I was definitely more excited about the Manchester United/Liverpool match Sunday morning than either of the NFL Playoff games scheduled in the afternoon; that is, until the match actually started and the referees along side of United’s tactics conspired to bore me to tears and beers. I just learned recently, again thanks to the indispensable Rough Guide to Cult Football, that the United/Liverpool rivalry is considered, perhaps, the most heated and bitter in England. It makes sense on the face of it due to the stature of each club and the years both have spent at the pinnacle of the football food chain chasing the same titles and trophies, but to a newcomer like myself it didn’t add up at first. All the heated and bitters rivalries I’d read about seemed to revolve principally around geography, as close quarters and civic pride seemingly bred enmity and contempt between players and supporters alike. Liverpool and Manchester aren’t located very far apart, but this rivalry appears to have more to do with stature, tradition and legacy. Liverpool made news the day before the match by replacing beleaguered, befuddled manager Roy Hodgson. Fox Soccer Channel kept showing this clip of Hodgson standing apart from the bench on the side of the pitch, essentially alone, as the rain poured down on him; a perfect optical summation of his ill-fated tenure at Anfield. Hodgson was replaced by former Liverpool player and manager Kenny Dalglish. My own muddled instinct sensed that Liverpool would treat this match as the be-all, end-all tonic for salvaging their mostly lost domestic season. Also, managerial changes often seem to infuse moribund teams with a crackling, albeit fleeting, burst of energy and purpose.
Less than a minute after taking the pitch at Old Trafford, though, Daniel Agger was called for a tackle in the area on Dimitar Berbatov, which prompted the referee to award a penalty. Ryan Giggs took it and United led 1-0. Besides the fact that, in my view, this tackle was weak, and the subsequent penalty dubious at best, United took their gifted lead and played very clinical, organized (read: boring) soccer. Liverpool played the next half-hour with an edge, but couldn’t get the last ball needed to cause trouble in the area. Then Steven Gerrard dove in for an apparently reckless, yet ultimately glancing and harmless tackle that earned him a straight red and reduced the Reds to 10 men. Again, I felt that this call was dubious at best, but I agree with the match commentators who said that a player of Gerrard’s stature and experience should/could have been more careful. Liverpool played the rest of the match with a hearty, commendable work rate, led, as always, by Dirk Kuyt, Lucas and Raul Meireles, but they were unable to create the offense needed to equalize. I was really disappointed in how this match unfolded because the officiating sucked the life out of it before the second minute had even elapsed and the match had a chance to develop any momentum or narrative. There was probably more excitement and action in the boardrooms at Anfield on Saturday than on the pitch Sunday, which is sad for players and fans alike. I don’t blame United for playing conservatively after the early penalty gave them an advantage, but it turned the match into a lumbering aesthetic nightmare wherein they sort of resembled the club down the road from Old Trafford with the powder blue kits. I’ve watched a lot of United matches this year and I’ve yet to see an impressive performance. The match against Arsenal was close, but I’ve watched matches where Sunderland, Blackpool and West Brom and others have had United on the ropes only to see a late goal salvage points of some kind. But results, as they say, are results and this team has a knack for maximizing them. They remind me of Inter Milan, another successful side that bores me to tears and beers. My burgeoning soccer mind and fandom is very much in line with legendary historian and soccer fanatic Eduardo Galeano, who viewed himself as a “beggar” roaming the countryside looking always for the beauty in the beautiful game.
Result: Manchester United vs. Liverpool 1-0
I spent most of last week trying to forget the ponderous, paint-drying nature of the spectacle provided by a certain Arsenal vs. Manchester City EPL match. I was disgusted by Roberto Mancini’s tactics. Only Arsenal tried to attack and actually win the match. It was disgraceful. An ESPN Soccernet commentator compared City to a Serie A side and that comparison solidifies resonates more every time I watch them play. They played to draw, discourage and disorient a free-flowing Arsenal side, and, sadly, it worked. Watching a side like City makes me appreciate the nature of Harry Redknapp’s blitzing, full-throttle Tottenham squad and the wondrous Rafael van der Vaart more by the second. With all of this aesthetic righteousness and turmoil simmering in my mind, I started watching the Leicester City vs. Manchester City match Sunday afternoon and lo and behold—a whirlwind of exciting, attacking play unfurled! Carlos Tevez and Adam Johnson making inventive daredevil runs. Intricate passing, speedy form and organization. It was beautiful! I guess the fact that Leicester City was able to do what the Gunners could not, namely notch an early goal, changed Mancini’s tactical outlook. Also, much was made of the friend/mentor relationship between Leicester boss Sven-Goran Eriksson and Mancini, which may have also made the Manchester boss decide to loosen his scarves and tie and go after his friend. Whatever it was, it made for glorious, exciting soccer,which in the spirit of Galeano, is all I’m after. Bravo. The match ultimately ended in a 2-2 draw, which will require a replay.
Result: Leicester City vs. Manchester City 2-2