Tag Archives: Manchester United

Some Soccer Thoughts

Some random thoughts about “The Beautiful Game” from an

“Ugly American” outsider looking in

Well that was surprisingly easy…

Ever since he took over as manager of Chelsea in July, I’ve been waiting for Luis Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari to stamp his imprimatur on this side. The irascible, stone-cold stoic who refuses to lose, plays with a decided bad disposition, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass what anybody thinks of him, Scolari has instilled the same characteristics in every side he has ever headed, with supremely fantastic results. Everywhere he’s been his sides have won (his four year stint at the helm of the Portuguese national side resulted in a 4th-place finish at the 2006 Cup and a 2nd-place finish at Euro 2004).

Yet the Blues have played with a decided lack of all of the above.

I’ve talked about “street cred” when analyzing Premiership managers in the past. Former Blues manager Jose Mourinho, the self-described “Special One”, had it in spades. Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger has it too. For more than 23 years Sir Alex Fergusen has been the epitome of it in the English top flight, willing his charges at Manchester United to previously unfathomable heights. I was certain that Big Phil would bring it to Chelsea and give Sir Alex a challenge he’s never had before.

So far there is all evidence to the contrary.

This past Sunday Chelsea went into Old Trafford and were dismantled 3-0 in a manner that suggests they’ve lost their bite. Same world-class players as in past years when the side led by Mourinho would come in and pick the Red Devils apart, but with a vastly different dynamic.

After watching Chelsea for most of the season so far I’ve kind of gotten the impression that Scolari is confused about what he is trying to do tactically. The Blues are uncharacteristically disorganized in the back (Even with John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho partnering in the center of defense for the first time since November). Players, notably Deco and Michael Ballack, aren’t going forward with any continuity or confidence as in past years, and neither is certainly showing any kind of offensive invention (which supposedly is why they got both). Notably missing is that ever-important defense in front of the backline and distribution from the holding midfielder, where John Obi Mikel is commendable but has nowhere near the impact of Michael Essien, out for the rest of the season.

But most bewildering is what’s going on up front, where Didier Drogba continues to be the preferred target man up front even though Nikolas Anelka has been far and away the most consistent finisher. Even though Anelka leads the Premiership in goals (not coincidentally because Drogba spent over two months injured), it is Drogba who gets the first-team spot and the lion’s share of the playing time. Ever since Drogba’s return from injury in late November Anelka has been relegated to the substitute’s bench.

Sunday was no different. It wasn’t until Chelsea was down a goal that Scolari brought on Anelka to replace Deco, and while Anelka played in Deco’s place on the wings – a place he clearly is ill-suited – it had the affect of having two finisher on the pitch at the same time, with confusing results for the rest of the side. Compounding matters is the fact that Drogba hasn’t been in-form all season, evidenced by his poor shot selection in this fixture…

…Somebody want to tell me why they got rid of Avram Grant – let alone The Special One — if this was the way they were going to play?

This is not to imply that Manchester United has been perfect themselves (they haven’t been), but the Red Devils sure picked the right time to find their world-class form. Sir Alex continues to find the right combination of players at the most opportune times, all the while getting into his counterpart’s head. This time around, he moved Ryan Giggs, normally a winger, inside, which, coupled with the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo and Park Ji-Sung were also in the starting XI, confused Chelsea fullbacks Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa as to who to mark on the flanks. This freed up space for Giggs to make runs and create through-balls in the center. Its mismatches like this that have confounded Chelsea for two and a half years now, regardless of who manages them.

World-class center defender Rio Ferdinand was not available, forcing youngster Johnny Evans into the center of the United defense. That ordinarily would make one think that world-class finisher Drogba would have a decided advantage. But Evans was a rock, dispossessing Drogba at will, and making him take horrendously bad shots. Gary Neville is getting long in the tooth, losing pace and stamina after a long spell on the trainer’s table, but what he gives up in workrate he more than makes up for in cunning and guile, and he had his best game this season closing down Chelsea on the right side. Of course, it helped that the Red Devils had Patrice Evra back from a five-game suspension; right now he is probably the best wingback in England in terms of going forward and creating chances (as much as I like John O’Shea he just can’t do the things Evra does going forward)…

…And I’ll just put it out there right now: NEMANJA VIDIC IS THE BEST DEFENDER IN THE WORLD! This guy is a rock in front of goal, he will take on anybody and is absolutely fearless. Add to that the four goals he has scored off of headers from corners, including the first one this Sunday. His take-on-anybody mentality coupled with Ferdinand’s anticipation and reading of the game make them the best defensive duo in the world and is the primary reason United have not given up a Premiership goal since November.

With two games in hand it looks like Manchester United are going to pip Chelsea for second place by this Saturday (they may even leap-frog Liverpool for first place by Sunday). This is normally the time of year when the Red Devils shift into fifth gear and go on one of their patented New Year tears. Not a good sign for Chelsea, where after getting only 10 points from their last seven Premiership fixtures there are rumblings that not unlike his predecessor Big Phil is losing the locker room and some quality players want out during this transfer window. If this keeps up and the Blues finish worse than second he probably lasts only one season in north London.

——–

I was as surprised as anybody that David Beckham made his debut with AC Milan in the starting XI. Still rounding back into shape after an almost three month layoff from Major League Soccer, the England midfielder, signed on a three-month loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy, crossed the ball effectively on numerous occasions before being substituted two minutes from time.

Beckham was in the center of midfield, someplace he has always wanted to play, playing deep in front of the 4-man backline. As the game wore on he moved to his customary right side (he may want to play in the center but his game is best suited for the wings; I guess old habits die hard). Beckham was most effective on corners, where even his teammates weren’t prepared for his accurate in-swingers. But those long crosses and through-balls into the box that are the cornerstone of Beckham’s game are not very well suited to the personnel that Milan has right now.

What was most surprising was that an on-loan player, even Beckham, was going to pip Massimo Ambrosini and/or Mathieu Flamini in the first team. In the 4-3-2-1 that manager Carlo Anselotti employs Ambrosini and Flamini are better suited as providers in midfield with link-up man Andrea Pirlo behind the main two withdrawn forwards, Ronaldinho and Kaka’, with Alexandre Pato (who came up huge) as the target man up front.

Of course, we are talking about marketing machine that is David Beckham, arguably the most marketable athlete in the world not named Tiger Woods. Beckham’s public reason for the loan to Milan was to keep in form for the English national side’s qualifiers for the World Cup while his MLS side Los Angeles Galaxy were in their offseason until April. Of course, AC Milan was all over that; why pass up the chance to earn long dollar with Beckham, even if it is only for three months? Can you imagine how rare those David Beckham #32 AC Milan jerseys are going to be after April? And why would Beckham pass up the chance to play for one of the premier football clubs on the planet, with the kind of world-class talent they have? Especially after having to suffer through the middling players Becks has toiled with in the MLS, globally thought of as a minor league at best?

Which begs the question: Is Beckham going to go back to Los Angeles at the end of his loan spell?

YES, HE IS! Even at 32 years of age and yet to be in-form Beckham proved in his 89-minute debut with Milan against Roma that when it comes to crosses, through-balls and set pieces there is nobody on the planet better. So even though he has had to ply his trade in a “minor league” Becks isn’t losing any skill; obviously the problems with the Galaxy are somewhere else. However, even though a high level of competition is still uppermost in importance to Beckham, like Tiger he is a global brand unto himself. And nowhere is he going to capitalize on that more so than in Tinsel Town, where appearances and commercializing can earn him nine figures annually. Even the fashion Mecca that is Milan can’t do that for him…

…Besides, Posh and the children are still in L.A. If he were not going to stay then they would have been outta there by now.

——–

See how Real Madrid now have three consecutive clean sheets in La Liga? What’s changed? Manager Berndt Schuster was replaced by Juande Ramos. This after Ramos spent the last five months failing miserably at Tottenham Hotspur.

Ramos was the wildly successful manager of Seville in La Liga, winning two consecutive UEFA Cups before heading to North London. Once there, he took over a lackluster side mired in the relegation zone, and in short order organized the backline while freeing up the wings to make runs going forward, thereby giving the front men the space to create their chances. In less than three months Tottenham got out of the relegation zone and made an impressive run to the Carling Cup, upsetting Chelsea in the final.

Not long afterwards, though, it went south for Ramos. Tottemham lost three key players to transfers, went back to their ineffective plodding style of play and not surprisingly back to the relegation zone this term. Ramos was gone by November…

…Which wasn’t enough to deter Real, whose attack was still as scary as ever but who couldn’t stop opponents from scoring to save their lives (that’s kinda what happens when you don’t have any defensive midfielders to speak of). Out with Schuster and in with Ramos.

I’ll say this for Ramos. His success with Seville notwithstanding, he clearly knows how to quickly turn a backline into a stifling unit. It is probably too late for Los Galacticos to catch Barcelona, who took advantage of Real Madrid’s poor defensive form and raced off to a 12-point lead. But if his previous stint in Tottenham is any indication, over the short-term Ramos’ defense may make life very miserable for everybody they face in the knockout stage of the Champions League.

– daveydoug


Now We Can Ask Who Is Better: 2007/2008 or 98/99?

Now that Manchester United have finished off “The Double” and won both the English Premier League and, most dramatically, the European Champions League (last night over EPL arch-rivals Chelsea on penalty kicks), the question can be most appropriately asked: Who is better, the 1999 treble-winning side – that also did the double but also included an historic march to the FA Cup – or these new Red Devil “babes”?

(If you were like me, then you thought the question most premature until the full measure of all competitions had weighed in to their conclusion)

To answer this, let’s start by first looking at what was accomplished last night. No doubt the two best sides in Europe waged war on the rain-soaked pitch in Moscow. On too many Champions League Final occasions you just didn’t get the feeling the absolute best were playing. Not to take anything away from Liverpool, AC Milan and Barcelona – they clearly deserved their continental crowns – but neither side won their own domestic titles the years they won the final. And don’t even get me started on Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and AS Monaco, qualifiers by standings only who lucked out getting to the final day of the competition and haven’t come anywhere close to making it to the first day of the competition since (a fact all the more embarrassing in Bayer’s case, which was relegated out of Germany’s top flight two years ago).

I’m a purist. I believe that the Champions League should only be for domestic champions, but that’s an issue for another time.

Just this once I can forgive Chelsea for not getting here by virtue of winning their domestic league; that would have entailed them pipping the team that did – Manchester United. Chelsea has clearly built a world-class team that can crush any team from any of the world-class leagues in Europe. Despite the drama of this season man-for-man this was clearly The Bleus best side under enigmatic Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich, whose wealth paid for all the world-class players on the side.

What characterized both finalists the most is that they are clearly constructed with a run to the European crown the overarching priority. More appropriately, both teams are constructed with designs on winning all three major club competitions, the EPL, FA Cup and Champions League. A deep run through all three simultaneously requires playing upwards of 60-65 fixtures. A domestic league schedule of 38 games is hard enough on a world-class athlete, so any club with the ambition of The Blues and The Red Devils would certainly have to have several Andriy Schevchenko’s and Louis Saha’s in reserve – and the monetary resources to maintain it (Malcolm Glazer may not have Abramovich’s billions but he is certainly is forthcoming with the cheddar, his running of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL notwithstanding).

(As an aside, we Americans think of the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys as these monoliths of athletic economic might. Compared to Manchester United and Chelsea, they are paupers.)

After 22 years, 10 domestic league titles, 5 domestic cup titles, one UEFA Cup title and one European championship, Sir Alex Ferguson has earned his stripes as arguably the best football manager of the last 30 years (and that’s not even taking into consideration his two domestic league titles, 2 domestic cup titles and one UEFA Cup title with his previous employers, Aberdeen of the Scottish Premier League). What a lot of people fail to realize about those 22 years at Old Trafford is that Ferguson has had to deconstruct this side and put together a newer, championship-quality side no less than three times.

Starting in 1986 and going through the early 1990s the Glasgow shipbuilder’s boy started with Mark Hughes, Brian McClair, Bryan Robson, Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe, Paul Ince, David May, Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce, Denis Irwin and most notably Eric Cantona. They won a couple of Premierships and a UEFA Cup but this was not a team that could keep United competitive for Fergie’s most ambitious goal, the European championship. So through the mid-Nineties he slowly nudged the old guard out and brought up youngsters David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phillip Neville, and Nicky Butt, then brought in Jaap Stam, Peter Schmeichel, Ronny Johnsen, Henning Berg, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Teddy Sheringham and most notably Roy Keane. This was the personnel that finally won it all for Fergie, culminating in a historic treble in 1999.

Believing this team would get him some more European honors Ferguson kept it mostly intact through the early part of this decade, with some help from Ruud van Nistelrooy, Tim Howard, Fabien Barthez, Roy Carroll, Andy Smith, Juan Sebastian Veron, Mickael Silvestre, Wes Brown, Luis Saha, Kleberson, Diego Forlan, Quinton Fortune and Gabriel Heinze. But around the time the Red Devils crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage – an unheard-of embarrassment – and they started losing out in the race to hardware to Chelsea and Arsenal, that is when Fergie went to work a third time. This time he eased out the previous players that brought him so much hardware and brought in Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Edwin van der Saar, Ji-Sung Park, John O’Shea, Nani, Anderson, Gerard Pique’, Darrin Fletcher and his most notable piece of inspiration, Cristiano Ronaldo.

The best part about this incarnation of Red Devils is that unlike previous editions a majority of these world-class players haven’t reached their 23rd birthday yet. The only holdovers from previous incarnations are Giggs, Scholes, Silvestre, Brown and Saha.

Chelsea finally made it to their main goal without the manager who deserves a lion’s share of the credit for putting this team together. Jose Mourinho has a driving conceit and the street cred to match. But for whatever reason The Special One was not allowed to finish what he started for Abramovich. That distinction fell upon Avram Grant, the stoic, stone-faced Israeli with a commendable record in lesser domestic leagues but no real accomplishments at this level. Whereas Jose lived to win, Grant exists to just not screw it up – a very important distinction. Whereas Jose had a superior ability to make a game conform to his will (and Gawd how he knew it), Grant tinkered to the point of distraction, coming up with lineups and formations that just didn’t make sense, even to his own players.

With the exception of the League Cup Final against Tottenham Hotspur nothing characterized Grant’s peculiar lineup choices more than the Champions League Final. In a modified 4-3-3 with a lone striker in Didier Drogba and two wingers in attack in Florent Malouda and Joe Cole, Grant chose to take a reactive rather than proactive approach for his backline.

Ferguson broke from character and instead of utilizing his customary 4-3-3 with Tevez up front and Ronaldo and Rooney servicing him, Ferguson employed a wide 4-2-2-2, a modified 4-4-2 with two defensive/linkup central midfielders, Ronaldo and Hargreaves on the flanks, and Rooney and Tevez in front of goal. Reacting to the fact that the best player in the world was playing on the flank, Grant put central midfielder Michael Essien on the right of his defense to shadow Ronaldo. This was Grant’s effort to keep Essien on the pitch without having to sacrifice Michael Ballack, Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele, Cole or Malouda.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Michael Essien as much as the next guy, and I understand that when he makes those direct linkup runs through the middle going forward Chelsea’s attack is damn near impossible to stop. Buuuuuuut – Michael Essien IS NOT A FULLBACK! Fullback is the soccer equivalent of an NFL shutdown corner. Essien, a bulking hulk for a soccer player, plays as position, linkup midfielder with some defensive responsibilities in front of the back four, that is the soccer equivalent of an NFL left tackle. In gridiron terms, Grant was asking an offensive tackle to cover Randy Moss.

This more than anything illustrates what separates Avram Grant from Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson waited until the last possible moment – a little bit of gamesmanship there – to turn in his lineup card, and rather than impose his team’s will on the game Grant reacts and tries to put a square peg into a round hole. Even that Grant was trying to make his midfielders happy should not have been paramount in his mind. It certainly didn’t matter to Ferguson, who not only took Ronaldo from in front goal and into a wide position of support, but left Ji-Sung Park, an integral player through 10 of United’s 13 Champions League fixtures, off the roster for this match entirely.

That this roster peculiarity of Grant’s came back to bite him in the ass really was not surprising. Rather than stay on Ronaldo on a Wes Brown cross into the box, Essien shirked his sole defensive responsibility to go after the cross – and there was a free Ronaldo to head it in for the first score.

Sure, Chelsea came back and tied it on a Rio Ferdinand defensive lapse resulting in a Frank Lampard rebound (hell, he’s probably the best central midfielder in the world, and Gawd knows he’s fearless). But what started working for Chelsea in the second half was when Daniel Carvalho, a more appropriate defender, took over primary responsibility for Ronaldo and Essien began to make those usual runs through the middle. Then United spent the better part of the rest of the game on their back heels.

Once it got to extra time, it simply became a game of attrition. Both Chelsea and Manchester United have tons of talent, probably more than any side in the world. But by extra time talent had virtually nothing to do with it. It became of function of who wanted it more.

I love slugfests like this. When you know you are watching the absolute best there is dropping all pretense of talent, fundamentals, form, strategy and tactics and just slugging it out to see whose left standing, that’s when you know you are watching something special. There was nothing really attractive or “beautiful” about this final, but it didn’t lack for tension. I would not have been happy had Manchester United lost but I would have been glad to have seen such a slugfest just the same.

As a rule, I hate penalty kicks. I think they are the worst way to decide a championship – any championship. I know that these guys have killed themselves for 120 minutes and to ask them to do any more would be sadistic, but there has to be a better way to decide these things than this. Furthermore, I don’t know that Didier Drogba’s sending off in the 116th minute would have made a difference, but I do know that slapping Nemanja Vidic with his open hand was colossally stupid. I hope he has played his last game for Chelsea, if for no other reason than because I’m tired of him torturing the Devils every time he plays them.

By all accounts Chelsea should have won this game, and Gawd knows they had more than a few opportunities to do it, whether it was shots that rang off the crossbar or penalty kicks they had no business missing. On so many fronts Manchester United were lucky, but good teams make their own luck, which is why it is I go against the axiom and would rather be good than lucky. I never thought I would ever see a team come this close to winning without having done so. Somebody had to win but nobody, not even Chelsea, deserves to lose like this.

Two key acquisitions got Manchester United back to English and European supremacy. The first came after a friendly back in 2004 against Sporting Lisbon, where a then unknown 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo shredded United like a food processor, and Ferguson spared no expense acquiring him even though at the time they were going through a stock takeover by the Glazers and had no transfer funds. The second was the acquisition of a star-quality defensive midfielder in Michael Carrick, who may not be the best DM in the world but had enough quality and heart to close down the opposition attack before it gets to the back four, provide ball-winning and anticipation in the center, and link up with the attack, an indispensable skill set missing from the side since they let Roy Keane and Nicky Butt go.

Even though Nani, Anderson and Carlos Tevez were the marquis acquisitions, I can understand why it was more important for Ferguson to get his hands on Owen Hargreaves and why he spent a year begging, prodding and pleading trying to pry him loose from Bayern Munich. You don’t see hybrid players of his kind with the star-quality skills to play fullback, defensive/holding/central midfielder, winger and forward flanker like him very often. Makes you wonder if Munich were ever really aware of what they had.

For whatever reason Manchester United spend an obscene amount of money on star-quality players, even when they probably don’t have to. But when you see the results you can’t argue with them.

What happens to Avram Grant from here? Hard to say at this juncture. Roman Abramovich had made no secret of his desire to make Chelsea the standard in international football and market them on a global stage. He wants Chelsea to have the same kind of global brand recognition and brand loyalty as the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Lakers, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus – and Manchester United, the most expensive and most profitable sports entity in the world. To that end, domination of the Champions League is imperative. I’m sure Abramovich believed it couldn’t have been set up for him any better: Beat the juggernaut Manchester United and get supremacy of Europe on his home soil of Moscow…

…And if Jose Mourinho had been at the helm I would have been worried. But Avram Grant just doesn’t have The Special One’s mojo. I’m sure Grant is a good technical director (what they call head coaches in football), and I’m sure he thinks his stoic calm keeps his charges at an even keel. But what this collection of Chelsea players need is what Jose provides; demonstrative ego coupled with an unmatched grasp of everything going on around him and the ability to force his will on the game. That just isn’t Grant.

The three competitions Chelsea was in contention for – and quite frankly were in the best position to win ever — were waiting for a demonstrative personality like Jose’s to take it over. That Abramovich didn’t recognize that is bewildering at best. In 10 lifetime meetings against Alex Ferguson, Jose lost only once. And most telling, Jose never lost when a trophy was at steak. NEVER! Not with Chelsea and not at FC Porto. Every time Jose made it to a final he won. EVERY TIME! If there ever was a time when Chelsea needed a coach who just knew he was going to win this was it, and Grant just didn’t step up to the plate.

It’s not like you couldn’t see it coming. Chelsea had embarrassed Tottenham 41 times in 43 meetings over 13 years, yet it was Tottenham, with a new adventuresome coach in Juande Ramos (not coincidentally the two-time defending UEFA Cup winner with Sevilla when he took over Spurs), who forced his will on the League Cup Final and ran Chelsea into the ground. The Special One would have never lost that game.

Grant is more of a reactive coach. You could see it at the end of the Champions League Final, where he played to role of fatherly consoler to his players. What they needed was somebody to kick them in the rear before them, and then come up with a proactive approach that would make Ferguson have to react to. It has been reported that Grant has long since lost the training room, that his players respect him to some extent but don’t expect anything from him on a daily basis either tactically, technically or fundamentally. Grant is more of a tinkerer; he tells his players where to play and when, then because they are star-quality players expects them to figure it out on their own once they are on the pitch. How else to explain putting Essien on Ronaldo? That just isn’t Jose, who would have never accepted losing the training room.

Ultimately this is why Jose deserves a lion’s share of the credit for Chelsea being the world-class team they are even though it has been eight months since he had anything to do with them. This collection of world-class quality is all due to Jose, and the foundation for it all is due to him. It was Abramovich and Grant that blurred the details. Now for the first time in five years Chelsea end their season with no hardware. Again, something that just wouldn’t have happened under Jose.

Bottom Line: Alex Ferguson remembered who he is, and he remembered who Avram Grant is not. In both cases the answer is Alex Ferguson.

I get the impression that Grant is more of a caretaker manager. He is not going to come up with anything on his own either tactically, technically or fundamentally that will take this or any group of players to a championship at this level. He is just a don’t-screw-it-up manager; what’s here in place has worked and he’s not going to drastically change the broad picture. I’ll even bet that he will have virtually no say in the close-season transfer market; that whatever tens of millions Abramovich wants to spend of a name Grant will take even if said name doesn’t really fit into what’s already there (see Schevchenko, Andriy or Crespo, Hernan). That said he at least has earned one more season just to see if the rest of us are wrong.

As for the big question at the beginning of this stream of consciousness: Who is better, the 98/99 Red Devils or the 07/08 Red Devils?

Both teams were loaded with world-class talent, so much so that there were internationals sitting in the stands not even suited up for many games. Both teams had to survive injuries to key players at inopportune times but had the star-quality depth to deal with it. And what I love about both incarnations of Sir Alex Ferguson is that he was able to find talent under the radar that turned into indispensable cogs in the machine; in 98/99 it was Solskjaer, Johnsen and Berg; in 07/08 it was Vidic, Park, Evra and Pique’.

Both teams did not have easy routes to their hardware. They both had to wait until the final fixture to win the Premier League. But the differences in schedule end there.

The 07/08 squad lost three league fixtures between December and the end of the season, including home losses to Bolton and Manchester City (who swept them this season), and they lost at home to Portsmouth in the FA Cup quarterfinals, a team they hadn’t lost to in any competition since the mid-Eighties. The 98/99 side did not lose a single game in any competition after mid-December, and that included three fixtures against Chelsea, three against Liverpool, four against Arsenal, three against Bayern Munich, two against Barcelona, two against Inter-Milan, and two against Juventus. That is a total of NINETEEN fixtures against the absolute best soccer teams on the planet. I wouldn’t wish that fixture list on my worst enemy, yet the 98/99 Red Devils negotiated it without ever dropping full points.

In contrast, the 07/08 Red Devils got Barcelona, Chelsea and then Barcelona again in one six-day stretch. Fergie didn’t put a full-strength squad on the pitch in the first two fixtures, locked up the back in getting a goalless draw in Barcelona and conceding the three points in West London, knowing that that was not going to lose him the Premiership. This more than anything even illustrates the differences in Fergie’s, because the 98/99 Fergie would have thrown up at the prospect of fielding a less-than full-strength team against anybody no matter the scheduling anomaly. In 1999 Fergie wouldn’t have just tried to survive and hoped for a result; he’d have gone balls to the wall and furiously tried to win those matches.

So I’d have to say the team with the best individual star-quality or world-class talent is the 07/08 Red Devils, and they are young so we are going to hear a lot from them in the coming years. That said the best team, the squad that was much greater than the sum of its parts, was the 98/99 edition. They certainly didn’t lack for star-quality or world-class talent; they had it in spades. But on the pitch together they were just on another planet. Given what it is they accomplished and the plethora of soccer land mines in front of them on the way to accomplishing it, I think you can make the case for Manchester United 98/99 as arguably the greatest single season football team ever.

But let’s not cast aside the new champions of Europe so easily. It is fitting that on the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster that claimed the lives of so many of United’s first-team players that it is Manchester United that lifts the European Championship cup. There is no better way to honor those who died and were seriously injured – as well as honor the team of “Busby Babes” that rose from the ashes of that disaster that included Denis Law, Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Brian Kidd, Noel Cantwell and George Best and won the 1969 European title – than a claim at the top of the European summit. The club with England and Europe’s best offensive and defensive record won the prize they so deserve.

daveydoug

Mourinho Had “Street Cred”

There was a moment right at the end of the first half of Chelsea’s visit to Old Trafford. Just as forward Carlos Tevez had struck an injury-time goal to give Manchester United the 1-0 lead, Red Devil’s manager Sir Alex Fergusen was seen walking off the pitch to the training room. Chelsea had yet to kick off and the half hadn’t ended yet. But for all intent and purposes Fergusen was signaling that the first half, for him, was over. Only seconds later did the game referee blow the whistle.

A small gesture indeed, and maybe one that is insignificant considering that the two minutes of injury time signaled by the referee was over anyway. But in the world of competitive athletics, this seemingly small gesture could have spoken volumes.

In the United States we call what Sir Alex Fergusen has “street cred” and “juice”. Fergie is one of the best and most respected soccer managers ever. If he says the half is over, then the half is over. It was a clear message sent to their opponents that day, and have no illusions the Chelsea players picked up on that, the timekeeper and the referee notwithstanding. More importantly, thought, this was Fergie’s way of throwing his weight around to signify what it is that Chelsea no longer had.

Under Jose Mourinho, you can make the argument that there had never been a time when Chelsea was more successful. In the three-plus years Mourinho was their manager Chelsea had won two English Premier League crowns – running away – and an FA Cup, as well as making it to the semi-final stage of the Champions League twice. If you include the UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup, and Champions League crown he had won with FC Porto the two previous years before arriving at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho had earned the kind of respect that Fergusen had. In essence, he had “street cred”. Take into further consideration that in the nine confrontations with Manchester United in Mourinho’s three years Chelsea had lost only once, then you can make the further argument that Mourinho had more “street cred” than Fergie.

Four days before this latest fixture with the Red Devils Mourinho suddenly departed as The Blues’ manager, leaving unknown Avram Grant as the manager. Whatever backroom conflicts that were boiling between Mourinho and Chelsea owner and super-billionaire Roman Abramovich are not important; suffice it to say that in replacing Mourinho, Abramovich did not understand the “street cred” that was going with him. Fergusen let both Abramovich and Grant know just who had the “street cred” in this fixture (Fergie had to walk by Grant to go to the training room).

Grant may have been a good club and international coach in Israel, and all due respect to him for that. But the EPL is an entirely different league. For now, though, Grant is going to have to earn “juice”, it won’t be just given. Sure he has the exact same world-class personnel that Mourinho had and he may turn out to be a good manager, but (1) these are Mourinho’s players, and (2) Grant hasn’t done anything with them yet. Plus, there are expectations at Stamford Bridge that not even Mourinho could fulfill (a Champions League trophy to be exact). You could tell from the unsmiling, dour doe-in-the-headlights look Grant sported throughout the entire match that Manchester United in Old Trafford was not the ideal fixture for this EPL neophyte to have to start his career.

daveydoug