Monday, April 12, 2010

Champions League recap and thoughts on Manchester United

If the group stages of the Champions League have become tedious, then the knockout stage this year more than made up for it.

United’s thrashing of Milan. Chelsea crashing out against Inter and their former manager. Lyon stunning Galacticos 2.0. Barcelona destroying Stuttgart in the 2nd leg. Arsenal overcoming a nightmare 1st leg with a classy effort at the Emirates. Bordeaux seeing off Olympiakos. CSKA Moscow upsetting Sevilla in Spain. Bayern progressing over Fiorentina thanks to an offside goal and Robben’s missile. And that was just the round of 16.

The Quarterfinals left me speechless. Lyon heaped more misery on Bordeaux, as they stumble towards the end of the season. After a decade of domestic dominance, it may be their time to shine in a continental competition. Inter did the business over Moscow. The first leg was tedious to say the least, and once Sneijder’s free kick went in, it was game over. Messi had an unbelievlabe second leg as he tore apart a weakened Arsenal side with 4 goals, 3 of them coming in 20 minutes. The third goal (breakaway and chip of the GK) was amazing.

And then there was Manchester United v Bayern Munich. I don’t know where to start, but here we go. For starters, United did not do enough in the first leg. After Rooney’s opening goal and his chance to make it 2-0, they lost possession far too easily and let Bayern run the game. Fergie’s substitutions were suspect and then Neville and Evra made horrible mistakes that cost them goals. In essence the tireless work of Olic set the stage for Robben. His goal at the end of the first leg put United behind heading back to Old Trafford, and his effort just before half took the gloss of an amazing first half by the Red Devils. Rafael’s red allowed Bayern to dominate, eventually leading to Robben’s exquisite finish. It was a disappointing exit but a thrilling ride.

Before the season began, I felt that this would be a transitional year for Manchester United. They sold Cristiano, would start phasing out the older members of the team and would begin shaping the team for the future. Results: Rooney has become the focal point of the team, and he has teamed up with Nani, Valencia is providing service and the team is supported by Fletcher, Carrick and Gibson. There is real promise in this team. The defense needs to be reinforced for sure, and that’s Fergie’s challenge this summer. Surely Chris Smalling can’t be the answer.

United have had a solid season. Top 3 finish, League Cup victory and Champions League Quarter-Final. They hung in there in the league to the end but the defeat against Chelsea was the result of too many injuries, ok one injury to Rooney, and too many big matches. The defeat against Bayern was gut wrenching but laudable. They took Bayern apart but a costly mistake took everything away. I would rather have United’s future than Chelsea’s. Arsenal is young and has taken great strides, and it may be that the United/Arsenal dynamic of the late 90’s and early 2000’s will return. Fergie may not see the culmination of his fourth team, but the foundation is definitely there for his successor.

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