Saturday, May 30, 2009

Fletcher Absence Exposes United Frailties

FC Barcelona 2 (Eto'o 10, Messi 70)
Man Utd 0

Who would’ve thought Man United would miss someone so dearly. This year’s Champions League final was dubbed to be a gladiator-esque showdown of Man Utd’s Portugese whinger… oh I mean winger, Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentinian, Lionel Messi.

But it was the absence of a certain Scottish midfielder which ultimately tilted the balance of the game in favour of the Spanish champion. He’s never in the limelight, seldom scores breath-taking goals and not really blessed with the good looks (well, he’s a Scot after all…).

Man Utd boasts a squad full of stars but the one truly needed in a big match was actually Darren Fletcher.

United missed his tenacity, big time. The industrious midfielder was wrongfully sent off in the semi-final match against Arsenal and the suspension was such a bitter blow to them.

No wonder rumour has it that Sir Alex Ferguson was willing to trade a get-out-of-jail card with Barcelona, Fletcher’s freedom for either Eric Abidal’s or Daniel Alves’. That was how important Fergie sees his fellow Scot.

On the hindsight, the suspension of Abidal and Alves plus the injury to Rafael Marquez seems to be irrelevant. With 3 out of Barca’s 4 first-choice defenders missing, United failed to capitalise on it.

But Barcelona and their coach, Pep Guardiola, were unwilling to let Man Utd get away with it. The obvious was staring them in their faces. Man Utd’s midfield lacks steel and the player who’s willing to do all the dirty work.

Looking back, great teams were built around a strong man in midfield, someone willing to sacrifice creativity for stability. Think Roy Keane of the all-conquering Man Utd class of ’99, Patrick Vieira of the ’04 Arsenal Invincibles and Claude Makelele of the ugly but effective Chelsea.
Fast forward to the current United squad, I see Anderson and Michael Carrick. Hmmm… Not so sure about that. To make things worse, they were up against Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. These were the 2 players pivotal in Spain’s European Cup conquest last year.

It was a joy to watch as the Spanish duo took hold of the game after a nervy first 10 minutes where their fellow Iberian, Ronaldo, was having a showboating session.

But thereafter, they controlled the game with finesse and put up a master-class performance. They didn’t score the goals but they pulled the strings from midfield and all we saw was players in white bumbling around them haplessly.

Didn’t some part of the game looked like they were having a practice session with Man Utd, playing ‘pig in the middle’ or ‘Monkey’ with them?

Anderson was woeful and got found out in this game. If he was supposed to do Fletcher’s job then I think he should look for employment elsewhere. Michael Carrick, for being hailed as ‘a great passer of the ball’ and even ‘world-class’ by the English papers, unsurprisingly, looked bereft of ideas and nothing near latter description.

It was Iniesta who made it all happen when he barged through the centre of Utd’s midfielder and played a controlled pass into the path of Samuel Eto’o. The Cameroonian striker glided into the penalty area with surprising ease as Man Utd’s defence stood hesitant and watched on.

Pep Guardiola must’ve watched Liverpool’s 4-1 triumph and asked his fleet-footed attackers to run at the lumbering Nemanja Vidic like how Fernando Torres embarrassed the Serbian giant in the Theatre of Dreams.

The striker made no mistake as he fire it past a bemused Edwin van der Sar. He must be wondering how Barca sneaked in so easily.

The answer was found in Man Utd’s strangely passive way of defending in the match. They played the game in fear, showed too much respect for Barca and were peeing in their pants every time Thierry Henry or Leo Messi were on the ball.

Seeing how English teams totally dominate the European football scene for the past few seasons through their fast-paced and gritty approach to games, United failed to use that as their advantage and paid for it.

Chelsea, who was Barca’s semi-final opponent, gave Man Utd a perfect example of how to stifle the football artisans. If not for the incredulously biased referee, it would have been another Chelsea vs Man Utd final.

Liverpool, too, gave Real Madrid a royal spanking 2 months back. Just like Chelsea, it was all about putting pressure on their midfielders, denying them space and time plus upping the ante through speed and a more direct approach.

Yet United players stood and watch as Barca seized the initiative and made them pay. Their midfield quartet failed to close down Xavi and Iniesta, giving the playmakers all the time in the world.

Would Darren Fletcher allow that? I think not.

Also, Barca cleverly exploited the lack of defensive midfielder on Utd’s part and used Messi as a deep-lying striker. Smart, ain’t it? He was a striker yet he dropped off so deep that Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic was caught in a dilemma. Should they continue marking him or let him drift into space.

The final nail in the coffin came when Ferdinand decided to take the latter option as he misjudged the flight of Xavi’s cross and allowed a 169cm midget (average Asian height, though…) to score from a free header.

It was as if he had read the English newspaper on the previous day as they described Ronaldo to be more of an aerial threat than him. Well, that certainly is shuts them up. This “Next Maradona” could be the real deal.

With their treble at stake, Man Utd put up no fight at all. The 5 shots in the first 10 minutes were actually all they could muster. And unsurprisingly, Ronaldo showed his usual petulance after being in the pocket of Carles Puyol throughout.

They were out with a whimper.

Man Utd could blame no one, to be honest. The loss of Fletcher was pivotal and the sheer brilliance of Barca outclassed the English champion. Players whom you would put your money on to drag them back into the game went missing. United was clearly not at their best.

So there goes the chance of winning a second treble in Sir Alex’s reign. But what a sweet victory for Pep Guardiola. Only his first season in charge of a club of this stature, he took them into greater heights by being the first Spanish team to win the treble.

They could dominate in the years to come, with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi being the spine of the team. Man Utd, meanwhile, should not take the knee-jerk approach to this as it was a bridge too far but would be exaggerating to say they’re in any sort of trouble.

With this team, this defeat could be a blessing in disguise as the problems and shortcomings of the squad will now be even more apparent and it’s just the right time to make amends through signings and pre-season training sessions.

All in all, Barca was not only the champion of Europe but more of a champion of football. Kudos!


EPL addict said...

I think that even with fletcher in the team, barcelona will still win. There needs to be 2 defensive minded midfielders to stop Barcelona. IMO..


True actually. Even Barca wasn't really on form that night.

But I really think a Fletcher-Carrick partnership would be more dynamic and give United abit more chance rather than that limp attempt to haul thsemselves back into the game.

Melv said...

well said, united were lacking steel in their midfield that it just collapsed after the 1st goal by Eto'o.