11 Points From United v Chelsea, Champions League Quarter Finals

1. Heroes: My first thought after the game was: what a good football match it was. Yes, Chelsea were off their scoring form, but never a weak team. And despite the history and the high octane environment, the game was played in good spirit with plenty of friendly exchanges and respect. Vignettes of Rooney and Cole exchanging a smile, or Terry and Giggs, an appreciative handshake can be seen in the many photographs of the game. There were no bad tackles, no malicious intent, and even the red card for Ramires was for 2 technical fouls rather than a rash challenge. Chelsea fans might feel that the team was too well behaved, perhaps and a little anger might have been useful to fire them up more. The ebb and swell of the game itself, however, were enthralling. Chelsea did manage a significant number of shots, though most of them didn’t trouble VDS – it shows they had their chances.

2. Midfield Energy: The obvious stars of the game were Giggs and Rooney and the media are justifiably salivating over them – but it’s hard to pick out a poor performer on the night on either side. Torres has become the fall guy, but he worked hard in the first half and was in the game. Of course, Giggs was inspirational and who would have thought that Giggs and Carrick against Lampard, Essien and Ramires could end in anything but misery for United! A part of the reason for that of course was Rooney’s rampaging role, taking in both midfield and offensive duties, coupled with Park’s bottomless energy supply. There was a point when the commentator asked “are there 2 Parks on the pitch?” – It was a valid question as he was at the time tracking back to stop Ashley Cole.

3. The Unsung Park: While on Park, everybody is going on about the fabulous passes Giggs made for the goals, but the real flashes of genius in the goals came not from Giggs but his team mates. Giggs’s pass to Park was a 10 yard pass to an unmarked player. It was well spotted and calmly executed but hardly requiring genius. But I wonder how many players, outside of centre-forwards, at that stage of a Champions League quarter final, would have the presence of mind to receive the ball cleanly, drop it at their feet and smash it in with their wrong foot as though they were seasoned strikers? Big-game Park did. And embellished his already legendary status amongst the United faithful.

4. Understanding is Priceless: John O’Shea didn’t have a happy evening defensively – as he found it hard to cope with Malouda on the wing. But O’Shea is another player who rises to the occasion and often plays beyond his capability. And while his runs down the flank (and crosses) were willing but unspectacular, his reverse pass for Giggs, almost looking the other way, was inspired. And in that instant, you understood why expensive teams like Chelsea and Man City have struggled against well drilled units. That moment of understanding, of trust, for Giggs to make the run and for O’Shea to find him with the pass, cannot be bought. It has to be earned through familiarity.

5. Pain? What Pain? Rio was hobbling after 10 minutes and in some distress. You wouldn’t know it to see him through 90 minutes. Either it was a miraculous cure, or he endured some discomfort to play through. Either way, it was the kind of gutsy decision that every team needs, to fire them up. He’ll probably miss the next few games but the job was completed on the night.

6. The Deposed King: Hard to not feel sorry for Didier Drogba. Arguably the most magnificent centre forward of our times, the warrior supreme, has had to endure an ignominious season, first thanks to his own form and then due to Chelsea’s struggles to fit in Fernando Torres. I’m sure that at a club like Man United, Drogba would have been backed to the hilt, nurtured, protected, allowed to regain form and unleashed on hapless opponents at the business end of the season. For those who doubt that, I have just 2 words. Wayne Rooney. There are so many ways in which Torres could have been inducted into the team. Maybe ask Drogba to go all out for 70 minutes, and then let Torres loose against tiring defences? Ancelotti is up there with the best managers, but right now he has two demotivated strikers and Chelsea’s most prolific goal scorer is one Daniel Sturridge.

7. The Treble: won’t happen. Quite apart from the fact that Man City could easily win the semi final if United turn out to be flat after tonight. And Arsenal could conceivably catch up in the league. Or Raul and Schalke have a surprise in store for United. Then of course there’s the matter of the insurmountable Barcelona. Unless… United get past Schalke and Barcelona have the kind of off night they endure once a year. Unless… United play out of their skins and are absolutely irresistible. Unless… Unless…

8. Strange Season: So a season which started with most United fans resigning themselves to relative failure and a rebuilding process now stands within touching distance of greatness. United may still win nothing. But this team’s redemption is now complete. They may lack the sex appeal and fantasy quality of past teams, according to many pundits, but it strikes me that they’re peaking at the right time. Unusually, many players have actually returned to fitness or form in the last 3rd of the season. Rooney, Valencia, Carrick, Park and Ferdinand have all put their troubles behind them to give United momentum at a time when typically teams are struggling to maintain it.

9. The Warhorse: What is it with Ferguson? He once said that “success brings power, not the other way around”. How does he do it? It can’t be luck that Chris Smalling turns up just when Ferdinand’s body is showing signs of wear and tear. That O’Shea returns to fitness just when Rafael suffers an injury. Or that Carrick starts performing like a star just after signing a new contract. How far can he take this “average” team?

10. Second String: to appreciate the Man United team’s capability, remember that the weekend game against Fulham took in 8 changes from the first leg against Chelsea and won at a canter. Not counting anybody who actually made the field yesterday, leaving out long injured players (Fletcher, Rafael, Hargreaves) and questionable signings (Bebe, Mame Diouf), United’s “second string” team would look like this: Berbatov, Owen (Wellbeck), Obertan (Cleverley), Scholes, Anderson Gibson, Brown, Smalling, Evans, Fabio, Kuszczak. It’s not a team to make anybody cower in fear, but more importantly, any 2-3 players from this team could come into the first team and we would still expect to win.

11. Hernandez and Bebe: It’s better to win a game and lose one, rather than have two draws. (50% more points). Similarly, it’s better to have a star signing and a dud, rather than 2 average ones. The jury may be out on Bebe (let’s wait till next season, shall we?) but Hernandez’s 18 goals this season, many of them critical ones makes the Bebe punt worthwhile! Bottom line, while a lot of clubs buy cautiously like professional managers, Fergie behaves like a Venture Capitalist. A successful one, apparently.

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