SIR Alex Ferguson once summed up a Manchester United-Bayern Munich clash in three words. Those words would have applied just as well last night.
United probably wouldn’t have won the Champions League this season, not with Barcelona – or more specifically, Lionel Messi – in such astonishing form. But they shouldn’t have gone out to Bayern.
A few United fans I spoke to before the quarter-final thought it was the best draw they could have had. A two-legged match-up with last season’s Bundesliga runners-up followed by a semi-final against one of France’s top two was hardly a gimme, but it could have been a lot, lot harder. Just ask Arsenal.
Even 2-1 down from the first leg, Ferguson’s side were in a good position to turn the tie around at Old Trafford. But the weekend defeat at home to Chelsea clearly forced the United manager to do some serious thinking regarding his team selection. Having told the media on Tuesday that Wayne Rooney’s ankle had no chance of healing in time for him to even make the bench, Ferguson played him from the start. It didn’t say a great deal for his faith in Dimitar Berbatov.
Yet for 43 minutes, it looked as if the gamble would pay off. As Nani put United 3-0 up on the night, and 4-2 clear on aggregate, it wasn’t just the TV and radio commentators who were saying “game over”. Bayern had offered next to nothing, and it seemed impossible at that moment that they could score the two goals they needed.
Even when Ivica Olic got one of those goals almost immediately, United looked OK. Bayern’s defence was hardly stable – Holger Badstuber at left-back could hardly have been less sturdy if he’d been made out of lollipop sticks – and so Ferguson’s men looked good for another goal or two to finish the tie.
And then Rafael Da Silva was sent off, and everything changed. Ferguson blamed the “typical Germans” – emotion, I think, getting the better of rational thought, especially as the two Bayern players haranguing the referee were French (Franck Ribery) and Dutch (Mark van Bommel). It was a sad moment for the youthful Rafael, who had fully justified his inclusion in place of the aging Gary Neville up until that point.
But United were, from that moment, on the defensive. When another Dutchman, Arjen Robben, volleyed Bayern’s second away goal with 16 minutes left, it was no surprise. And there seemed little prospect of Berbatov, on as a substitute, doing a Sheringham or a Solskjaer.
No Champions League night is complete without the customary post-match Twitter/messageboard verbal-slurry-a-thon, and last night was no different. I increasingly think it’s better to stay away from the internet after a Champions League match involving an English club, as precisely one million per cent of the comments, tweets and reactionary semi-literate burblings will fall into one of the following four categories:
1) My team lost. Boo hoo.
2) Your team lost. LOL!
3) The referee was biased (usually follows comment 1).
4) The TV commentators were biased (insert derogatory remark about Clive Tyldesley here, regardless of whether he was commentating or not).
Repeat until brain falls out, or until you are invited to appear as a panellist on Radio Five Live’s Fighting Talk with Colin Murray.
My favourite piece of one-eyed curmudgeonliness came courtesy of “Pete, London”, who texted the BBC Sport website at 2056 during their live commentary on Messi’s majestic performance against Arsenal on Tuesday night with this pearl of wisdom:
“I seem to remember Steven Pienaar scoring a very similar goal to Messi’s third, also against Arsenal. Don’t remember the hype.”
That’s right, Pete, London. Use a Champions League match between Barcelona and Arsenal to float your theories of a media conspiracy against Everton. (For what it’s worth, I do remember Pienaar getting a lot of praise for his goal at the time. And rightly so, because it was a brilliant goal.)
But let’s humour Pete, London for a moment, and say that we are going to suggest contenders for the honour of world’s greatest player purely on the basis of scoring a fantastic goal against Arsenal. By that reckoning, Geovanni and Mickey Thomas should be in there, too. Don’t remember you texting the BBC about those goals, Pete, London. I reckon you’re leading a text message conspiracy against Hull and Wrexham.
For the record, Messi has now scored 39 goals this season. No one has yet gone down the John Lennon route and suggested he is bigger than Jesus, but he’s probably only one feeding of the five thousand away. After his performance on Tuesday night, it’s all the harder to understand how Argentina almost didn’t qualify for the World Cup.
And it is just as hard to see how anyone can prevent the hilarious scenario of Barcelona winning the Champions League at the home of Real Madrid on May 22. It would be the equivalent of Liverpool winning it at Old Trafford, or Jordan collecting the trophy at Peter Andre’s house.
Messi, on current form, could beat Inter Milan on his own in the semis (Barca drew 0-0 in Milan and won 2-0 at the Nou Camp when they met in the group stages). Bayern or Lyon in the final shouldn’t pose much of a threat either. The only reigning league champions left in the Champions League would be worthy winners.
It will be a bit strange, though, having no English club in the last four. It’s the first time that has happened since 2003. I’m waiting for someone to ask the question: Are the Premier League clubs still taking the Champions League seriously?
The Premier League title race may be the most exciting in years, but for once, or clubs have come up short in the Champions League. Depending on tonight’s results, there is a serious possibility that England’s last representatives in Europe will be Fulham. Football. Bloody hell.