Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Arsenal vs. Manchester United, 28 Mar 2004, Highbury, English Premier League

CRAFT VS. GRAFT by Aaron Wong

Arsenal is now officially on the longest ever unbeaten start to a season, never mind that the season is already 30 games old and winding to a close, with little doubt where the Barclaycard English Premiership trophy is going to spend its summer. Arsenal again underlined what a potent attacking threat they are, even without the guile of Dennis Bergkamp, as they probably broke the speed limit with speed demons Thierry Henry and Jose Antonio Reyes up front. Sir Alex Ferguson also had a few tricks up his sleeve, as Louis Saha started on the bench, with Cristiano Ronaldo nowhere to be seen. These two players were the ones expected to give the Gunners their biggest test, but United lined up with young Darren Fletcher and Eric Djemba-Djemba instead.

This game was a showcase of everything English about the game, featuring the two most dominant sides in recent years, an electric pace, full-blooded tackles, as well as the odd disputed penalty or so.

As expected, both sides exploded from the blocks, looking to go straight for the jugular and stun their opponents with an early goal. There was always the realisation that United are out of their depth this season, and would need to take their chances clinically if they were to glean anything from this match. United started brightly enough, and as early as the third minute, a hopeful ball from Gary Neville gave Scholes a half-chance as Kolo Toure misread the pass. Scholes had to hit a snap-shot on the turn with his left foot before the ball squirmed away, while running at full tilt. It was as difficult as it sounded, and the shot failed to trouble Jens Lehmann.

From then on, it was no exaggeration to say it was one-way traffic, as Arsenal simply chased everything that moved. Quite simply, United panicked.

Fredrik Ljungberg was put through in the eighth and seemed certain to score on his favoured right foot, before Wes Brown impudently stepped in to make a goal-saving tackle. This was but the first of numerous situations where the much-maligned England international was authoritative in snuffing out the Gunners’ cannon.

But the gaps still prevalent in the United rearguard yawned open again as Ljungberg was left free on the right side of the penalty area, as Mikael Silvestre got conned into anticipating a cross from the Swede, and only a smart save by Roy Carroll at his near post saved Silvestre from further embarrassment.

United were by now in sixes and sevens, as they couldn’t even string simple passes together. Reyes was again put through, and Carroll rushed out and smothered at the Spaniard’s feet, justifying Ferguson’s faith in him. The Red Devils have always possessed a scorpion’s sting in their tail though, and on one rare foray into the Arsenal box, they won a corner from Ryan Giggs’s perseverance. Where once was Señor Beckham raking a pinpoint pass for Scholes to volley, this time Fletcher found Djemba-Djemba. He looked to have lost control of the ball, but as Vieira advanced to close him down, he coolly flicked it over the Frenchman with his right foot, and struck a venomous shot with his left. A moment of skill to light up the match, certainly, but for Arsenal to go a goal behind would’ve been a heresy. Lehmann saved comfortably to his right, and now Arsenal could resume their dominance.

Henry continued to be United’s tormentor-in-chief, and Arsenal’s fluency was clearly beginning to unsettle the United midfield, clearly not used to being out-passed, outwitted and outplayed. Scholes got himself needlessly booked as he unceremoniously shoved Ljungberg in the back, with the Swede barely out of his own penalty area.

There was palpable fear among the visiting support as the Premiership’s leading scorer stepped up to take a 25-yarder after Neville’s mistimed tackle on Reyes. Where once United held the trump card in these situations in David Beckham, now Henry has opposing defensive walls on tenterhooks. Henry’s shot lacked pace though, and Carroll was able to gather comfortably.

Ryan Giggs was the only real threat as far as Arsenal were concerned, and in the 35th minute, the Welshman popped up on the right flank, skinned Gael Clichy for pace, and rolled a pass on a plate for Scholes to finish. The ginger-haired one, so often clinical for United and England in the penalty box, completely miscued the shot. It just wasn’t happening for the Red Devils. Barely five minutes later, a lightning Henry raid left the United defence flat-footed as he came one-on-one with Carroll. With the home crowd ready to celebrate, Henry chose to go for the Hollywood finish, pushing the ball past Carroll, then needlessly throwing himself to the ground theatrically. King Henry had granted United clemency, as the teams went into half-time with the stalemate unbroken.

Only a combination of wayward Arsenal finishing and a charmed United defence only just hanging on contrived to keep Arsenal’s predators at bay. Arsene Wenger had every right to look smug at half-time, his gamble on Reyes’s pace looked to pay off sooner rather than later. And we were wondering why Ferguson kept the lightweight and inexperienced Fletcher on the pitch instead of seasoned campaigner Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. We could only wonder at half-time.

But Henry denied us even the comfort of wondering. Five minutes after the restart, he reminded us why he’s a shoo-in for Player of the Year, with a flash of Gallic brilliance. A neat interchange between him and Reyes left Henry with space to take aim 25-yards from goal. No backlift, no fuss, and an absolute thunderbolt flew past Carroll.

Memories came flooding back of Batistuta against Bosnich for Fiorentina just a few years back. United were stunned. After all the hard work to get to half-time goalless, this. United began to throw their men forward in search for goals.

In the 53rd minute came the game’s talking point. A cross-field pass from Silvestre found Giggs in glorious isolation on the right against Sol Campbell. As Giggs blazed past the leaden-footed England man, Campbell lost his balance, and tapped Giggs’s ankle while falling down. Giggs went down in the penalty area, and the crowd was wondering free-kick or penalty. Referee Graham Poll had other ideas though, and gave a goal-kick. Cue livid United remonstrations.

This seemed to galvanise United, and it became a furious exchange of thrust and counter-thrust as United pressed forward, with Arsenal’s searing pace now something they’d worry about later. United’s burdensome movement was becoming more evident as a collective failure than just a few out-of-form players, and their despondence was only unpunished by Arsenal’s amazing reluctance to kill off the game.

United’s doggedness, for so long their hallmark, was again rewarded late on, as Arsenal were duly punished for trying to defend their slender lead.

Solskjaer’s blitz down the right led to a tantalising pass across the six-yard box. An out-of-sorts van Nistelrooy missed the ball completely, but at least he took Toure along for the ride, and Saha was at the far post to tuck home his fourth goal since his move from Fulham.

But it would’ve been an anti-climax for the match to end so relatively straightforwardly. Stung into action. Arsenal poured forward against a distracted United defence. Henry created a shot out of nothing three minutes from time to test Carroll, but it was just to warm him up for what was to come in the 91st.

Gilberto shot when Henry was better placed, but Carroll parried the shot. As the ball bounced free, Henry pounced. Fortunately for United, it was with his head, and the ball whizzed past the post. United escaped, but it would’ve been an injustice for the way they came back.

The highly entertaining encounter pitted Arsenal’s craft against United’s graft, and it ended honours even at 1-1. But it seems United can no longer compete on an even keel.

How fitting that as Arsenal broke the record for the longest unbeaten start to a season, United are but a side note to their achievement, for they were powerless to prevent Arsenal from reaching that milestone.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Arsenal vs United.
Last chance saloon man.
All hands to the pump!
Save our Season!

(the first 4 letters already spell "alas!")

Friday, March 26, 2004

Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur, 20 May 2004, Old Trafford, English Premiership


A professional performance by a Manchester United side still hurting from Porto’s exposé of their European inadequacies was sufficient to see off a Tottenham side that lacked the cutting edge when it mattered. Granted, by no means did the performance hearken to the free-flowing 2003 vintage, but it lifted the gloom off an Old Trafford crowd that must have thought their team had forgotten how to win.

A sublime 24th minute improvisation from the much-maligned Ryan Giggs made sure Spurs were always chasing the match, before two late goals from substitutes Cristiano Ronaldo and David Bellion added a flattering touch to the eventual score.

Again, United comfortably dominated their favourite opponents, who served as cannon fodder for United’s renaissance, but the impudent swagger was sorely missing. 3-0 was both a fair and unfair reflection of the match, as it illustrated the one-sided affair, but failed to show the chinks that still exist in the Red Devils’ armour.

Fortune was with the home side, though it stopped short of an overdose of luck that would have left sympathisers with a bitter taste in their mouth. United had sympathisers for their European exit, as their Old Trafford performance merited a better result; this time United got just their fair share of luck, but not really needing it against David Pleat’s side.

Let me explain.

On another day, Giggs’s side-heel in the six-yard might not have sneaked in. But it did.

On another day, Ronaldo’s screamer might have been touched wide by a more alert Kasey Keller, or flown just wide. Nope, off the post and in.

On another day of unsympathetic refereeing, Wes Brown’s accidental handball might have been penalised, with the score at 1-0. The referee gave the benefit of the doubt.

Lucky United? I don’t think so. United created enough chances to win comfortably, and in the end they did.

However, the emphatic victory failed to paper over the cracks that are painfully evident in every United match. Ruud van Nistelrooy, for so long United’s epitome of consistency, once again failed to deliver the goods. He seems to have lost the knack of finishing the half-chances, something he always did. It was painful to watch the Dutchman repeatedly try to do a Henry with jinking runs a-la-mode, but always giving the ball away. The ball always seemed to get stuck under his Nike-shod feet in the penalty area, and the frustration is starting to show.

His ineptitude was in contrast to the electrifying introduction of Ronaldo in the 75th minute. Suddenly, United’s laboured performance had an impetus about it, and fast breaks were fed down the right flank to the ravenous Portuguese wonder-kid. His reward came eventually in the last minute of normal time, as the Spurs defence again gave him too much space as he cut into the middle, and allowed him to pick his spot with an absolute belter.

His Welsh partner-in-crime on the left flank was truly in his element against a lightweight Spurs defence that failed to make its presence known, scoring with his supposedly weaker foot, and picking out Bellion for United’s third with a laser-guided through ball.

At the back, it was a heartening display from a United defence, but this was against an uni-directional Spurs offence, best characterised by the over-indulgent wing-play of Inter Milan reject Stephane Dalmat. Not quite up to the standard of his former Inter team-mate and countryman, Mickael Silvestre, who kept Jermain Defoe in his pocket all afternoon. Stronger opposition though, with a double header coming up with champions-elect Arsenal, would see the new look defence-sans-Ferdinand put through a much stronger litmus test of their chemistry. The return of old (though not necessarily wise) head Gary Neville might ease the growing pains though.

This match saw the return of the old guard, with none of Sir Alex Ferguson’s summer recruits making his starting line-up. It was a sweet déjà vu as the likes of Scholes, Giggs and Solskjaer hunted like a pack of wolves, and added graft to their craft to get the ball back when they lost it. Ferguson was trying to get back to basics by falling back on a team that had only last season been crowned champions. But they aren’t getting any younger. Also, some of the members have been left too far behind, and look like Bata shoes in a Nike showroom.

Diego Forlan spent the afternoon with a forlorn expression permanently on his face as chance after chance went a-begging. The Uruguayan is obviously out of his depth at this level, and the sooner he is offloaded to a short-sighted admirer the better. This was especially evident when a searing Giggs run ended in a cross that, although was too high for a near-post van Nistelrooy, landed perfectly at the far post for Forlan’s to either control and place it, or crack a volley in. He did neither. His expression was one of bemusement as the ball bounced off his thigh to safety. It might just be that little bit funny if you’re 3-0 up and cruising, but that was at 0-0. Surely our patience can’t tolerate such incompetence much longer. Louis Saha was a necessary and urgent acquisition, but surely Ferguson must invest in a world-class target man during the summer.

Roy Carroll may have kept a clean sheet, but for a keeper whose face emanates the confidence last reserved for Fabien Barthez, God help us if we are to rely on a Northern Irish journeyman who has not tasted international victory since the Middle Ages.

The two players just aren’t United material, and they’ve been around long enough for us to confirm that. To compound the malady, United are investing in the future with purchases like Celtic’s Liam Miller and China’s Dong Fangzhuo, when the need to catch up is now, before Arsenal get too far away. Fergie’s Fledglings aren’t getting any younger, and Roy Keane is no longer the imposing juggernaut he once was. So often the driving force behind United’s stirring comebacks, Keane himself has said he will retire if he can no longer contribute at his highest level. You don’t say these things if there’s nothing wrong. The decline has already begun.

The marauding runs that tore through opposition midfields are replaced by tentative square passes and late, apologetic tackles. The expression he gives referees say, “Cut an old man some slack, the legs aren’t working as they used to.” Vieira vs. Keane used to be blockbuster match-ups. Now it’s just the heavyweight champion against the veteran has-been. More worryingly though, United are far from replacing the Irish firebrand.

I could only admire as I switched over to the Arsenal-Bolton match that started 15 minutes late. Patrick Vieira was dominant with the easy languidness of a true thoroughbred, and there wasn’t much to suggest United can get a look in, but there remains hope. Like United, Arsenal had their share of fortune. Stelios I-can’t-pronounce-his-poulos hit the woodwork, and Bolton gave Arsenal their fair share of heart-in-mouth experiences, as Arsenal struggled to bury Sam Allardyce’s side. Ivan Campo even came close to a second goal with a last-minute volley. But then again, the hard work had been done in the first half. Arsenal is beatable, but then no side has combined class with chance to that effect.

If United do beat Arsenal twice, then it isn’t really that bad a season after all, is it? Second place, four points off the Gunners, Champions’ League next year, FA Cup champions, and a season under the belts of the new recruits. Liverpool would kill Houllier for that. Things could be worse.

The ball was shifting like a beach ball amid unnaturally high winds at Old Trafford. Litter strewn on the pitch was caught up in little maelstroms. Quite a sight, and the litter even looked a little bit like confetti. The season can end in the debris of a spectacular United fallout, or with muted celebration of some redemption.

The winds of change have arrived, and if United don’t set out sail, they’ll be left behind in Arsenal’s wake. What choice do we have? Bring on Arsenal.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Had a TERRIBLE soccer game on sunday. Edgar scored a hat-trick within, what, 5 minutes?
SO thanks to myself, for my particularly inept play, and chao bin. =p LOTSA injuries guys, cos Matt "Bonecruncher" Chua was there. =]

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Manchester United vs. FC Porto, 9 May 2004, Old Trafford, UEFA Champions League

PLAIN BAD LUCK by Aaron Wong
So United lose 3-2 on aggregate. Did they deserve to, on basis of the Old Trafford display? I think not.

What I saw on Wednesday morning (Singapore time) was a refreshing display unseen since Ferdinand's untimely incapacitation. Every time a Porto player got the ball, a red shirt was there to close him down. Deco, so important a player for the Portuguese champions, was rendered impotent by the tigerish United midfield of Djemba-Djemba, Giggs, Fletcher, Scholes and Butt.

With the tie hanging by a thread, United set out their stall to get that early goal, and their endeavour was duly rewarded, when a pin-point O'Shea cross was headed home emphatically by the ginger-haired one. 1-0 up on the night, and if things remained that way, United would go through on away goals.

Seemingly in cruise control, the Red Devils now had the impetus, as the onus was now on Porto to get their goal. United were dominant in the air, compared to their inept display in Oporto two weeks ago, Brown standing out with countless clearing headers. Porto held the upper hand on possession without creating anything useful, and were limited to long-range potshots, courtesy of the opposition's willingness to close them down. Save for a Carlos Alberto effort which Howard did well to save with his feet, Porto were haunted by Jose Mourinho's pre-match boast that they couldn't be hurt if United didn't have the ball. As it happened, Porto were the ones who needed the ball, had most of it, 57% at one point, and couldn't do much with it.

Dmitri Alenitchev, constantly probing the right wing, saw plenty of the ball, but always had O'Shea and Giggs to contend with, while Deco and Pedro Costinha were reduced to possession hoggers.

The young Brazilian, Carlos Alberto, had a match to forget as he twisted this way and that, but always found a red wall. A ridiculous three-foul streak, all on the left wing, left the home side livid at his antics. But the perceived protection he got from the Russian referee was thrown in his face when he went down theatrically in the area under pressure from the imperious Brown, and looked up to see Mr Ivanov waving play on. What was more mysterious was the absence of a booking for simulation. He was eventually substituted in the second half.

In hindsight, the turning point arrived just before half-time, when United were looking the more dangerous side when they had the ball. After a bit of pinball in the Porto penalty area, Giggs managed to send a scuffed shot towards goal. Vitor Baia anticipated it, and got down to it. Only the ball wasn't there. Scholes got a foot to it, trapped it and in one swift execution, toe-poked it past the despairing keeper. Ironic how the Portuguese keeper had the no. 99 jersey then. 99 times out of a hundred a goal would've been given, but Old Trafford groaned collectively when the linesman's flag was raised. TV replays vindicated the protesting Scholes, as he was clearly a yard onside when Giggs played the ball in.

Ah well, we thought. Poetic justice will be done in the end.

It was perplexing to see the second half begin with Louis Saha, carrying a slight Achilles heel problem, in place of Djemba-Djemba, who did a great job of getting stuck in and unsettling the Portuguese ballet troupe. But when United's own Portuguese darling came on for the more defensively-sound Darren Fletcher, it was obvious what the all-Scottish bench wanted. The game was to be killed off on the counter-attack. The FA Cup match against Fulham had proved how lethal the Ronaldo-Saha combination could be on the fast break, and with Porto committing men forward, two goals would have been enough to bury them.

Less then ten minutes after Ronaldo's introduction though, the Porto support hypocritically derided the flamboyant winger for taking a dive when he went down after pushing the ball past Nuno Valente. The referee thought so too, but apparently there was more than an Oscar lost when Ronaldo was stretchered off, bringing back memories of his jersey predecessor's metatarsal episode, against another blue-and-white-striped team, Deportivo.

The dream of poetic justice still lingered in the minds of the United faithful, as the tension proved unbearable. They needed a second goal before they could relax.

Unfortunately the goal came from Porto.

United, for so long the purveyor of late, late goals, got a taste of their own medicine, as Porto won a contentious free-kick within Beckham range. His shadow hung over the stadium as Benni McCarthy, hero of the first leg, placed the shot towards Howard's top-left corner. I say "towards", but the truth was it arrowed like a guided missile. T-Ho got a hand to it, but failed to direct it to safety. Francisco Costinha, just back from suspension, was on hand to slam it home, his third goal in seven games. As Porto celebrated, United were in disbelief. Not because their defeat was of their doing, but because they knew they did all they could. A late flurry of red waves crashed safely of the Porto moorings, and in the end, their first leg performance proved costly.

United can hold their heads high despite the result, and it was more due to bad luck more than anything, a recurrent theme this season. First, Ferdinand, then Magnier, then Keane's ill-advised retaliation at being outclassed in Portugal, then Scholes's perfectly legitimate goal which would've killed them off, then Ronaldo's premature end. Porto's free-kick might even have been waved on by another referee.

A bustling performance from the Reds, but the cutting edge was just out of reach in this nonetheless inspired display. Truth be told, United's best chance of silverware now lies in the FA Cup, the one they disowned in 2000. If United maintain this standard, then they might just halt the Arsenal juggernaut.

It is not always the case that a good performance merits a good result, but more often than not it does. As Yao Ming put it aptly the other day, 'Resolve means victory'. Right on.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Had a GREAT soccer game on sunday. Scored a hat-trick within, what, 5 minutes?
SO thanks to my teammates, many of them, since we kept switching teams: Clarence (Seedorf), Theo (Zagorakis), (Johnnie) Jackson, Eddy (Newton). NO injuries guys, cos Matt (Elliott) not there. =]

Thursday, March 04, 2004

argh i've got full pack inspection, haven't packed a single thing AND i have technical mobilisation on saturday! BURNT!
*pats self on back for not using any army-related acronyms*