Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Manchester United v Porto, Two Legged Quarter Final, April

Football is fickle – one day form is your bitch and the next day she is gone. Football is merciless – it guillotines you for the first mistake. Football is a siege – you can prevent your opponent from living a free life. Football is a gentle stream – fluid and adding beauty to the surroundings. Football is a photo album – moments of genius is what you take away with you. Football is happiness – not always… but it was so when the holders met the pretenders from Portugal…not for all of it…but enough to carry the euphoria for some time.

First Leg

There was enough drama, quality, fortune and mistakes on display at Old Trafford but the high point of the game for me was a stretch of play in the second half that may have lasted five minutes or maybe ten or who knows no longer than two. For that period the ball moved gracefully from foot to foot, feet to feet, yard to yard, half to half, right to left, this way and that, one team to the other and just kept moving without being halted. No fouls, no desperately kicking out of play and no thought of deception. Glorious attack after glorious attack was built without a hint of brutality and each attack was rebuffed not by force but through precision and each time was quickly turned into the next attack.

The fact the Porto were the driving force behind this piece of play as well as most of the other great moments that this game provided, served as a reminder that talent is concentrated in the EPL but not limited to it. Till the last whistle was blown Porto dominated the fearsome side that Sir Alex has built and while they did not lead the scoreboard for all of it, they did manage to leave Manchester with enough returns to suggest that their work for the evening was not wasted.

Porto took the lead through Christian Rodriguez but then threw it away when Rooney was sent clear on goal by a perfect pass from one of Porto’s own. Much later in the second half, Tevez came on as a sub and managed to turn a low cross from the right in to give the Red Devils an undeserved lead. But Porto kept hitting back and found a late equalizer to score two huge away goals which meant that Man U would have quite a job to do in Portugal.

Manchester United did have their moments. Even apart from the goals. Helton, the Porto keeper was tested more than once by the likes of Rooney and Vidic and Ronaldo but stood up to the challenge every time. Ferdinand-less Man U struggled to defend properly and apart from Rooney, the forward line did not quite turn up. Ronaldo chose to be lazy and he lost the ball that led to the first Porto goal. Man U played like they expected to win at 80%. Porto were clearly at 100% and you felt that the gap in quality between the leagues of Europe is maybe not quite as large as the results suggest they are.

The final whistle was blown and there was to be a week to prepare for chapter two. However this was one tie where I was not necessarily looking for closure. In one evening I had discovered the flamboyant and almost virginal left back - Cissokho, the unbelievably dominating holding midfielder - Fernando, the fearless and skilful striker - Hulk and the winger with the magnet in his head – Christian Rodriguez. I did not necessarily want a poor second leg performance to ruin my new stars for me, yet the temptation of watching two sets of entertainers would turn out to be too strong to resist.

Second Leg

After a lot of speculation over whether Manchester United would be able to beat history and Porto to become the first English team to win in Portugal, the match that was served to us, turned out to be an anti-climax. While vested interests craved for a preferred result, the world at large would have been happy with a spectacle that matched the first leg.

In the end, the result went the way it always does. Or at least has been doing for the last two to three years with the English team getting the single goal that saw them through to a semi-final against Arsenal. The game itself, secure in inertia for United within the first twenty minutes or so, offered a couple of moments of hope, but largely declared itself a non-dramatic entity once United had scored their goal.

What will be worth remembering from the game is that single goal that eventually separated the victors from the vanquished. Ronaldo found the ball barely into the opposition half and maybe from a corner of his eye noticed a straight line to the corner of the net. He is not my favorite player, but those skills can never be contested and he unleashed a moment that will be a youtube favorite for seasons to come. From forty or maybe more yards out, he swung that right foot and achieved the speed and trajectory that you would expect out of a Tiger Woods drive. Helton was beaten and the net barely survived the impact. One nil to United and just like every other time he has faced intense criticism, Ronaldo responded with a moment that silenced dissenters with a deafening cheer.

After that United just played out the rest of the game without striving for too much glory or allowing Porto to achieve any. The return of Ferdinand at the heart of the defense was a factor, but the truth was the Porto’s stars from the first leg, failed to be shadows of the form they had shown.

There was a moment where Lisandro Lopez twisted and turned and stole the ball from three United players but such moments were rare and never led to significant outcomes. The frontline of Hulk, Lopez and Rodriguez had lost their mojo and even the consistent Raul Meireles neither shot well or passed with efficiency. The only two players to come out with their reputation intact were Cisokho at left back and Fernando as the battling midfielder. Both youngsters will attract attention and there is hope that a lot more will be seen of them in time.

Meanwhile, Manchester United will continue their defense of the European crown against Arsenal and it would be presumptuous to pick one as the more likely winner. Any of the outcomes seems equally likely, but a United win could set them on a path to glory that is unchartered – a successful defense of the Champions League.

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