Sunday, May 22, 2005

Cup Final: Man United Point of View

I just had a feeling it was going to be one of those days. That game pretty much summed up our whole season: beautiful flowing football coupled with explosive young talent at times, but no ability to finish whatsoever. I have never seen such a one-sided game between those two sides since that glorious 6-1 drubbing at Old Trafford just over four years ago. And even then, we were still riding what remained of that wonderful wave of confidence initiated by the treble of 98/99. Since those days Arsenal have grown in strength and stature, and every game became a titanic struggle between the two superpowers of English football. The emergence of Chelsea this season and the respective problems both clubs ran into (Arsenal's complete loss of confidence after the 2-0 defeat that ended their unbeaten streak, United's early season loss of Rio and subsequent losses of key players such as Van Nistelrooy) meant that this season's cup final was the last chance for both teams to salvage something from a year of underachievement.

Following the uncertainty surrounding the future of Manchester United after the Glazer takeover, the fans desperately needed something to cheer about. The end of season capitulation that cost us automatic qualification for the Champions League next season (and meant a second successive third place finish) was very disappointing. The team seemed to step up for the big games, but just didn't play as well when faced with weaker opposition. Our loss of so many valuable points against the (with all due respect) "small fry" of the premiership opened up an insurmountable gap between us and the league leaders.

But boy did the team show up for the cup final. They put on such a dominant display that it beggared belief it was Arsenal, of all teams, on the other side of the pitch. Keano was at his magnificent best, completely controlling the midfield. The defense handled everything thrown their way, and Roy Carrol was completely untested in goal (thank God for that). Rooney sparkled, and then when he tired Cristiano took the game into his own hands. The introduction of Giggsy for Fletcher (who had performed quite well, definitely improving of late) injected more pace into the squad and we found ourselves ripping the Gunners' rearguard into shreds. Arsenal had no answers, as they struggled to involve a Bergkamp employed in the awkward position of lone striker. Henry's absence was visible, as Reyes and Pires couldn't support the front man adequately and were kept in check by our lightning quick defense and well organized holding midfield players. I could go on for a while, but let's just cut to the chase, shall we? When it counted the most, we absolutely failed. Free headers in the box, chance after chance wasted when it surely would've been easier to score. Rooney's brilliance was thwarted by an impressive Lehmann (sure, the shots were right at him most of the time, but for him to be there required excellent positional sense). Van Nistelrooy, for all of his excellent center forward play in holding up the ball and involving the wide players, just did not look sharp enough in front of goal.

And when, in the closing minutes, that header was cleared off the line and onto the underside of the crossbar by good ol' dependable Freddie Ljunberg, you just had a feeling that it wasn't going to be our day. I even whispered it to one of my friends that if the game went to penalties, we stood no chance. Luck just wasn't on our side, and our finishing had let us down one too many times. A glimmer of hope was sighted when Tim Howard was seen warming up on screen, but those hopes were dashed faster than you can say "tourette's" as the American sat back down on the bench. The LAST person I wanted in goal for those penalties was the abysmal Carrol. The good news is, he hasn't been offered a new contract and we'll finally be waving goodbye to the latest on the list of many catastrophic 'keepers that have plagued the club since The Big Dane left in 1999.

So what now? Well, another season has ended with even more disappointment. Congratulations to Arsenal for surviving the onslaught by the skin of their teeth and siezing the opportunity when presented to them. Five penalties converted is an impressive feat, especially in a tension-filled FA Cup final. We can be proud of our performance however, for the best team has lost this game. We can also look forward to a young squad filled to the brim with potential, and the return of Van Nistelrooy with all his goalscoring exploits next season. Long term implications aside, we can also look forward to the money Glazer has brought in for summer expenditure.. the purchase of a new goalkeeper and a midfield successor for Keane being the highest priorities at the moment. Its definitely a good time to be a Manchester United fan, I can almost sense the formation of another all-conquering team at the hands of the everpresent Sir Alex Ferguson.

So let's put all of this behind us.. forget about the shares and the plc, forget about the Glazers and the Coolmore Mafia, forget about the millions of dollars/pounds/yen/euros exchanging hands at the expense of the club. Let's just look forward to next season.


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