Having crashed so disastrously at Wembley against Manchester City, can we reasonably expect Manchester United to do any better against the remarkable Schalke?
The team which though pottering along in the middle of the Bundesliga, and supposedly groaning under a debt of £220 million, had the supreme audacity to go to San Siro and score five against Inter. Letting them down more lightly in the return in Gelsenkirchen, when the astonishing, now 33 -year-old, Spaniard Raul, once such a star bombardier of Real Madrid, made one goal and scored another. And there are other stars in that side.
In goal, Germany’s first choice is Manuel Neuer. In midfield, the nineteen-year-old Joel Matip, who also scored at San Siro. In attack, that quick experienced Peruvian, Farfan, who sparkled on the wing in previous European conflicts when at PSV Eindhoven. Much will surely depend on whether Alex Ferguson can get it right, which he so signally failed to do at Wembley.
Still hard to know what possessed him, in the notable absence of Wayne Rooney, to leave Dimitar Berbatov alone and palely loitering up front, taking into the middle of the second half to bring on at last Chicharito, alias Hernandez, that supreme opportunist, who alas found no opportunities. By this same token it was hard to fathom the parallel tactics of Roberto Mancini, who surprisingly decided to forget and forgive with Mario Balotelli he, too, condemned to solider on alone. One tremendous right footed long shot, saved by Van Der Sar, in the first half was just about the extent of his valid contribution. Yet the £27 million striker Edin Dzko stayed benched throughout.
The longer the game went on, the more the usually super cautious City began to believe, till, well before the end, they were confidently and vigorously taking the game to United. Still you could hardly blame Ferguson for that sudden, alas, not untypical, burst of aggression from the highly praised and regarded Paul Scholes, sent off the second time of his career at Wembley.
City are likely to find Stoke City a far harder nut to crack, given their astonishing display against Bolton. What price Cahill as an England centre back now? How to comprehend such an abject loss of all round morale? Stoke to their extreme credit, deploy two flying, gifted wingers in Jermaine Pennant, who should surely have done so much more with his abundant talents, and Matthew Etherington, who, with the help of Stoke’s chairman, Peter Coates, has at last conquered his disastrous gambling habit.
The double spearhead of those two powerful players Kenwyne Jones and the muscular scouser Walters will give even as powerful a pair as Rio Ferdinand and Vidic something to think about. United do indeed look set to win the Premiership again, but even with Rooney, in Europe don’t look home and dry. While Schalke are a better, happier, side now that the iron man, Felix Magath, once the scorer of a Euro Cup Final winner has given way to the more genial Ralf Rangnick.
Chelsea went out in Europe to a United team which received what seemed to me excessive plaudits. Though they may, overall, have played the better football they were hugely lucky to escape a penalty when Patrice Evra so plainly fouled Ramires in the box under the very eyes of that Spanish dummy official behind the goal. And at Old Trafford, they could only win 2-1 against a Chelsea team reduced to ten men after seventy minutes, when Ramires was expelled.
Carlo Ancelotti has, alas, been caught in a cleft stick. To pick the faded Torres as often as he has even, absurdly, at the expense of the potent Didier Drogba, has whatever he may say, been clearly a reflection of his fear of what Abramovich, who so ludicrously shelled out that £50 million for the Spaniard, would do.
At last the American billionaire, Stan Kroenke, has gained control of Arsenal, just as Wenger’s team seem to be fading away. He could well call them “jaded” after their dull show against Liverpool last Sunday, which I saw. Wenger was as, alas, so often, a far from generous loser, protesting that eleven rather than eight minutes’ overtime was played and insisting that Liverpool’s spot kick should not have been given. The truth was, however, that yet again The Gunners were all smoke without fire and had Liverpool only been bolder, much earlier in the game, who knows what might have happened?
Wenger made an awful hash of things in Barcelona, in press conferences he has been to excessive lengths in trying to convince us that all is well with the team when it so plainly isn’t. Oh for that elusive cutting edge!