Monday, May 30, 2011

There's No Shame in Losing

photo by 99 James Kieran Nguyenvia PhotoRee

Some final thoughts on Manchester United's 3-1 loss to Barcelona in the Champions League:

o I'm incredibly proud of this team. Yes, they got beat, but the spirit with which they contested the match was nothing short of fantastic, and true to the United tradition. This pains me to say, but they were beaten by a better team -- on the night. Barcelona played absolutely stunning football on Saturday, spinning the pass wheel roulette, poking, prodding and probing in order to find and exploit even the slightest United weakness. Sometimes you just have to stand up and applaud, which is what I did at the game's conclusion, mesemerized by a little Argentine magician at the top of his game, spurred on to even greater heights by a Spanish maestro in the middle who dictated the game's tempo.

o Barca earned my respect on the night, but still has a long way to go to earn my admiration. Their beauty is often cheapened by their theatrics, diving and simulation, which appeared even as they won their fourth European Championship. Perhaps it is a sign of the youth in their squad, but Pep Guardiola would do well to remind his players that they are representing both a club and a culture, and their continued flopping, time wasting and overy-theatrical rolling around on the pitch do nothing to enhance their reputation.

o I was impressed by both Barca's speed and defense, and in particular by the wonderfully gifted Eric Abidal. Antonio Valencia saw little if any of the ball during the match, and much of that came down to Abidal's teriffic play on Barca's left flank.

o Barcelona's control of the ball is such that they often appear to have an extra man on the pitch, creating space with one-touch, no-look passing, seeing-eye headers, and glue-like ball handling skills. In something I had to see to believe, I was continually amazed at their quickness and ability to out-posititon United on balls in the air, akin to "boxing out" in basketball, as the smaller and shorter Catalans repeatedly used their bodies to shield against the larger and taller United squad and maintain possession. If it happened once it happened 100 times during the course of the game.

o Rio Ferdinand said in a post-match interview that you have to give credit where credit is due, but also that he felt as if the Red Devils' defense made some uncharacteristic mistakes on the night. I'd concur. The game wasn't Patrice, Rio or Vida's best -- I actually thought Fabio played well -- and even Edwin in goal was not on his very best form.

o I'm still wondering about the Berbatov decision. I believe I know what Sir Alex was thinking: if the game was tied late, Michael Owen could come on and score a dramatic winner -- he's done it multiple times, and he looked sharp against Blackpool this past weekend. But since it didn't pan out that way, and Owen wasn't even used, did we just alienate our top goal scorer to the point where he must be traded? I'm sure Sir Alex will sit down with Berba after the emotions have settled a bit and explain his decision again, but it seems as if we just needlessly damaged the relationship, and I for one would not like to see Berbatov leave.

o The game began very similarly to the way the match in Rome started out two years ago: United out of the gates charging, forcing Barca back and causing them to make several uncharacteristic mistakes, with poor clearances and sloppy backpasses creeping into their game. But still the Reds were only able to manage one decent attempt during this time, with Chicharito's shot being blocked before it even had the opportunity to bother Valdes.

o If minutes 1 to 10 were mostly United, Barca gradually managed to achieve a stranglehold on midfield and thus the game shortly thereafter. Our need for a midfield maestro -- Luka Modric, where are you? -- was noticeable, as was the missing Darren Fletcher, who could have added an element of grit and fight to the midfield battle if he'd recovered from his illness just a bit sooner.

o Although Messi's goal gave Barca the second half lead, David Villa's goal was the real killer, making an already tough road virtually unbridgeable. United came back into the game as Barca tired late on, and it would have been interesting to see the Reds throw down the gauntlet in the final ten minutes in search of an equalizer had Villa not netted. I think that's what Sir Alex was hoping for: a close game as the clock ticked on toward full-time, but it just wasn't to be.

o I gained a newfound respect for United's First Team Coach Rene Muelensteen, who showed the intensity of United's fighting character as he whipped the pro-United portion of the crowd into a pre-match frenzy.

o Some of the most fun I had all evening was on the tube ride out to Wembley, sitting in a car full of pro-United supporters. As we raucously sang and chanted the full United songbook, the multi-national scope of the Red Devils'  fan base was readily apparent. Whereas Barca's fan base is predominantly European in nature -- and even Catalan to be more specific -- the supporters in my car were from Asia, England, Europe and America. It truly is One United.

o I thought when Rooney scored his wonderful goal that it was game on. The goal was artful in its conception, and beautiful in its execution, Rooney demanding the ball back from Giggs and doing exactly what he wanted with it as he sent it flying past the helpless Valdes. This was the game I had expected: Barca's passing creating possession and real chances, and United's speed and flair on the counter leading to their best opportunities. Tied at halftime, I expected a tactical change from Sir Alex, but within nine minutes the ball was in the back of the United net again and we never really recovered.

o Last night was sad only in its finality. Shockingly and suddenly, the season is over. Full stop. No more games next weekend to wipe away the bitter taste of the Catalan victory -- again. Like a college graduation, this team of players will never be assembled in the same configuration again. Some will leave. Some may be traded. And some will be recalled from other environs.

o But the 2010/2011 United team should be celebrated for what they were: a team in transition that overachieved and never said die. If someone had told me way back in July's pre-season that this team would win the League and play for the European Championship I'd have taken it right then and there. But Fergie's not done rebuilding, and there are several more pieces of the puzzle to place.

o But this team, this exact configuration, should be applauded by every true Red around the globe. It's easy to carp, and criticize, and slag off our own. It's easy for United's rivals to laugh and cheer our ultimate Champion's League downfall. It's easy to point out all the things we could have done better this season. But don't. This was a team that won the League for a record 19th time and did us all proud. I hope somewhere in London they had a big party last night to celebrate the season. A party with music, booze, and dancing, filled with family and friends. A party to celebrate all that they accomplished this season, even on Saturday night. Which for all I know, they did -- and if they did, they deserved it 100 percent, because there's no shame in losing to that Barcelona team.

This is a proud United Red farlieonfootie for May 30.

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