It took exactly 35 games and 39 seconds, but it was all finally over when Carlo Ancelotti’s left eyebrow – you know, the one that seems permanently raised at press conferences – literally popped up and off his forehead and scuttled off the pitch at Old Trafford, all the while screaming and spitting out profanities at David Luiz’s inability to defend against the simplest of through passes. You laugh, but that eyebrow showed more emotion on Sunday than any of the high priced players on Chelsea except, perhaps, for the always offensive John Terry.
So, to borrow a theme from the brilliant @runofplay, this most unpredictable of all EPL title chases has ended in the least shocking manner: Manchester United winning the league (let’s not be coy about this one, despite the fact that it’s not technically over), Chelsea trailing — just so — and Arsenal throwing away yet another bright start as the nerves got a bit tight down the stretch. With City looking poised to finish fourth, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would have picked another team to finish in the Top Four when the season opened way back in August. Maybe the odd Spurs fan (and by odd, we mean “odd”), but if they were under the impression that Huerelho Gomes (coincidentally, “Huerelho” is also Spanish for “odd”) were up to the job when the campaign began, they have been repeatedly and thoroughly dis-abused of that notion during the course of the past nine months.
From United’s point of view, this season was more of the same — they’ll end up winning the league for a record 12th time under the Grand Master, Sir Alex Ferguson, for a record setting total of 19 championships in all (Nineteen!!), which also happens to be one of my favourite prime numbers (second only to “flerve”, our all time favourite, albeit imaginary, prime number). United’s start may not have been their traditional weak one — hell, they didn’t lose a game until February — but it wasn’t “strong” enough for the critics, either.
In part, this impression may have been shaped by some late game collapses (Fulham and Everton spring foremost to mind), but the critics were already busy sharpening their knives and content to be `brutally savage in their appraisal: the current incarnation of Man United were not “worthy” of their record. Surely a squad composed of “B-list players” such as John O’Shea, Jonny Evans and Park Ji-Sung, and “inconsistent performers” (a certain languid Bulgarian, anyone?) couldn’t keep this up. Even the squad’s best player, Wayne Rooney, seemed to have little faith, as he noted when speaking ventriloquistically (try to say that without moving your lips!) through his agent, Paul Stretford, to complain about the side’s “lack of ambition.”
But what a difference a few months make. Having grabbed the league lead in December, and held it for all but one day since that time, Manchester United now find themselves poised to host the trophy next weekend at Ewood Park. Unpredictable? Sure, but only in how they won the season, not in where they are going to finish it.
But if we “break it down,” as the real sports reporters might say, United’s season was really a tale of two teams, the Scholes, Nani, and Berbatov squad, and the Valencia, Rooney, Giggs and Chicharito team. At the beginning of the season, the diminutive and petulant Scholes anchored the holding midfielder position and punched cross-field passes to great effect. Interestingly, it took at least flerve or six games of this before it even occurred to the EPL’s high priced managers that they might want to stop that small angry guy from hitting cross-field passes to such great effect.
Nani also began the season white hot, torching defenders on both sides, and making a good case that he was, in fact (as he proclaimed), “the best player in Europe.” Particularly impressive was the fact that much of Nani’s work was done in the absence of Antonio Valencia, who (as you’ll recall) was involved in what must have been a mind-bendingly painful, leg-breaking tackle early in the season. And finally Dimitar Berbatov, whose name in Bulgarian means “enormous skull moving languidly,” also charged out of the gate and put up the highest scoring total in the league. All this while Rooney suffered from the effects of the rash, or cough, or whatever the horrible affliction was that he caught at the World Cup (let’s face it United fans, rash is most likely).
But then, somewhere in there it happened. Scholes remembered he was getting old, and Nani did the unthinkable — after attempting to put on a good acting job after a horrific tackle from Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher, he realized he wasn’t really acting, but in fact was horrifically and sickeningly injured. And Berbatov got hit like a bullet to the left eye by the Little Pea. (What, too soon? Does that really apply to crazed terrorists? And by the way, we’re talking English football here, so I’m confident hundreds said worse about the opposing fan’s mothers and mother’s mothers at the last Fulham vs. WBA game).
So where were we? Oh, that’s right, the second season of United. Now it was Chicharito’s turn to grab the headlines. And apparently Rooney found the right . . . ointment (?) . . . as he charged back into the scene like the Rooney we all remembered. He always has seemed more comfortable in support of the man on top rather than as the man on top, and like no one else in the league he seems productive every time he touches the ball. Valencia also returned from his horrific injury to provide speed on the outside. And Ryan Giggs, a man-child – or more accurately an old-man child –has gracefully taken over from Scholes to provide the central energy and vision that United needed.
In fact, Giggs might be the most compelling stories of United this year. Earlier this year we had the opportunity to watch the 1997 version of Giggs in the FA Cup Final against Wimbledon. There he was, complete with his 1980-something John Oates’ hairdo (or was it Daryl Hall?), zipping this way and that around the Wimbledon goal. He looked those 14 years ago very much the same way he did a few days ago against Chelsea. How does he do it? What fountain of youth has he visited? What ointment has he taken? Rooney’s?
Through all the changes in cast, though, there has been one constant through the long season, and that’s Nemanja Vidic. He may not make the highlight reels very often, and his footwork is about as appealing as the bridge of his nose, but hey, he’s been the one constant that has differentiated United from the rest of the pack. The season for United is long, arguably too long, but if there’s one man who deserves the iron-man award, and possibly the player of the year award, it’s the big Serb.
What next for United? Well, the Champions League, of course. How terrific would it be to crush the petite Barcelona floppers? Granted, beating them might also entail putting up with a series of potentially debilitating Spanish hissy fits and tickle fights, but hey, it would be worth it. Sir Alex has said he’s not retiring at the end of the year in part because he thinks there’s more European Championships to be won. If this team can beat Messi and company on May 28th it would make three victories in four finals for our favourite Fergie.
With the great man in charge, why not make it four of five? Or hey, if we can keep this blessed roll going, if we can keep the red United steam train on track, if we can somehow and some way continue to ride the edge of the razor, why not try to achieve the unthinkable – why not try to win as many as, oh, I don’t know, flerve???!!!
This is farlieonfootie for May 10, 2011.
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