautiousness, this was a team playing to score regardless of the score on the board. Tight defending, and in truth I don’t really find fault to our defenders on either of the two (three) goals, all of them being creations of the natural poacher that is Gabbiadini rather than defensive mistakes. But even when the defense works, Valencia and Rojo were always up on the flanks supporting the attack. And despite Southampton playing the game of their lives, there were moments when Pogba, Ibra, Lingard and Martial were tearing through their central defense.

And Zlatan… it is absolutely impossible to over-praise the man in regards to today’s game. He is the absolute winner of today’s final, unforgiving from both set pieces and open play. And as far as I remember, it is the first time since he came to United when his defensive contribution is also remarkable, with a ball headed out from imminent danger and originating the counter-attack which led to the winning goal. No wonder he was tired at the end of the game, but with 26 goals this season, can anyone doubt the impact the man is having at United? And with the swagger and the confidence the man displays in interviews, we can safely proclaim him as the second coming. Of Cantona the redeemer? Well…

Lingard thrives at Wembley, it was good to see him score his third goal in three games here, and having an altogether great game as opposed to his rather mediocre recent run of form.

It is harsh to lose a game that you’ve dominated for the most part with 3 minutes to go, and Mourinho recognized as much. But then, why did they leave Zlatan with so much space in the box? As for the disallowed goal, well… too much has happened over the course of the game to say that had too much of an impact of the end result. The way I see it, even if Southampton was arguably the better side, United had the psychological control over the course of the game, the experience of knowing when to push and when to sit back, when to force a goal and when to run the clock down.

I was glad to see Rooney lifting the trophy despite him not having any involvement in the game. The thing is… like many United fans, I have felt betrayed by Rooney in 2011 when he wanted to leave for Chelsea, and again in 2014 when he wanted to go to City. But Rooney’s United story started in 2004, and apart from the two moments who will forever be stains on his biography, Wayne’s achievements for Manchester United are undeniable. Nowadays, when Rooney only has only a peripheral role at United and he seemed to have accepted that, it is beneficial for everyone to show respect and deference to our all-time top scorer. No matter what happens from now on, Rooney is a legend of the game and I would like to see him lifting a few more trophies for us before his time is up.

So here we are then… winners of the first cup of season and if we add a very likely top 4 finish, we can already say this season is a success. Add in the two other cups we’re still fighting for, and we’ll already be looked up to by pretty much everyone else. The smell of silver always tickles our senses, but there’s something even more important that we’ve felt today: the sense that winning silverware is once again a common occurrence for United.

Rovers Return

Blackburn Rovers – Manchester United 1-2 (Graham ’17 – Rashford ’27, Ibrahimovic ’75), FA Cup 2017 Last 16, 2017-02-19, Ewood Park, Blackburn

Zlatan 24There was a time, in the early noughties, when I used to dread the games against Blackburn. Regardless of the league positions, for a few years we seemed completely unable to beat them. Granted, that was much closer to their Premier League title of 1995 and theirs was a much better team than it is today, with Morten Pedersen one of the most coveted left wingers in Europe, Martin Petrov or Brad Friedel among others. I only remember one other game against Blackburn that I watched as relaxed as I was today before the start of the game. It was New Years’ Eve 2011 and United was leading the race for the top spot while the Rovers were already on the horrendous downward slope begun with the Venky takeover that has seen them slide from the top half of the Premier League to the bottom of the Championship. Ironically, United lost that game 2-3 due to taking the points for granted and that loss has proven extremely costly, as that was the season ending with that disgustingly aching ‘Aguerooo’ shout and the noisy neighbors winning the Premier League for the first time.

I didn’t really doubt we’re going to win today, but once Blackburn scored, horrible nightmares in white and blue came rushing back. ‘So if we come out of the FA Cup‘ I thought, ‘it’s really not the end of the world provided we win the League Cup, get a top four finish and are the last English team in Europe.‘ I also thought though that with the hosts’ goal coming so early, they did nothing more than wake up a United side that, albeit modified from the standard 11 used in the league, was a really strong one. This proved to be the more grounded thought, and the really encouraging thing is that we only seem to be fielding strong teams nowadays. I mean, the least used player in our line-up of 18 today is a Champions League and World Cup winner.

Being the class act that he is, Mourinho praised the first goal and the general attitude of the Rovers today. Brilliant as their goal might’ve been though, it only came because our boys got into the game too relaxed, maybe looking down on today’s opponent, trying to avoid the elements rather than opposition’s attacks. Once we got down to business, it took 10 minutes for United to draw level through Marcus Rashford, taking advantage of a huge defensive oversight. Normally I would’ve expected a lot better organisation from a side managed by Owen Coyle, the same Owen Coyle who was a Premier League sensation a few seasons back. But I guess there’s a reason for Blackburn’s current poor run of form.

With a game level and half an hour in, Ewood Park became dull again, with the rain being the most spectacular event on the pitch. United had the lion’s share of possession and did try to break the Rovers down, but they were mostly half-hearted attempts, with nothing overly dangerous going towards Steele’s goal. Fearing a replay probably more than a defeat, Mourinho sent Ibrahimovic and Pogba on in the second half and sure enough, it was the two of them combining for the Swede to score what proved to be the winning goal.

There came another ‘Oh no!‘ moment in injury time when Blackburn did manage to push the goal in the net, but two of their players, including the scorer were in too blatant of an offside position to argue.

And so it came to pass another victory and another Ibrahimovic goal from a series longer than most anticipated. Next up in the FA Cup is Chelsea, and the last 8 does look to be the business end of the competition, the point where the big boys become interested. With such a good run of form, confidence levels up throughout the team and no injuries, we should be able to brush aside Chelsea in three weeks’ time. But even if we don’t, it will be a much tighter game than that painful 0-4 defeat back in October.

Dare to Zlatan

Manchester United – Saint-Étienne 3-0 (Ibrahimovic ’15 ’75 ’88 pen), Europa League 2016/2017 Round of 32 First Leg, 2017-02-16, Old Trafford, Manchester

When United bought Cantona for £1 Million in 1992, transaction that made Brian Kidd wonder if he ‘has lost a leg or something’, the overall feeling throughout the league was of envy, tinged with the hope that the Frenchman’s ‘unmanageable’ label will come to bite United in the back. Never happened, and Ferguson’s subsequent success over the next 5 years was attributed in large part to this transaction.

Zlatan's first hattrick for UnitedWhen United got Zlatan on a free transfer last summer, the dominating feeling was suspicion, including among United’s faithful, and I confess of personally being guilty of it too. Well, yes, he’s won 13 of the last 15 league competitions he’s been involved in, but how will he adapt to England? Is he not over it? He’s got no European or International trophies to show for his star status and the accompanying reputation is worth nothing if not doubled with on-pitch antics. Surely there’s a reason PSG is not fighting harder to keep him? Well, I bet someone in an office in Paris are biting their nails now for not trying harder to replace the Eiffel Tower with a statue of the Swede.

Fast forward 6 months and 23 goals and Ibrahimovic is well on his way to smash all sort of records with his scoring rate. Saint-Étienne should have known, he’s scored 14 times against them before tonight, and he’s now added three, with no promise that there won’t be more to follow in France next week. All the skeptics are now convinced of Ibrahimovic’s impact and without his goals United would not be in the position they are right now (yeah, I know, still 6th, but be sure we’ll finish higher than that).

And this instant and important impact is only one of the parallels one can draw between the kid from Malmö and the one from Marseille. Their bold statements, the way they carry themselves around, on and off the field, that off the pitch arrogance doubled by a magnificent scoring rate on it, there are lots of clues showing that Ibrahimovic is, in actuality, the second coming. Even Cantona recognized as much.

Why do I blab on about Zlatan, though? Wasn’t this supposed to be the Pogba brothers’ match, or something? Well, yeah, emotional and all, with the cameras giving the Pogba family a huge chunk of air time, but in a 3-0 game the focus has to be, necessarily, on the author of the hattrick.

Pogba played well enough for himself and yes, when you’ve won 3-0 is easy to point out the outstanding performers, with Martial and Blind tearing into that right side of the French defense like it wasn’t there, and Valencia carrying himself about with an impetuosity that made it completely unnecessary for a right winger. The truth is, however, that it really wasn’t that much of a good game. Bailly had made more mistakes than he’s managed all season so far, Mata was clearly uncomfortable as a striker, Fellaini disappeared from the game right after his disallowed goal, Herrera was caught on the wrong foot a lot of times and got a very unnecessary yellow card. Not to mention Saint-Étienne’s legitimate claim for a penalty in the first quarter of an hour.

Why the easy victory then? Is it down to a weak opposition? Well, partly, although between 5th in France and 6th in England shouldn’t be that much to choose from. Perhaps in a bigger measure, the victory is down to Zlatan’s magic, to Pogba’s sustained effort and to that suffocating pressing United is doing along the opposition’s 20 yards line. But most of all, I think, sealing the qualification from the first leg is down to an element we have yearned for over the last 3 years, and has now, luckily, came back: the fear factor, that X element which we have so dearly missed ever since Ferguson retired, the tranquility of the stands full of fans knowing that a routine game is a routine victory. It’s very recent, I first noticed it during the 4-0 FA Cup victory against Reading, so little over a month ago, once we learned how to keep a clean sheet and stop that annoying series of draws without which we would’ve now been fighting for the top of the league.

But Watford, Leicester, Wigan, were all comfortable victories and even the draw against Stoke felt part of that ‘business as usual’ routine in which, yeah, points will be dropped, but United are the masters of their own destiny regardless of the opponent’s name.

Mourinho has turned us into a pressing and possession machine and even though I still think we’re more wasteful than we can sometimes afford to in front of the goal, the future is rosy: two easy games ahead, one of which is a cup final, already through to next round in Europe and a return to Champions League next year that I think no one doubts – the Premier League trophy is sure to return home very soon.

 

Moral High Ground

West Ham – Manchester United 0-2 (Mata ’63, Ibrahimovic’78), Premier League 2016/2017 Matchday 20, 2017-01-02, London Stadium, Stratford

There are, I think, few things more distressing in sport than having to concede the moral high ground to your opponent, all the more so when it happens through no fault of your own. Any sort of talk about this game will have to start with the 15th minute red card. At the time I didn’t really see an offense and I didn’t understand who fouled who. I got a bit scared when I saw the red card in Mike Dean’s hand and a bit relieved when I realized it’s for West Ham. But it was to be a short lived relief. Having got such an important decision so horribly wrong, I feared Mike Dean will seek to compensate the Hammers, which will make our players get a few useless cards and be over-weary of making any sort of challenge for the ball. Luckily, it didn’t happen, and instead it was again West Ham who more misery will be inflicted upon by the refs when allowing the second goal from a fairly obvious off-side position.

So even the result went our way, the game has been tainted and Mike Dean played the bad guy in what was otherwise a rather boring production.

I hold a grudge against West Ham since May 10 last year when they beat us 3-2 in the last ever game at the Boleyn Ground thus making us miss out on top 4. I’m also a bit weary of them as, even though they’re in much poorer form than last season they have a good team and a few quality players than can win a game and they are, overall, a rather uncomfortable opponent. It was not the case today though and despite how much Hammers fans will want to cling on to that red card, I don’t think the situation would have been much different would this have been an 11 v 11 game for 90 minutes. United did control the game, had the lion’s share of possession and West Ham’s chances have been few and far between (namely two, Antonio’s 1 on 1 shot in De Gea and Lanzini’s shot from outside the box). But it was not a good performance and, if pundits were saying that the Boro game on New Years’ Eve was United’s best in the post-Fergie era, this one was rather reminiscent of Moyes’ nightmare season. In all but one regard: we won, and winning after a bad performance is certainly preferable to playing well but not winning.

Mourinho puts the performance down to tiredness and it might as well be so. In a weird way, it is even possible that Feghouli’s early and undeserved red card threw our players off their game. It was certainly the case with Phil Jones, who was unjustly cast as the villain by the 56k strong crowd at the London Stadium today and was booed every time he was touching the ball. Jones did nothing wrong, did not try to force the ref’s hand in punishing the opponent and did not dissimulate the pain, Feghouli really hit him in the clash, although unintentionally. Maybe Jones should have pleaded Feghouli’s innocence to Mike Dean. If he was to undo the red card he would’ve now been hailed as a hero and an example of sportsmanship. But Jones, for all his merits. is not cut from the same cloth as heroes, but rather the one foot soldiers are made from.

I am happy for Mata, the man deserves all the good that’s coming his way, happy for Ibrahimovic’s goal, though I would – like himself, I suspect – happily trade this silly offside goal for the spectacular one he scored two days ago against Middlesbrough and that would’ve put him on the par with Messi for 2016. It is in the cancellation of that goal that the explanation of Mourinho’s ‘champions of bad decisions‘ statement mostly lies. I am happy for Rashford’s Man of the Match and surprised the kid does not start more often.

Very poor performance today by Lingard, even though he hit the post once, and once again a bad mark for Pogba for not playing to the level that is expected of him and that guarantees him a starting place in game. He was selfish today and shot wide a ball that would’ve been much better used by Ibrahimovic who was only a short pass away.

I did not mean for my reaction to the game to be so negative and gloomy, but it is a reflection of a poor game, I suppose. The result was good and I beg you not to pay any heed to romantics who will try and bore you with talk of the beautiful game. This is a results business.

And because we’re only two days in a brand new year which we all want to be good and prosperous, I wish you all a great start to 2017 and an even better continuation of it! And I will end on a humorous note quoting United’s official greeting: ‘Welcome to Zlatan, 2017!’ and a joke of my own: What is the exact definition of a dick head?

Scorpion Sting

Manchester United – Sunderland 3-1 (Blind ’39, Ibrahimovic ’82, Mkhitaryan ’86 – Borini ’90), Premier League 2016/2017 Matchday 18, 2016-12-26, Old Trafford, Manchester

I suppose, with a name like Mkhitaryan, you get used to trying the impossible. That was the very face of beauty, and making that attempt is attempting to touch the Gods. And it was a goal out of this world. Scouring YouTube for similar goals doesn’t yield anything similar at this level, although I did find one from Ligue I from a few years back. You might even recognize a face:

Complaining about the off-side is missing the point: 2-0 up against one of the poorest teams in the division with 5 minutes to go, in complete control of the game, that is the perfect time to put on a show. Just sit back and enjoy that kick, and watch it many times over. Then remind yourselves that moments like these are what we love football for, not offside positions. It almost feels right that Borini’s goal was rather spectacular itself: means Mkhitaryan’s scorpion didn’t change much of the game’s outcome regardless of what it changed in the fabric of the universe. It is, of course, annoying that we give away clean sheets so easily, though I do suspect it will not be the focus of the post-game analysis.

So life is pretty rosy right now, isn’t it? 4 wins in a row,  the team is creating chances and even taking some of them, defense has tightened, we seemed to have settled into a stable formula (or ‘philosophy’, as van Gaal would call it), even Pogba is playing to a level closer to his price tag. The fans’ forums are full of self-congratulatory messages and Christmas wishes and one is hard pressed to find any complaints. It is, therefore, time for a reality check, a State of the United if you will:

We’re still conceding goals way too lightly, we’re heavily reliant on Zlatan for goals and we’re still 4 points away from top 4 and a huge 13 points from first place, while the teams above us are also wining their games and Chelsea seem unstoppable and strutting towards their 5th Premier League title. I’ve got no doubts Mourinho is working on the first two: once Bailly and Smalling come back into fitness there will be a competition for places in defense and the manager will be able to get the best out of the department; in attack, there is a growing understanding between Zlatan and Pogba and this pair will generate a few more goals this season. Whilst we do have players that are not afraid to try their luck from the second line (Rooney, Herrera, Mata, Lingard) and incredible firepower on the bench (Martial, Rashford, even Depay), everyone need to improve their accuracy and confidence. So in both cases, there is progress.

However, in regards to the last two issues, I doubt a lot more can be done this season: the title is out of reach by now and top 4 seems highly disputed. With Tottenham still lacking the big boys mentality, Arsenal starting to choke, Guardiola bringing out the worst in De Bruyne and Liverpool being natural losers, I am rather confident of getting one of the 4 coveted Champions League spots by May.

But I do blame Mourinho for what seems to have been some petty arithmetics done way back in the beginning of the season: insisting to play Pogba even when he was bringing nothing to the game costed us probably around 4-6 points, while a very casual attitude towards defending an advantage costed us about double that. Yes, the team are coming into shape and are now reaping the overdue rewards that Mourinho was talking about, but I’m under that the Portugese didn’t plan for more than top 4 in the summer. With maybe a cup to quiet the masses. And I’m not sure how to feel about this. It’s all good and swell if we’ll be taking Premier League and Champions League by storm next season and we’ll get back to winning ways and we’ll dismiss the last three years as a horrible nightmare. But I do not by any means want us to become, like Arsenal, eternal also-rans. A title now and then is more important to me than a long United career for Mourinho.

It is not a time to be overly negative, though. Middlesbrough on New Years’ Eve should be another 3 points and 2017 starts with a visit to West Ham, after which we’ll accommodate Reading and Hull before the Liverpool game. Which means that, in theory, before 15 of January we should be able to extend the winning run to 8 games, go up a spot in the league (Spurs have Chelsea visiting next week) and meet the scousers firing all cylinders. 6th in the league at this time of the year it’s far from ideal, but it’s still a lot better than 6th in the league under David Moyes.

Come on, Southampton!

Where Eagles Stare

Crystal Palace – Manchester United 1-2 (MacArthur ’66 – Pogba ’45, Ibrahimovic ’88), Premier League 2016/2017, Matchday 16, 2016-12-14, Selhurst Park, London

‘Oh no! Not again!’ I thought as Palace scored. Like all United fans, I’m well sick of all the draws we deserved to win and of conceding late goals. A far cry from the reputation of comeback kings we created in the Ferguson era and maintained through the darkness of the past three years. Yet I felt strangely confident before the game, feeling like the win over Spurs on Sunday was the click the team needed to finally turn those draws into three-pointers.

Besides, Selhurst Park has historically been good to United.

Important three points on a night when all the teams above us in the table won, but the major talking point of the game will be the appalling refereeing. 5 major talking points:

  1. Handball Ibrahimovic? It KINDA looks like it. But it took me a long look to bring myself to ‘maybe’. And I had to do this: zisq
  2. Offside Pogba? ‘Probably. But we’ll take that’ says the commentary on MUTV. I shall only notice Pogba’s left foot is behind the last defender’s right foot the moment Ibrahimovic touches the ball (with his hand?)
  3. Rojo red card? Two footed tackle? Yes. Contact? Hardly. Applying the law at its harshest would mean Zaha should be penalized for diving. So there’s a potential for harm in Rojo’s tackle but no intention of harm and no actual harm at all done. I think yellow card is the correct decision. Having said that, it’s Rojo’s second two-footed tackle in as many games, and he should keep his temperament in check a bit better. I’m sure both himself and Mourinho are working on this.
  4. Penalty for handball on Joe Ledley? No question about it. Hand was away from the body, up in the air, there is a clear contact between the hand and the ball and a clear intention of contact. No penalty given.
  5. Offside Mata? Not at all. It’s a back pass and Mata is behind the defender. The goal should’ve stood.

So in all, a goal that should’ve been disallowed, a disallowed goal that should’ve stood and a penalty that was never given. Palace have no reason to complain about the ref, but the FA should. And, were it not for the genius of Zlatan, we would’ve felt hard done-by dropping points in this game.

Palace were lucky to get their equalizer completely against the run of a game overwhelmingly dominated by United, though in fairness the assist was a thing of beauty. Delaney’s clever back-heel flick threw off United’s defence and left MacArthur one on one with De Gea and with an easy task.

Zlatan did what Zlatan does to put the game to bed, so I won’t insist on the chip cleverly assisted by Pogba. It’s the kind of stuff we’ve come to expect from the Swede. Alan Shearer was disputing whether he’s in the same category with Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar. But what I say is… with such an incredible scoring rate (14 goals in 24 games in all competitions, 9/15 in Premier League), who cares?

So it looks like the team is finally starting to click, which is great news. But there’s still work to do and we still need to improve closing off games as by the look of this one,Palace should’ve never had a look in. We’re 19th in the Premier League in terms of converting chances and De Gea’s clean sheets are harder to come about than hot summers in Britain.

La jumatate

Norwich City – Manchester United 0-1 (Welbeck ’57), Barclays Premier League 2014 Matchday 19, 2013-12-28, Carrow Road, Norwich 
The Chosen OneFara Rooney si van Persie era clar ca meciul cu Norwich o sa fie greu. Revenirea din meciul cu Hull de la 0-2 la 3-2 o fi ea marca inregistrata, dar pun pariu ca e mult mai dificila pentru jucatori decat e pentru spectatori. Iar ritmul de 3 meciuri pe saptamana din perioada sarbatorilor face deliciul publicului, dar isi pune amprenta asupra performantelor fotbalistilor.

E minunat, in contextul asta, ca United a plecat cu 3 puncte de pe Carrow Road. Mai mult, ma bucura stilul in care au fost castigate cele 3 puncte. Dominati in majoritatea timpului, terminand meciul in propriu careu, e un stil destul de tipic de a castiga meciuri in ceea ce SAF numea squeaky bum time. Arsenal au facut-o azi cu Newcastle si se intampla, de-a lungul unui campionat ca spectacolul sa conteze uneori mai putin decat victoriile.

Cumva, in ultimele trei meciuri recunosc stilul United. Fie victorii categorice, cum a fost cea cu West Ham, fie reveniri spectaculoase, ca in meciul cu tigrii fie jocuri la limita ca cel de ieri, United pare in sfarsit a se fi regasit. Iar asta e o veste minunata, mai ales ca vidul de putere creat de startul nostru slab n-a fost umplut de o alta echipa, ci a ascutit foarte tare lupta la varf.

Dupa cum vad eu situatia, regretabile sunt doar cele 6 puncte pierdute cu Everton si Newcastle. Mai mult decat orice altceva, cele doua meciuri au stricat sezonul lui United. Cu victorii acolo, am fi fost acum pe locul 4, la 2 puncte de primul loc si cu 4 puncte peste Liverpool. Chiar si asa, sezonul nu e deloc compromis.

Pot chiar sa spun in momentul asta ca dupa retragerea lui SAF dracul nu e chiar atat de negru. Ma asteptam la un sezon greu, dar odata ce a trecut cosmarul in care se facea ca United era pe locul 12 la jumatatea turului, lucrurile sunt de fapt mult mai asezate, locul de Champions League e din ce in ce mai vizibil si suntem deja intr-o semifinala de cupa. Ca sa nu mai vorbim de grupa castigata in Champions League si tragerea la sorti mai mult decat accesibila. Inca e posibil sa terminam sezonul cu 4 trofee (am castigat deja Community Shield), iar ziarele englezesti vorbesc tot mai mult de cota pe care o are United la castigarea titlului.

Visez frumos, desigur. N-o sa terminam cu 4 trofee. Dar cert e ca Moyes stie ce face. Dupa parerea mea, urmatorul meci, cu Tottenham, e decisiv. Spurs e una din echipele cu pretentii ale campionatului si chiar daca sunt oarecum in deriva momentan, pe White Hart Lane impotriva lui United au facut cel mai bun meci al sezonului. Daca incepem anul nou cu o victorie intram cu curaj in lupta pentru primele patru locuri (care eu pronostichez ca vor fi ocupate de Arsenal, Chelsea, City si United, nu stiu inca in ce ordine).

A fost distractiv sa-i urmaresc pe Liverpool jubiland ca sunt pe primul loc de Craciun pentru ca in ajun de an nou sa se vada in afara top 4 si plangandu-se de arbitraj. E cumva un semn ca lucrurile revin la normal.

Si ca sa revin putin la meciul cu Norwich: a fost o victorie chinuita, intr-adevar, dar dupa gol United a inchis bine meeciul si pana spre final canarii nu prea -au mai deranjat pe De Gea. Inca am emotii cand il vad pe Johnny Evans in aparare, iar daca nu e Rafael in banda dreapta e suferinta in partea aia de teren. Asta imi doresc eu de la fereastra de transferuri din ianuarie: un fundas central pe care sa ne putem baza si care sa-i ia locul lui Rio. Seamus Coleman n-ar fi rau deloc. Am renuntat la ideea mijlocasului ofensiv, e clar ca nu asta e stilul care se urmareste la United. Iar daca Fletcher si Carrick sunt disponibili, la mijlocul terenului stam chiar bine.

Concluzia mea la jumatate de sezon e asadar ca – desi as fi preferat de 1000 de ori ca SAF sa nu se fi retras – Moyes e o alegere buna, poate cea mai buna dintre cele posibile. Chiar si Mourinho pare sa nu se regaseasca deplin in acest al doilea sejur in Anglia, desi are conditii ideale. Si probabil ca Chelsea o sa castige campionatul, dar cu destule emotii.

Sfarsit

SAFCe se poate spune despre Sir Alex Ferguson care sa nu fie ori platitudine, ori subestimare? In saptamana care a trecut de la anuntul retragerii lui s-a scris si s-a spus deja mult prea mult pentru a mai putea cineva sa mai aduca ceva nou.

Am tot incercat sa-mi dau seama ce simt, dar se pare ca e una din ocaziile in care limitele lumii mele se dovedesc mai largi decat limitele limbii mele. Unul din lucrurile despre care, pentru ca nu se poate spune cu claritate nimic, e mai bine sa se taca.

Am vazut prima data in Evening Standard. Fergie Quits, am prins cu coada ochiului titlul de pe prima pagina. Trebuie sa fie vreo gluma, vreun alt zvon de prost gust, mi-am spus. Am luat ziarul si am citit. Parea serios. Inca il mai am, ziarul. Intentionez sa opresc prima pagina si s-o lipesc undeva la vedere, pe un perete. E un eveniment marcant, un punct de turnura in viata mea. Deocamdata inca imi e frica sa ating ziarul, zace asa cum l-am asezat cand l-am adus acasa, dar probabil ca o sa treaca si asta.

Citeam si nu prea-mi venea sa cred. L-am intrebat pe individul de la sala de net: “Ai vazut asta?” “Da, am vazut la stirile de dimineata”. Deci e adevarat. Cred c-am mai rezistat vreo 10 minute pana sa izbucnesc in plans. S-a intamplat cand am citit mesajul lui van Nistelrooy. 2001-2006, 219 games, 150 goals under the most successful manager in football history. It was a unique privilege.

Ultima data cred ca a fost azi-dimineata. M-am gandit mult la ce inseamna pentru mine. Cand moare cineva drag, un loc comun in care gasesti consolare e ca a plecat intr-un loc mai bun. Dar acum nu functioneaza. Pentru ca ce loc poate fi mai bun decat banca lui United? Cum poate sa spuna ca nu-i place, ca exista altceva mai bun? Oboseala sau plafonare? Dar il stiam imun la ambele.

Evident ca m-am simtit tradat, evident ca simt ca imi datoreaza sa fie acolo, iar argumentul ca n-are nici o datorie fata de mine nu tine. E nescris, dar avem un contract. Ambele parti se angajeaza sa se sustina reciproc indiferent de circumstante. E un contract care nu expira. Am fost si furios, dar cred ca tristetea e dominanta.

Imi trebuie multe cuvinte sa spun tot ce inseamna Manchester United pentru mine, dar e mult mai simplu cu Alex Ferguson. Alex Ferguson este Manchester United, daca nu cumva mai mult decat atat. In cei 14 ani de cand ma numesc suporter al clubului, a fost singura constanta. I-am sustinut intotdeauan deciziile, chiar si cele mai controversate, chiar si cele de care s-a dezis, si am fost rasplatit de fiecare data pe masura. da, sa plece Beckham, da, sa plece Stam, da, 42 de milioane pentru Rio Ferdinand, da, sa plece Tevez, da, sa plece Ronaldo, da, sa plece Rooney, sau sa stea, daca SAF considera, da, sa ramana Glazerii daca Saf ii sustine.

Si-acum? N-am stiut niciodata altceva decat ca Alex Ferguson e antrenorul lui Manchester United, asa cum soarele rasare in fiecare dimineata si ploaia cade mereu de sus in jos. Cum o sa fie cand n-o sa mai fie pe banca? Nu stiu. Cum ar fi daca soarele n-o sa mai rasara? E intuneric, e neantul.

Cred ca Moyes e cea buna alegere si am deplina incredere in el. N-as avea cum altfel, e decizia lui Alex Ferguson. Dar cine il poate inlocui pe individul care a avut cel mai mare impact asupra fotbalului? Cat de bun poti sa fi la un job in care in fiecare dimineata in drum spre birou treci pe langa statuia aluia care a fost acolo inaintea ta?

E momentul potrivit? Sigur ca e momentul potrivit, campionatul e castigat, lotul e competitiv, tranzitia se desfasoara in cele mai bune conditii posibile, iar competitia pentru primul loc anul viitor se anunta destul de slaba. Numai ca de fapt nici un moment nu e potrivit pentru retragerea lui Alex Ferguson, asa cum nici un moment nu e potrivit pentru sfarsitul eternitatii.

Stim cu totii ca traim sub auspiciile mortii si ca timpul nostru aici e finit, dar nu stiu cati isi fac planuri luand in calcul propria moarte. E doar o chestie dintr-un viitor vag, niciodata prea apropiat. Numai ca eu mi-am imaginat intotdeauna ca moartea mea o sa vina inainte de retragerea lui Sir Alex Ferguson.

Friendly Fire

Real Madrid – Manchester United 1-1 (Ronaldo ’30 – Welbeck ’20), UEFA Champions League 2013 Last 16 1st leg, 2013-02-13, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid

Fiul ratacitor

De cand prima divizie spaniola a devenit liga non-competitiva, fotbalistii celor doua echipe dintre care se alege castigatoarea se comporta mai mult ca niste vedete de cinema. Intotdeauna aranjati impecabil, afisand tot soiul de frizuri si aranjamente de pilozitati menite sa nasca trenduri, regretand parca faptul ca inca sunt obligati sa poarte tricouri la fel de la Nike, desi ar fi preferat mai degraba Versace. Fotbalul a devenit secundar imaginii. Imi amintesc de o vreme in care Sergio Ramos era un fundas dreapta promitator si respectat in fotbalul mondial, un pusti cu o claie salbatica de par. Acum Sergio Ramos e  o vedeta a lui Real Madrid, care prin spectacol intelege sa cada si sa se tavaleasca teribil de cum simte ca van Persie i-a atins fata. van Persie a luat galben, si scapa intelegerii mele de ce Sergio Ramos a scapat de galben cateva minute mai tarziu cand desi nu i-a pus mana pe fata lui Johnny Evans, i-a aplicat un cot in ceafa identic loviturilor cu care se omoara vitele. Nord-irlandezul nu s-a plans la fel de tare, poate de-asta.

La fel, nu inteleg de ce Rafael ia galben la un blocaj corect, chit ca destul de solid, pe linia de fund, in unghi inchis, pe cand Varane nu e nici macar avertizat cand il opreste pe Evra dintr-o actiune de unu la unu cu portarul, faza pentru care in mod normal se acorda eliminare. In fine, nu arata bine sa ne plangem de arbitru. United o sa se califice oricum, dar ar fi fost mult mai usor daca am fi avut un arbitraj corect in seara asta. Genul de arbitraj care te lasa sa executi ultimul corner al meciului.

Nu prea mi-am pus problema ca n-am trece de Real Madrid, doar ca nu prea-mi dadeam seama cum. SAF a optat pentru o formula prudenta, fara aripi veritabile, cu Jones sprijinind defensiva pana intr-atat incat a jucat efectiv ca al treilea fundas central in ultima parte a meciului, si a aglomerat zona centrala, plasand acolo cativa ghimpi in apararea mai mult entuziasta decat organizata a madrilenilor: Welbeck, Kagawa, Rooney si van Persie, functionand mai degraba ca o a doua linie de mijloc, dar gata oricand sa ciupeasca orice minge ratacita in jumatatea adversa.

Si se pare ca a citit bine jocul pentru ca, desi a presat mai insistent decat am vazut vreo alta echipa sa preseze in memoria recenta, Realul a avut totusi destul de putine ocazii. Cu bara din prima repriza si cu paradele lui De Gea e poate ciudat sa spun asta, dar majoritatea ocaziilor Realului au fost mai degraba realizari individuale de exceptie din pozitii dificile decat combinatii rapide care sa strapunga defensiva. Din punctul asta de vedere, mai periculoasa a fost Reading, in meciul de pe Madejski din decembrie.

Desi golul lui Welbeck, cu tot cu demarcarea de dinainte a fost mai bine calculat, e evident ca golul lui Ronaldo o sa fure toate genericele. Oarecum normal sa fie asa, a fost intr-adevar o executie care nu-i la indemana oricui. Saracul Evra, nu prea a stiut ce se intampla cand a sarit cam pana la nivelul genunchilor lui Ronaldo. O fi crezut ca s-a ejectat. Stim cu totii ce poate sa faca Ronaldo, stim si de unde a invatat. Dar chiar si asa, ce poate sa faca Ronaldo e mult mai putin decat ce crede ca poate sa faca Ronaldo. De-asta ma bucur ca il avem acum pe van Persie, care e destul de aproape ca talent fotbalistic, dar pluseaza puternic la maturitate. Iar cele vreo trei cascade de driblinguri pe care le-a aratat astazi ne dau putine motive sa-l regretam pe portughez. A avut ghinion ca n-a marcat astazi van Persie, dar ocazii or sa mai fie.

Din nou, s-ar putea spune ca e prea multa siguranta in tonul meu, avand in vedere ca United a fost dominata teritorial si ca posesie. Si intr-adevar, nu-mi amintesc sa fi intalnit anul asta o echipa mai agresiva, cu mai multa tehnica individuala si mai pregatita fizic decat Realul din seara asta. Dar United a stiut cum sa raspunda si a facut-o excelent. Iar dupa cum stau lucrurile in momentul asta, diavolii sunt in sferturi. Sigur, n-a castigat nimeni si dubla e inca deschisa. Ah, de fapt…

A castigat cineva in seara asta. Au castigat cei 200 de milioane de spectatori. Si fotbalul. A fost un meci tare frumos.

Blowing Bubbles

West Ham United – Manchester United 2-2 (Collins ’27 ’59 – Cleverley ’23, van Persie ’90), FA Cup 2013 3rd round, 2013-01-05, Upton Park, London

Don’t know man… in the end, it’s just 11 men against 11 men. The FA Cup it’s always like that. There is no easy game. It might be lower rank opposition… if they’re hungrier than you on the day, that’s it.”

Interlocutorul meu, pe care abia l-am cunoscut, e suporter Liverpool. Am incercat sa evit sa vorbim despre fotbal, dar despre ce altceva sa vorbesti? E un subiect atat de usor pentru conversatie de complezenta, mai ales in ziua in care echipele din Premier League debuteaza in FA Cup. Tot ce-mi spune sunt platitudini, tautologii aproape. Dar cand se apropie ora meciului, capata dintr-o data substanta. Liverpool cu Mansfield Town pare un meci usor, dar e greu sa nu tremuri.

BubblesUnited a jucat pe Upton Park, un meci greu pe hartie pentru ca Upton Park e un stadion pe care traditional se castiga greu, iar trupa disciplinata a lui Allardayce e motivata si de intoarcerea unuia din fii ratacitori, Joe Cole. Si tot ce-a spus hartia s-a adeverit. O zi buna pentru casele de pariuri. West Ham a jucat bine si a revenit in fata lui United, lucru cu care nu se pot lauda multe echipe. Si-ar fi fost o zi extraordinara pentru ciocanari, cu doua pase de gol ale lui Joe Cole la al doilea debut si victorie in fata lui United in cupa. Suporterii au fost si ei la inaltime, terenul a fost acoperit de faimoasele baloane de sapun pe aproape toata durata meciului. Din pacate pentru gazde, n-au luat in considerare factorul X, Robin van Persie, care e atat de ridicol de prolific incat cand a intrat toti cei din jurul meu erau convinsi ca o sa inscrie pentru ca oricum van Persie “inscrie cand vrea”. Si erau aproape in unanimitate fani West Ham. De altfel e foarte greu sa gasesti in Londra un loc unde sa se difuzeze un meci al lui West Ham in care publicul sa nu fie in majoritate claret and blue.

Mi-a placut foarte mult cum a fost reflectat meciul in Evening Standard. Scurt, dar atat de cuprinzator: “For all the ‘magic’, giant killings and the iconic moments, the FA Cup is a cruel competition. After the heartbreak of the 2006 final, West Ham fans need no reminding, but the footballing gods felt otherwise. Moments from a deserved win, Robin van Persie hit a sublime equaliser to set up an Old Trafford replay. We all know what happens next.

“Can United score? They always score!” (Clyde Tyledsley)