Anticipating the Champion’s League final

It’s rather refreshing to approach the Champion’s League final, or any game, with Manchester United as distinct underdogs. I started supporting United in the first place because I was pulled in by the glamour of the big European nights, when English clubs were still feeling their way back into the competition after the Heysel ban. They would go to famous stadiums like the San Siro and the Camp Nou and it all seemed incredibly glamorous and intimidating, and it seemed like a big deal to be in the quarterfinals or the semis.

Whereas for the last few years, the top English clubs have gone away to big clubs in Italy and Germany with everyone expecting them to win, and we’ve had far too many all-English ties for the big games. Manchester United v. Chelsea might well be a good game, but it’s not exactly European. I want to see players and teams that I don’t see every week on Match of the Day.

And while Barcelona are hardly an unknown quantity — I’ve probably seen more of Barça this year than quite a few teams in the Premiership — they are definitely foreign, they’re definitely glamorous, and they’re definitely scarily good. I think United can beat them, but they might need a slice of luck to do it.


Manchester United 1-0 Barcelona

… and Paul Scholes scores. It’s just like the old days.

Really, though, I know we’re all supposed to get terribly excited by the prospect of all-English semifinals and finals, but I don’t watch the Champion’s League for the chance to see Chelsea play Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. I watch to see games like today’s: English teams playing against glamorous foreign opposition, with players like Messi, Eto’o and Deco that have amazing reputations but who I’ve rarely seen play.


Manchester United 7, Roma 1

That’s what you watch sport for. All the dreary 1-1 draws are justified by an evening like that. Not that a 1-1 draw can’t be entertaining, but you need the crazy, Hollywood nights from time to time as an inoculation against cynicism and boredom.


there’s only one Ronaldo

For the benefit of those of you who don’t know who he is, this is Christiano Ronaldo, who is, this season, a contender for the best footballer in the world:

George Boateng, captain of Middlesbrough FC, talking about a particularly unsubtle tackle by one of his teammates on Ronaldo:

“I’m not saying Morrison wanted to spoil his career or I’d ever do anything like that.

“But one day somebody will do it — whether in an international or in the Premier League. People don’t like it.

“People have pride in the game. No one likes to have the mickey taken out of them. One day, someone will hurt him properly and he’ll be out for a long time.

“When you’re playing Sunday football with your mates, it’s great.

“But at the top level, people don’t want to have the mick taken out of them. As professionals, we know he can do it. But if you want to do it, do it when it’s 0-0 or it’s important. Don’t do it when you’re winning 1-0 and there’s only two minutes to go.”

The reaction people have to Ronaldo really amuses me. He seems to outrage some deep streak of puritanism in the English football fan. It’s as though he was some kind of decadent affection on the part of Manchester United, a bit of imperial bling they brandish around just because they can.

I can see why he would irritate some people even without all the step-overs; he seems to have a blissfully unwavering sense of his own wonderfulness. But I think that Boateng is essentially right in his analysis: Ronaldo is in fact taking the mickey. He is showing a lack of respect. I think he knows that ‘at the top level, people don’t want to have the mick taken out of them’ and does it anyway. He’s rubbing their noses in the difference between playing at the top level and being one of the best in the world.

The mistake is to confuse a lack of respect for his opponents with a lack of seriousness, and to think that he’s failing to take the English league as the very serious business it likes to imagine it is. He wouldn’t have scored 20 goals this season if he was just goofing around. On the contrary, I think he embodies the confrontational nature of sport just as much as someone like Roy Keane. All his tricks and flicks are the equivalent of Keane’s tooth-rattling tackles, designed to impose himself on his opponents; the fact that people keep muttering about how much they’d like to kick him is a clear sign it’s working.

And if they really want to take him down a peg or two, the solution is simple enough: just cleanly and legally take the ball from him whenever he comes near. How hard can it be, right?