Then There Were Two

It’s that time of May again when fans of Barcelona and one of the big four English clubs get ready to support their team in the biggest match on the European club football calendar.

Only this time, they won’t be playing. But that doesn’t make the UEFA Champions League final any less exciting or historic.

Bayern Munich and Inter Milan stand on the brink of completing an unforgettable treble, having swept domestic honours in Germany and Italy respectively.

It’s a battle of two beautiful footballing minds as Louis van Gaal squares up against Jose Mourinho, who has progressed from his translator at Barcelona to becoming the self-anointed “Special One”.

The two men share egos that make Simon Cowell look like a boy scout. That self-belief and confidence bordering on narcissism have seen them mould successful teams throughout their respective careers.

And their latest creations are no different. Few can name two more impressive sides than the Nerazzurri and the Bavarians in this season’s competition.

Inter were simply breathtaking in their semi-final against Barcelona. They battered the Catalans in the first leg at the San Siro, giving them a comfortable aggregate lead to take to the Nou Camp.

Mourinho was proud of the fact that his team parked not just a bus but an aeroplane as well in front of Julio Cesar’s goal. You can’t begrudge the tactics for nullifying Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. It was one of the few times when Barcelona looked like they had ran out of ideas to get the ball into the back of the net.

Rui Faria, part of the Special One’s coaching setup, claims that the Portuguese tactician knows everything about every player. Obviously an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt that he has created a persona of omniscience that strikes fear in the heart of the opposition.

There’s always a feeling that a Mourinho side starts a match already a goal ahead. His pre-game quotes on referees and rivals alike have been sorely missed in the Barclays Premier League. Rafa Benitez’s weekly “I need more transfer money” speeches are a sad and bad replacement.

Van Gaal may prove to be his toughest adversary to date in a true master versus disciple contest. From launching a tirade on Arjen Robben moments after substituting him to telling general manager Uli Hoeness to stay out of his business and leave the coaching to him, you can see who Mourinho learnt his theatrics from.

One of them will join an elite group of coaches who have led two different sides to triumph in Europe’s preeminent football competition. The other will have to find excuses to blame the loss on everyone but himself.

There’s just so much attacking talent on show come Saturday night. Eto’o, Milito, Sneijder, Schweinsteiger, Mueller, Klose – just to name a few.

So get ready for drama, jubilation, misery and quirky post-match interviews that only a van Gaal-Mourinho showdown can bring.

Fulham & Atletico – Similar Yet So Different

On 30th July 2009, Fulham began their epic UEFA Europa League journey with a qualifying match against Lithuanian side FK Vetra.

If you had put money on them reaching the final back then, you’d be a very rich person now, but not as wealthy as Fulham chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed.

Along the way, the Cottagers have brushed past the likes of Roma, holders Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, German champions Wolfsburg and finally, Hamburg in the semi-final – also the host city of Fulham’s first major final since the 1975 FA Cup clincher.

Even James Cameron would have a tough time coming up with a movie script to top that.

Manager Roy Hodgson has been phenomenal in moulding a mix of rejects and bit-part players into a formidable outfit. He deservedly picked up the Manager of the Year award, but he might as well be given the Magician of the Year title too.

It frankly is remarkable that a team with Bobby Zamora, Paul Konchesky and Stephen Kelly find themselves one step away from lifting a major European trophy. Zamora must have thought a few years ago that the closest he would get to silverware would be in his kitchen.

Now, all that stands in their way of making history is Atletico Madrid, whose own manager Quique Sanchez Flores has worked wonders of his own, though not of Hodgson-esque proportions.

Appointed in October with the club battling relegation, he stands on the brink of leading Madrid’s forgotten team to an unlikely double. They play Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final next week.

The Spaniards are led by the fearsome threesome of Jose Antonio Reyes, Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan. However, it’s not been a straightforward journey on their road to the final.

They were knocked out of the Champions League without winning a single group match. In the Europa League, three of their four encounters were settled on away goals, including Forlan’s heartbreaking strike in the semi-final at Anfield to cap off Liverpool’s miserable campaign.

Atletico and Fulham will both be looking to make the most of their time in the limelight. They have been overshadowed in the past by their more successful neighbours.

Any team would suffer having to share the support and resources of a city with Real Madrid or Chelsea.

And so we have a mouthwatering prospect on our hands. A true matchup of opposing styles.

Fulham’s workman-like efficiency and camaraderie going up against the free flowing attack of Aguero and friends.

Fulham find it hard to score, with even Burnley having a superior goal tally in the Premier League.

Atletico can’t defend, having the second worst defensive record outside of the bottom three in the Spanish La Liga.

Something has to give in the first ever Europa League final.

The prowess of Rooney or the trickery of Messi may not be on display at the HSH Nordbank Arena.

What you will see are two managers leading their transformed sides for a shot at European football history. In Hodgson and Flores, you could not have found two better candidates for over-achievers of the season.

Now, it’s time for one of them to make their club’s season truly special.

The Germans Are Waiting

Bayern Munich booked a place in club football’s biggest match after brushing aside Lyon by four goals over two aberrantly one-sided legs.

Ivica Olic’s hat-trick in the second leg was the first at the UEFA Champions League semi-final stage since Alessandro Del Piero pulled off the feat for Juventus back in 1998.

The Germans were simply too strong for Claude Puel’s men. Louis van Gaal has crafted a well-disciplined outfit that is steady at the back and absolutely lethal going forward.

How do you deal with the tenacious Olic up front supported by the breakneck speed and trickery of Arjen Robben?

This awesome duo themselves are backed up by the creativity and passing prowess of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and Philipp Lahm.

And for good measure, Franck Ribery, Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose also fit into an attack that has gone under the radar throughout the competition as the world swoons over Lionel Messi and friends.

Lyon, like Manchester United before them, had no answer to the multi-faceted attacking play of the Bavarians. You knew there was going to be trouble when Jean-Alain Boumsong  found himself in the starting lineup.

Cris’ sending off in the second half was hardly an excuse for the French’s side meek display. The tie was over by then as Olic’s first half strike gave his team the all-important away goal.

Lyon were exploited by Robben’s mazy runs and Schweinsteiger’s knack for threading exquisite passes. Defending like their eyes were still covered by volcanic ash, it was no surprise that Olic doubled the Germans’ lead from a fine reverse pass by Hamit Altintop.

The Croatian forward’s header towards the end to seal his hat-trick was the icing on the cake for Bayern and pie on the face for Lyon.

Van Gaal now leads his club to their first UEFA Champions League final since 2001 when they emerged victorious in penalties over Valencia.

After the heartbreak of losing in injury time at the Nou Camp in the 1999 final, they will be hoping for a reversal of fortunes at Spain’s other historic venue, the Santiago Bernabeu.

Robben has a point to prove at the stadium of his former employers, Real Madrid, who he claimed had forced him into leaving after the arrivals of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo.

It’s refreshing to see a side not listed amongst the top five favourites at the start of the competition make it all the way to the end.

The Bavarians are now one step away from reclaiming their place alongside Europe’s crème de la crème. Excuse the French, for the Germans are here.

It’s Derby Time

It goes without saying that this is a big weekend in the Barclays Premier League.

Chelsea could extend its lead at the top to seven points, or see it cut to just one. Arsenal may find its way back into the title race. Liverpool could draw another game and no one would care.

There’s also the battle for the fourth and final Champions League spot with the prospect of millions of dollars in television revenue as well as the opportunity to serve as whipping boys for Barcelona.

With just three games remaining for the teams after this weekend, there’s no more time for excuses, which explains why Rafa Benitez has been quiet lately.

The big clash on Saturday takes place at the City of Manchester stadium, as the Blues host their neighbours from the city’s red half.

The two sides could not be approaching the lunchtime (UK time) kick off with more different form.

Roberto Mancini’s men are coming off three straight victories in which they found the back of the net fourteen times.

Manchester United were disappointing in a goalless draw at Blackburn last week on the back of its home loss to Chelsea and elimination from the Champions League.

It was no big surprise to see the team bereft of ideas without Wayne Rooney. What was perplexing though was the lack of drive and urgency shown by some players.

Even Sir Alex Ferguson had the look of a defeated man after the final whistle as he could not explain his side’s uninspiring performance in a must-win match.

He may actually be looking forward to this weekend. In derby matches, recent form goes out of the window, just as crunching tackles come flying through the front door.

It could be just what his team needs as their bid for a fourth successive league title slips further and further way.

A kick up the rear, as they call it. And what better way to emerge from quite possibly the worst ten days in United’s recent history that with a win at Eastlands.

If they can leave with the three points, it gives further incentive to Tottenham Hotspur to go for the kill against Chelsea later in the day and reclaim fourth place.

The return of Rooney, together with the superlative form of Heurelho Gomes, will be key to their respective teams’ quest for victory this weekend.

On Sunday, we should have a clearer picture of where the 18th Premier League title will be heading.

If Spurs manager Harry Redknapp receives a bottle of champagne from Ferguson next week, you’ll probably know why.

Change We Need At United

Like a gambler in a casino, Sir Alex Ferguson went through a full range of emotions as he watched his side crash out of the Champions League last night.

There was the initial euphoria of seeing his bets pay off as two surprise starters, Wayne Rooney and Darron Gibson, were key to Manchester United storming to a three-goal lead against Bayern Munich.

Then came the danger signs that it may not be Ferguson’s lucky night after all. Rafael da Silva received a silly booking for tripping Mark van Bommel when seconds earlier, the Dutchman got away with the very same foul.

Finally came the inglorious downward spiral that befalls all who gamble. Rooney limped off after further aggravating his ankle injury and Rafael was sent off for desperately wanting to take Franck Ribery’s jersey away from him.

And so the English Premier League, a supposed benchmark of quality football, has no representatives in the semi-finals for the first time in seven years.

Has the balance of power shifted back to continental Europe as Germany, Italy, France and Spain each have a club in the final four?

Maybe we should have seen this coming.

How many times have we heard Arsene Wenger claim that he’s on the verge of revolution at Arsenal?

Have you lost count of how often Steven Gerrard has said that this will be THE year for Liverpool?

How about Sir Alex, who begins every summer by stating that only minor tweaks are necessary in his squad? He said so again this past week, which makes as much sense as his assertion that Gary Neville is as fast as Ribery.

It’s not tweaking if you need a new right-back, a central midfielder, a left winger, a striker and a potential replacement for Edwin Van der Sar.

It’s not tweaking if one of your top three goalscorers this season are own goals.

It’s not tweaking if you rather rush your star forward back and see him burst a blood vessel in his leg than start your other striker who cost 30 million pounds.

What you need is rebuilding – from scratch if necessary. However, getting Sir Alex to admit his errors is no easy task.

After being in the game for more than 30 years, he thinks he knows everything and he may be right in most aspects.

However, even a casual fan must be puzzled when stuff like “there’s no more value in the transfer market” and “those typical Germans got him sent off” come out of the Scot’s mouth.

I’m threading on dangerous waters here because questioning the manager’s ways is seen as disrespectful and fickle by some United fans. But being blindly faithful is a more serious crime, at least in my books.

The reality of the situation is that the side is more than capable of finishing in the top three of the league standings because quite frankly, the teams below them just aren’t good enough.

United’s yardstick should be set against the likes of Barcelona and Inter Milan. And right now, there can be no denying the disparity between them and the Red Devils.

The team may still go on to win the league in May but let’s face it, Rooney has carried this club since the season began.

I shudder to think where they would be now if he had been injured earlier, just as I tremble at the thought of having another season with Neville in defence.

Before you conclude that I’m just another spoilt and over-reacting United fan, take a long, hard look at the squad, something that Sir Alex refuses to do.

Consider how Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez were “replaced” and who are in line to succeed Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Neville at the club.

Have we consistently seen the free-flowing football this season that were synonymous with United’s play in previous campaigns?

This is not a knee-jerk reaction to results in the past week.

The signs are there and the alarm bells have started to ring.

Sir Alex may have failed on the gambling table last night, but now, he’s playing for much higher stakes – the future of Manchester United football club.

United fans can only hope he has an ace or two up his sleeves.

The 30 Million Pound Enigma

Few people get a second chance in life. Even fewer possess the raw skill and technical ability of Dimitar Berbatov.

Put two and two together, it means that against Bayern Munich tonight, the Bulgarian striker has yet another opportunity to shine on the big stage.

Manchester United fans – at least the rational ones – know not to expect a Lionel Messi-esque four-goal salvo from a man who looks more suited to be in a Godfather movie than on a football pitch.

But they would like him to go some way towards justifying the 30 million pounds fee that the club shelled out to prise him away from Tottenham Hotspur two years ago.

26 goals in 80 appearances just about covers the interest payments. Leading the Red Devils into the Champions League semi-finals will significantly repay the principal amount.

There’s no doubting the quality of United’s number 9. He’s like Will Smith – an outstanding actor who from time to time, does a stupid movie like I Am Legend.

Same with Berbatov – masterful against Bolton a fortnight ago, abysmal when Chelsea visited over the weekend.

Inconsistency has spread like a plague through the dressing room. Other known sufferers include Nani, Michael Carrick and even the once mighty Patrice Evra.

With Berbatov, you know that on his day, few others can emulate his brilliance on the pitch.

When he plays well, it breathes confidence into his team mates. They can give him the ball knowing that he has that uncanny ability of threading passes and finding gaps even in the tightest of matches.

We don’t need to talk about Arjen Robben’s pace or Franck Ribery’s trickery.

To me, the match tonight boils down to whether the Bulgarian decides that the time has come for him to outgrow his role as Wayne Rooney’s backup.

In a week where Tiger Woods seeks redemption at Augusta, another man in Manchester is on a similar mission.

He has to win the hearts of the Old Trafford faithful who think that United’s season took a turn for the worse just as Rooney’s ankle did.

Advantage Bayern

Sir Alex Ferguson can have no complaints after Manchester United’s insipid performance in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich.

The Germans’ deflected equaliser and subsequent injury time winner may seem cruel but were just rewards for keeping Edwin Van der Sar busy throughout the ninety minutes.

Wayne Rooney’s opener on two minutes was actually a blessing in disguise for the Bavarians.

Bayern were given the freedom of the Allianz Arena park from then on as the English champions sat back and chose to break on the counter attack. By that, I mean giving the ball to Nani, who would promptly return it back to the opposition.

There is always a defend-first mentality in first leg ties. However, with the impetus of an early goal, to not build on it is akin to giving the match away, which is exactly what happened in the end.

Rooney had a golden opportunity to kill the tie off before half-time, a chance which we might look back on as a ‘what if’ moment. With only Hans-Jorg Butt to beat, he shot straight at the goalkeeper after great set up play from Darren Fletcher on the left.

United were sloppy in midfield and gave the ball away unnecessarily. This only served to increase the time Franck Ribery had with the ball, not a good thing when your name is Gary Neville.

To say that the United captain was bamboozled by the French playmaker would be a huge understatement. If Ribery was using this opportunity to remind people that there are quality wingers in Europe not named Angel Di Maria or David Silva, he certainly did it in style.

Even without Arjen Robben, United’s defence were stretched on far too many occasions. Van der Sar was forced into saves that not many men approaching the age of 40 would be able to make.

If there was a moment that encapsulated the Red Devils’ lacklustre display, it was Hamit Altintop finding his way easily past three players to have a shot on goal after the break.

It may be pointless to reminisce, but the lack of a Roy Keane-like figure has seen better teams dominate proceedings in the middle of the park.

A different player in his own right, Michael Carrick may share the same jersey number with the United legend but lacks the drive and never-say-die attitude that ‘Keano’ brought to the side in the past.

The fact that he, along with Park Ji Sung, was hauled off in the second half tells you what Ferguson made of his side’s display. This comes at a stage of the season where every match has to be treated like a cup final.

Perhaps the biggest worry is Rooney’s injury that is likely to see him out of action for the next few weeks.

It’s time for Dimitar Berbatov to show that his best performances don’t just come against lowly opposition. The moment has also come for him and his team mates to silence critics who call them a one-man side – not that these people will ever keep quiet.

The last time the Red Devils lost 2-1 in the first leg of the quarter-finals, they memorably rallied to thrash Roma 7-1 in the return match at Old Trafford.

It seems naive and foolhardy to expect another performance close to that memorable night in April 2007. However, it may be that nothing less will be required from Ferguson’s men if they are to reach the semi-finals for a fourth successive campaign.

If Carrick and friends think that it’s enough to show up next week and hope that 65,000 supporters will carry them to victory over the Germans, they might be in for a rude shock.

Whereas the R&R combo of Rooney and Ronaldo caused heartbreak for the Italians three years ago, it could be the tandem of Ribery and Robben doing the damage this time at Old Trafford.