“You need character. To win leagues you need character.”
Character. You can’t put a price tag on character. Good thing too, because Manchester United have it in abundance even while they hemorrhage money in interest payments and miscellaneous fees to the Glazer family. Even prior to clawing their way back from a three goal deficit against Chelsea, United have somehow managed to keep on Manchester City’s coat-tails. Of course, United’s tenacity cannot take all the credit. City have lost momentum with loses to Chelsea, Sunderland and Everton; they’ve certainly missed the absent Toure brothers, the headline grabbing and constantly suspended Ballotelli, and the bedrock of their defense, Kompany, first suspended and now injured. Mancini though has no excuses, with over half a billion pounds invested in his side.
United, however, are simply made from a different cloth. Where Mancini can simply whip out the chequebook when building his side or treat the disappearance of the club’s top earner Carlos Tevez with no real fear, Alex Ferguson has had to make do with the cards he’s been dealt and do his bit to inject that little extra ingredient of character.
David De Gea, much maligned of late, had no business making the save of the season in extra time against Chelsea. Antonio Valencia, United’s most vibrant attacking creator as of late, has had to spend far too much time at right back; but you won’t find him refusing to play or running back to South America. Javier Hernandez, who by all means could be forgiven for a sophomore slump after an exhausting non-stop schedule since the last World Cup, found the motivation to score the equalizer against Chelsea despite sliding down the striking pecking order at United.
This weekend, the Suarez-Evra ordeal came to a boil as the two players met each other for the first time since the whole shameless scandal began. Kenny Daglish refused to let matters rest after Liverpool’s match against Spurs – “It’s fantastic to have Luis back and he should have never been out in first place.” Luis Suarez would have done well to try to calm matters on Saturday, but instead he decided not to shake Patrice’s Evra’s hand.
That bad start threatened to unleash all hell, but a dull and cagey first half – typical of recent United-Liverpool encounters – ensured no real controversy on the pitch. Only after the match had finished and Evra, a little ill advisedly, bounded around the pitch celebrating, did players lose their cool. Still, there were no pizzas thrown and no truly ugly scenes like Martin Keown and Ashley Cole jumping up and down atop of Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Evra would have been smarter to let the Liverpool players disappear down the tunnel before letting loose, but all in all, most would agree United kept their dignity.
The same could not be said for Kenny Daglish, who, one can only assume, pretended not to know Suarez refused to shake Evra’s hand and then claimed it was “bang out of order” to blame Suarez for anything that happened. Thank the gods of decency and rational thinking that both Daglish and Suarez apologized the following day.
But for all this talk of United and their character, Manchester City are starting to look a course and distance side themselves. A goal to nil victory against Aston Villa might represent a stark contrast from the sexy football City produced earlier in the season but, as we reach the business end of matters, three points are all that matter. United, of all clubs, would tell you that ugly, dull 0-1 away victories are the stuff of champions.
You have to feel the league is City’s to lose. Their incredible resources should see them across the finish line. On paper they have an easier run-in, but as Sir Alex has taught us, when the clock strikes squeaky bum time you need character to win the league. The next couple months will reveal whether City can lay claim to the former and the latter.
The Australian Open
It’s not often a tournament leads to the top four contestants making the semifinals, then the first and second ranked competitors making the final, all while providing the best sporting entertainment possible. But that’s what we got in Melbourne as the tennis season kicked off.
In the aftermath of that epic six hour Australian Open final, most sporting columns asked the same question – what must it feel like to be Rafael Nadal? Sadly, sporting competitions, like history – following the old adage – are written by the victors. To take the world number one, who had beaten you in the last six meetings in tournament finals, to five sets spanning six hours, after you didn’t even think you’d be fit to play on the eve of the Open, is some accomplishment.
Similarly Andy Murray deserves praise for his own five set battle with Novak Djokovic – a man he’s yet to beat at a Major. Despite the loss, Murray has every reason to feel emboldened – he did not wither, he did not collapse and his fight back from 2-5 down in the fifth set deserved a trophy in itself.
But if you don’t win three sets in the semis you don’t get a crack at the cup. And if you don’t win three sets in the final you don’t get the cup. So, the spoils to Djokovic. The Serbian’s celebrations, however, left something to be desired. I understand winning a championship in that manner must have felt like scaling Everest. All the journalistic metaphors surrounding the semi-finals and finals revolved around phrases like war of attrition, gladiatorial battle, the pain barrier, a physical match, etc.
Still I can’t help but feel Djokovic’s celebrations were more fitting for scoring an injury time winner in the Rome derby. But for tennis, no. Not for a gentleman’s game. Of course no one else I’ve spoken to seems to mind as much as I do. But then everyone I’ve spoken to is North American and I wouldn’t trust them to point out Australia on a map let alone discuss what constitutes a gentleman.
Anyway, let’s just hope the players have not expended all this season’s entertainment in the first Grand Slam.
Six Nations – Opening Rounds
In a weekend featuring the Calcutta Cup – the age old rivalry of Scotland and England – and a rematch of the World Cup quarter final between Ireland and Wales, the opening fixture between the World Cup runner’s up France and Italy – the perennial Six Nations whipping boys who have only managed eight wins in sixty one matches during their twelve years in the tournament – was always going to lack expectation.
Having spent the entire week sick in bed, completely delirious and looking like a desperate smack head trying to come clean, I welcomed any sort of sporting distraction and so tuned into the opening Six Nations match despite the distinct possibility of a total bore-fest. Thankfully, the BBC had Eddie Bulter in charge of commentary – he could discuss the literary relevance of the Twilight series and I’d be enthralled. Fifteen minutes into the match and Butler, with documentary work on his CV and used to poetic license in his journalistic endeavors, ran a little too long on a tangent about the Italian prop Andrea Lo Cicero wanting to compete as a star class sailor at the 2016 Olympic Games. As play kicked on from a French scrum, Butler caught himself. “Sorry,” he chuckled, “meanwhile…” and returned from pleasant thoughts of sunny Mediterranean waters back to the freezing Stade de Frances and to the rather pointless match.
In the end the match went as expected. Italy tried very hard and did well to frustrate France, who in the end, won easily.
This won’t come as surprise to faithful readers of this column, but I had the Scotland vs. England result ruined for me, England nicking the famous Cup with a 13-6 victory. I had a fiver on Scotland to win the match, which, in truth, was a bet on England to do poorly. England did do poorly, but unfortunately for me, Scotland did worse. The critics on Fleet Street wrote how they would have lambasted the English performance if Martin Edwards were in charge, but he wasn’t. Stuart Lancaster was in charge in his first match as England headcoach and so everyone took it easy on him. All they wanted to do was win and then look forward to a match against Italy in Rome where they would probably play really poorly and win.
For Scotland the match will linger for a bit longer, as losses often do. They had more possession and decent build up, but just cannot score tries. Dan Park, who will play the scapegoat, played terribly. Every one of his kicks seemed straight into the arms of an English back. Then the fatal error as his low clearance was charged down by Charlie Hodgson immediately after the second half restart. Park, who at 33 and not in the best form was already a controversial choice given the good rugby on display by youngsters in the Edinburgh side, promptly resigned from international rugby on the Monday following the match.
The last match of the opening round proved the most exciting, and the most controversial. The first half was slightly cagey and even though Wales played the better rugby, Ireland went into the break with an encouraging five point lead. After some horrendous kicking by Rhys Priestland, Leigh Halfpenny took over the duties in the second half and to much better effect – a catalyst for Wales’ as they turned opportunities into the points. The second half resembled, like the best of team sports, a boxing match where one competitor will land a big hit only to see a massive glove about to smack his face a few moments later.
The match looked all over when Bradley Davies dangerous off ball tip tackle on Donnacha Ryan. For what should have been a certain red card, Davies escaped with only a yellow and the gift of coming back from the sin bin with five minutes to play. Ireland’s frustration was further compounded by missed kicks from Sexton and a controversial penalty call – another tip tackle – with just a minute left to play. Halfpenny kicked the winning penalty, and even though I had another fiver on Wales the victory carried a slightly sour aftertaste.
The second round kicked off in Stadio Olympico in Rome. Amidst more horrible weather Italy did what they do best, frustrate opponents, get really dirty and in the end lose the match without too much of a fuss. Things looked scary for England at halftime after Italy managed two quick tries before the break. But England came back, thanks to good kicking by Owen Farrell and another brilliant charge down from Charlie Hodgson.
The France and Ireland match was postponed due to bad weather (translation: delayed a week so that RBS can get some more airtime next weekend when previously no matches were scheduled). Thankfully the Welsh have a proper stadium with undersoil heating and all that, so their match up with Scotland went on. The match proved what I had learned in the opening round: under no circumstances whatsoever should one bet on the Scots. They huffed and puffed and kept proceedings close in the first half, but sadly lost all control after the second half restart and gave up twenty four points within a quarter of an hour. They did, however, finally score a try – their first in five matches – just when it looked as if all the facial expressions in the world wouldn’t buy Andy Robinson one.
Wales looked superb throughout, despite missing captain Sam Warburton through injury and then losing the in-form George North early on. Leigh Halfpenny finished a couple good tries and continued with kicking duties after his excellent second half against Ireland. Of course all the hype now focuses on Wales’ trip to Twickenham to face England, the only other side with two wins to their name. Should they win Wales would capture the Triple Crown (beating each of the Home Nations) and put themselves in a fantastic position to win the Six Nations Championship. Surely a match not to miss (or to postpone due to bad weather).
The Superbowl – Roman Numerals Ain’t Gonna Make You Any Smarter (but Latin phrases certainly will…)
So I wasn’t even going to write about the Superbowl. Well, I was always going to write that – that I was not going to write about the Superbowl – mainly because it’s so, so much ado about nothing. In the end the game proved entertaining enough – keeping in mind I did spend the entire second half, until the last four minutes of the fourth quarter when I knew things would get interesting, in the kitchen preparing the most delicious lamb chops the world has ever experienced.
Anyway, I don’t really care about the game, or Gisele, or MIA’s one finger salute (and the highly probable six figure fine). In fact the lamb chops were far more interesting, and you can read about the game in a billion different publications because something like six million journalists went to the game (Editor – um, closer to six thousand).
What did interest me was the trophy presentation. First of all, the Lombardi trophy gets a goddamn march. Why are you marching the trophy in? Every other sport I know – I suppose I mostly know sensible, non-American-dominated sports – the winners walk up to a podium or a stand where they receive the trophy from some important people no one knows or cares about. There is no goddamn march. There is no faux-epic soundtrack for the trophy march.
Then suddenly all the players start huddling around the Lombardi and touching it. That’s about when I had enough and went back to the kitchen to continue cooking. Out from the living room Mei starts shouting, “They’re kissing it now! They’re taking photos on their phones!” What? They are taking camera phone pictures of the Vince Lombari trophy march?
Why is it so difficult to understand how to present a bloody trophy? The captain or coach goes up to some dignitaries and receives it and that’s all there is to it. Instead the NFL have a fucking march, with the players acting like giddy school girls at Shea Stadium in ’65 (either that or how a fourteen year old might behave in a Nevada desert brothel, shyly groping for a touch of alluring flesh), and then they hand the trophy to the CEO of the team – usually a dorky old white dude who looks as if the only thing that might hit him are tax evasion charges. Lame.
I tried to do some research on past Superbowl presentations – last year the NFL and the Packer’s did the exact same thing as what shocked me this year – but it’s tedious work trying to do proper journalism. All I can say is this is probably a smarter idea, just barely, than the previous one of presenting the trophy in the winning team’s locker room. Imagine an age where the people at home watching on television were able to see the winning team celebrate while the fans that shelled out and actually went to the game couldn’t. Real smart.
Castigat ridendo mores.