Thursday, April 08, 2010

A night of opportunities lost

It was another fantastic European night at Old Trafford; it had goals, red cards, heroic defending and moments of pure magic. At the end though, Bayern Munich emerged with a loss on the night but a place booked in the semi-finals.


The drama unfolded even before kick-off. Wayne Rooney started. Clearly, he was only half fit but Sir Alex saw it prudent to pick him over Berbatov. The decision was certainly risky but what a decision it was! Rooney’s presence seemed to galvanize United who started off with an absolute blitzkrieg that left the Germans shell-shocked.   First, it was Gibson(another surprise starter) who put his foot through a Rooney lay off and squared Hans Jorg Butt all ends up. One nil inside three minutes. Then it was Nani’s turn. Valencia shimmied and conned Badstuder and fed in a ball that was finished off by Nani with a ‘Ronaldo-esque’ backheel. Two nil in seven minutes.


If the Germans were rattled after the first goal, they were literally in jitters after the second. They just didn’t know what hit them. Butt made a meal of a straightforward clearance and it went straight to Carrick who skewed his shot marginally wide. Bayern were looking to get a toe hold in the game but were simply being outplayed. The much fancied duo of Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery were all but anonymous with Ribery well cornered by a combination of Rafael and Valencia. On the half hour mark, Rafael had another glorious opportunity when he ran half the length of the pitch with the ball but poor decision making meant that he could not play in either Nani or Rooney.


Then in the 41st minute, United were at it again. Fletcher played a fantastic cross-field ball into Valencia who squared it to Nani, who unleashed an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. Three nil and seemingly, game over. Just before half time however, Olic pulled one back for Bayern when he took advantage of some slack defending and beat Van Der Sar. Three one at the break.


The second half started with Gomez coming on for the ineffective Muller. Bayern started the stronger and clearly, the goal had galvanized them. Then in the 50th minute, Rafael pegged back Ribery and the referee awarded a free kick. Initially, the referee did not appear to show any indication of reaching into his pocket but a swarm of Bayern players surrounded him, and he soon showed Rafael a second yellow which meant that United had to play the best part of the half, a man down. United were now effectively playing with nine and a half men with Rooney looking increasingly like a passenger. He was taken off in the second half and was substituted by the returning O’Shea.


Bayern were now firmly in the ascendancy and were putting more pressure on United. United held on till the 74th minute. That was when a moment of absolute magic put United out. Ribery took a corner which he clipped to the edge of the box towards a waiting Robben. The Dutchman showed fantastic technique and finesse to guide a brilliant volley into the corner of the net. Three two, on the night; Four four on aggregate; Advantage Bayern.


Bayern then controlled most of the game, playing it about at will. United did bring on Berbatov and Giggs for Carrick and Gibson but it was too little, too late. Three two at the end. Bayern through on the away goals rule and they now go on to face Lyon in the semi-finals.


The game was a fantastic mix of beautiful attacking football and shrewd tactical calculations. Bayern read the situation wonderfully after the sending off and played to the hilt. Nani and Valencia both had stellar games with the former showing his full array of tricks and flicks. After the sending off, he looked United’s main threat and at times, Bayern had 5 men on him. Fletcher ran his socks off, as usual, and the defence held up pretty admirably, apart from a couple of moments of slacking off, which in the end proved costly.


One can’t help but think that Sir Alex’s quite evident lack of faith in Berbatov may in part have been the deciding factor. Starting with a half-fit Rooney might well have paid off with the start United got but bringing on O’Shea and not Berbatov for Rooney probably was where he missed a trick. Sure, O’Shea came in to shore the defence up and shut up shop but he could have come on for the pretty woeful Michael Carrick. Both Valencia and Nani were constant outlets throughout the game but in the latter stages, there was no central lynchpin for them to really play their game. Even with 10 men, United attacked but somehow had to check back on breaks because of the lack of a central figure.


In all, it was a night of missed opportunities. Sir Alex will be fuming, more at the manner of the defeat(over the 3 legs) than the match result in itself. A couple of moments of bad defending over the 2 legs (Olic, the beneficiary on both occasions) will certainly be infuriating. For the second time in a week, united slacked off from being in a position of strength and Bayern made them pay. Another  European season of ‘what if?’ has just ended. The Premier League awaits.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Europe tonight: A preview

Yesterday is history now. Once the dust settled in Spain and Russia, two of the four semi-finalists of the UEFA Champions League 2009-’10 have been identified. It will be a clash of Italian guile and steel against the Spanish flow and beauty.


A couple of massive matches tonight.

First, the battle for France, with Bordeaux taking on Lyon. On paper, it looks to be Lyon’s for the taking. Having lost their crown to Bordeaux last season, Lyon were very much the wounded animal in the first leg and ran out comfortable 3-1 winners. Bordeaux though, will be buoyed by the away goal and its more than likely that Blanc will instill confidence in his charges and a mouthwatering clash may well be on the cards; Lyon out to prove that they are still top dogs in France, and Bordeaux looking to show the world that last season was no fluke.


Old Trafford, the theatre of dreams. The big question tonight will certainly be one of whether the dream for the club from Manchester will continue or will it be a resurgent Bayern who will quash the dream. Their talisman, Wayne Rooney, who has been nothing short of sensational this term and has more than once been the spark that has really galvanized Manchester United’s quest for glory this season. With Wazza on the bench (at best), United look to have their task cut out. With Berbatov leading the line over the weekend against Chelsea, the cutting edge did indeed seem to be missing. For all of his touch, suave and panache, Berbatov has been found wanting on occasion. United’s backline looks to be coming good but an ageing Neville could be exposed. John O’Shea is fit again, but having not played a competitive game since September ’09, it remains to be seen if he will be risked in such a massive game.


Ferdinand and Vidic look to be recapturing the old magic but its early days yet. The midfield is likely to have Nani and Valencia on the flanks with Scholes, Park and Fletcher in the middle.  Sir Alex, over the past couple of seasons has been known to favor the 4-5-1 in the big games but always had either Rooney  or Ronaldo leading the line. It will be interesting to see if Sir Alex opts for a bolder 4-4-2 approach with either Macheda or Diouf alongside Berbatov. However, this appears most unlikely with a 4-4-1-1 with either Giggs or Park supporting Berbatov, looking the most likely option.


On the other hand, Bayern will be full of confidence after a fantastic week which saw them do a “99” on United and regained top spot in the Bundesliga with a win over Schalke. With Robben back In their ranks, their wings look formidable. With a plethora of options up front, Van Gaal looks to have a plan for every situation. Add to that, the return to fitness of Van Buyten, and Bayern look to be at full strength and at their peak.


With United seemingly struggling and Bayern in full force, Bayern look to be the favorites, regardless of what Van Gaal says. Trust Sir Alex to pull the rabbit out of the hat though. One thing is for certain, another glorious European night awaits at Old Trafford tonight.