Strange ghosts.

Juventus United; as big as they get?

Yes and no. Yes Juve have a certain megastar and some authentic *players* but United, United are strange, or estranged, or something. There’s a consensus – remarkably, perhaps – that this team has some quality (of course) but few of the qualities we might associate with proper Red Devils.

Go through the side and see how many settle into the kind of glorious-amorphous, universal United of the Ages. Or even the Plainly Fit to Wear the Shirt Eleven.

De Gea, certainly, Pogba potentially. Otherwise, I like the case for Mata as the kind of player United should pick and – strangely? – Luke Shaw for his ambition, his vital surges.

Beyond that, who? Rashford and Lingard plainly not yet. Martial? Good currently but not for me. Young, almost, but like Valencia, more a committed Pro than a truly high-level player. Matic a tremendous foil to theoretically enable the full-on rampant unleashingment of a brilliant attacking midfielder – but merely  a goodish international water-carrier, in himself.

More than this lack of quality, United lack direction, sustained energy – lack soul.

This feels like a betrayal and is understood that way by many – inside and out of the club support. The manager’s Trumpian darknesses – utter self-obsession, cynicism – have robbed the Mighty Reds of their romance and, frankly, much of their enduring appeal.

That Mourinho doesn’t, when it comes to it, give a toss about energy and style, is self-evident. That he really is past his sell-by-date, as well as past the moment where he deserves our respect, may be more a matter of opinion – but one I am untroubled by sharing. His team have sunk generally into the muddle of dourness and bad faith – or faithlessness – characteristic, apparently of the man. They are not United.

So this enormous occasion is strangely haunted, before we start, rather than brimful of evocation and memory.

Bung on the telly, half seven. Maybe half-hoping to see Roy Keane or Giggs or something which might light up that hope, that symbol, that reflex. Something lungbursty or flying-forwardy.

Nope. It may come, I suppose but BT, ludicrously, have Rio, Scholesy and Hargreaves on the settee; i.e wall-to-wall Proper United Blokes talking *realistic* shop. United ‘aren’t seeing the pictures’. There’s ‘no pattern’. We’re counting down to Juve v MU and it’s sounding quite dispiriting. Understandably.

Then The Mourinho Tunnel Interview. He’s not actually hostile on this occasion – merely typically ungiving. Hey but things could happen. Let’s watch.

De Gea’s birthday. 28. Won’t be here for his 29th, you’d think. Mata and Fred dropped, Lingard back, Herrera starts.

Moral victory for United as Szczesny flares a shockingly nervy strike out, about ten yards up the park. Pogba may be playing an advanced, central midfield role.

Lingard breaks out but the counter fizzles out. Cuadrado – right up there, for me as an over-rated player – gifts the ball to United in midfield but again no joy. However, after ten minutes, the visitors are looking decent.

First whiff of a chance falls to Juve, as Betancur is allowed a yard or two in the box – the shot deflected wide. Juventus now have a period of possession and some thrust, high up the pitch. Notable that the arch-stopper Bonucci ventures deep into the United box in open play.

United have predictably gone with Matic and Herrera central and deepish; 18 minutes gone and it’s working. The team shape seems good: Pogba freer. Positive energy around the pitch.

Dybala creates some minor fluttering at the heart of the United defence, following a beautiful first touch. In the aftermath Chiellini clunks Sanchez to offer the respite of a free-kick, thirty yards in front of De Gea. It’s alarm-less, in a good way, for MU.

I’m just thinking United look like a stronger side than they have done for months – a quality side – but then Matic swings a shockingly lazy pass to nobody, whilst trying to be the Cool Maestro in midfield. Embarrassing and possibly revealing in the moment, but no damage done.

Mourinho (if he does thrilled) will be quietly thrilled, on the half-hour. 0-0.

Out of nothing, Cuadrado beats Shaw too easily and his shot – deflected across Matic – is pawed into the six yard box by De Gea. Cleared.

First really poor moment from United follows. Smalling and Lindelof go missing as Khedira has time to turn and manufacture something, twelve yards out. His shot is scuffed, weakish, against the outside of the right-hand post. An escape – the first.

38 minutes. United beat away a series of corners and medium-threatening attacks. Dybala a central influence for Juve; Ronaldo peripheral, as is Pogba. (In fact Ronaldo is positive but peripheral, whereas Pogba is poor and the same. A concern).

As is the ease with which a further cross comes in from Shaw’s left flank. The young defender a tad befuddled, this time by some typically extravagant trickery from Ronaldo. Must apply himself – will get an earful during the break, I suspect.

The half closes with a corner for Juve, who have latterly been on top, without really opening up the opposition. The ball curls in but two clearing headers bring relief and the whistle.

Still no score; a good but not sparkling performance from Mourinho’s side. He will want more of that effective defensive shape, plus more involvement and more effect from the attacking midfielders in particular, second half. Juve are clearly strong but have not looked yaknow, *immortal*.

Dybala (not Ronaldo) looks to be their star. Early after the break he finds space in the box before arcing, turning and  swirling a shot. De Gea has no chance. It doinks against the top of the bar. It’s both a) the night’s finest moment so far b) the harbinger of a barrage from the United bench, aimed (I think) at Lindelof. Criminal to be ‘on it’ all over the field then sloppy in your own box.

58 minutes. The first sequence of play (or ‘plays’) for United for some time. Lingard and Martial involved – after a period of drift. Matic again flips a weird, lazy pass wide to no-one. No chance is fashioned but good.

Juve respond, Ronaldo curling in a cross from the left which Shaws attacks courageously before Cuadrado can strike.

Wow. A stunner. Bonucci drives an innocous but decently-weighted ball beyond United’s defenders. Ronaldo reads the path of the ball as it drops from over his shoulder. He volleys it, majestically, past the keeper. It’s godlike.

Drawing breath (and watching the re-run) we can certainly criticise the United defence – it was too easy. But bollocks to that. It was magnificent, it was Roy-of-the-Rocers, it was Top, Top Level.

Within two minutes the score might be two, as United shake off the shock unconvincingly. Juve, you sense, might blow most teams away after that; why would United be any different?

Sure enough, Ronaldo puts one on a plate for Cuadrado… who hoiks over from ten yards, max. It’s opened up and there is real danger, here: Lindelof not alone now, looking lost in space.

Rashford is in for Lingard. There looks no way back, for Mourinho’s men, despite an improved performance. Mata and Fellaini on – somehow the reds need to get from likely losers to unlikely winners. A second for Juve seems more likely.

It really does… but United hang in there… and Mata curls in a beauty to make it 1-1!

Ridiculous, but resulting from some sharp, skilful play by Martial, who had played wall pass ping-pong to create the opportunity.

88 minutes and Young lifts and curls another free-kick from out wide on the left. The keeper flaps, Bonucci fumbles and the ball is in the home net again. Unreal.

Gets more so. Two minutes later and Rashford is absolutely in but blazes against the keeper. Poor miss, in truth.

Doesn’t matter. As the ‘surefire cruise’ to a Juventus victory from woah, fifteen minutes ago doesn’t matter. United have only gone and won it.

Almost hilariously (but not quite) Mourinho stokes the anger of the home crowd, provocatively posturing on the pitch. Predictable perhaps, that even this fabulous finale is not simply a moment for joy for him – that it needs to be about him.

He will and should take some credit, mind. Despite a ver-ry mixed performance from Pogba and lightweight or perhaps more exactly uninfluential contributions from the likes of Lingard and Sanchez, United scored a famous and important win, built on good team shape and application.

They were competitive, they defended well as a team and when United’s central defenders were exposed, they scurried around and recovered. Juve deserved to be 2-up after about 75 minutes but United pegged them back: then they nicked it.

As a purist and sucker for that romance we talked of earlier, I’m chuffed for Mata. His free-kick was a waving of the wand, a delight. He can do this *from nowhere* – he can twinkle. ‘Course he can; he’s United.

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Shed and watershed.

From bowlingatvincent.com, April 2015. So a taster. But a relevant one, yes?

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

Toe-to-toe?

So United are still in the competition and they’re happy with that. After being given a lesson during the first half in particular, they charged forward just enough to do just enough. They can go ‘toe-to-toe’ again at the Allianz.

My memory being every bit as broken up, conflicted and generally feeble as yours, here’s what struck me about the game – bullet-pointed.

  • Let’s not forget, people, that the first half was a nil-nil massacre, with Bayern playing at a level United cannot yet dream of.
  • Welbeck again did that thing where he looked like a world-beater for five minutes then, when the moment came, he really let his eyes glaze over, needed the moment to be over, longed for the responsibility to be gone, rather than for him to have to grasp it. And he dinked unconvincingly – unsuccessfully – because he is a good player but not a real striker.
  • Rooney was a disappointment.
  • Fellaini was almost fascinating dire – slow (and with no likelihood of a gear-change) clumsy and so generally befuddled he appeared to have forgotten how to head it. Which is almost funny. But funny with a very big price-tag.
  • The gulf in terms of comfort on the ball – and the treasuring of that fairly significant accessory – was staggering. United looked very English (i.e. chronically wasteful), Bayern majestically ‘continental’.
  • We can talk of United playing (finally) with some spirit but for aeons that’s been – and should always be? – non-negotiable. They were honest (give or take) but frankly ordinary, secured a home draw and conceded a goal and yet this is generally viewed as a step forward.  Talk of progress very quietly please.
  • Having wondered aloud about the propensity of a certain player in particular to throw himself (ahem… I mean draw contact) perhaps we should note in passing that the three most obvious simulations/exaggerations/examples of raw cheating (delete where your allegiances allow) were committed by Messrs Vidic (twice) and Rooney. Which disappointed me, I have to say.
  • Robben, meanwhile, played rather beautifully. With a kind of economy and skill and movement and confidence that maybe we shouldn’t even think of comparing with say… Valencia(?)
  • Great goal Vidic.
  • Wonderful goal Schweinsteiger. (But where was Fellaini?)
  • Valencia had to go for that second offence – simple undeniable jumping in, even if there appeared to be little malice.
  • Scweinsteiger was robbed – and we are robbed of watching him – after Rooney threw himself rather cheaply.
  • No wonder them there Germans are furious. They will feel they gave United whatever German is for ‘a lesson’ and had no luck in the ref department.
  • What they do have, of course, is an away goal. And the likelihood of a comfortable home win to take them rightfully through.
  • But United – this United – could yet do err… a Wimbledon… couldn’t they?

 

 

 

.

Proper grand.

So they got beat. Two blokes in the world think Nani’s dangle was dangerous – Roy Keane and the Turkish ref – and that was that. Madrid go through. United’s chorus of howling dissent and ‘moral’ outrage means nowt against those figures on the ole scaw-bored; 1-2. (2-3.) As Brucie might have said; ‘Alex – you’re my favourite – but I’m sorry you have to leave us.’

Pre the unsatisfying, water-treading, lop-sidedly engineered finale however, this one did pulsate nicely. In the manner of a proper big cup match, the much-criticised atmosphere at Old Trafford seething with real support as well as a respectable dollop of Real support. ‘Twas an occasion, eh? Personally, I’d been scurrying around all day in a heroically faux frenzy so as to engineer that essential headspace/sofa-berth for The Entire Thing – so difficult that one, given the cloying inconveniences of …well, life. But it just had to be done, right? In my case this meant going ballistic on the work front then simply absconding from every domestic responsibility presenting itself; or getting it done rapid. So it was in splendid familial absence that I entered that glorious bubble just in time to see team news flip up on twitter. It was then (doctor) that the pulsations first began.

Ferguson had unsurprisingly surprised us. In that (come on, be honest!) raw, deeply perverse Scottish psyche-to-trample-on-all-psyches (of his) he’d er… pulled out a plum… or a peach, or something fruiticiously quasi-triumphant and maybe whiffing of claret. A team selection all of us had to read four times before saying o-kay through a plainly discombobulated pseudo-reflective fug. A team-sheet so left-field it seemed likely that Muammur Gadhaffi – allegedly farter-in-chief at the Union of Farting Weirdos – must surely have parped it out Fergiewards from the sidelines in the sky, through a series of inspired, presumably Glaswegian cloud-symbols. A nominal midfield of Nani, Carrick, Cleverley, Wellbeck and Giggs. And Vidic ahead of Evans. And RVP up top solo… and no Rooney. Fabulous, mind-contorting stuff for the watching world but on reflection – for Fergie – simply a game plan. One without the ruggedly rugged one.

My personal nervy perusal of the line-up went pretty much as follows, in fact; WOW – Nani in; WOW, Vidic, not Evans!! The Rooneything did not, entirely, surprise me, given Ferguson’s occasional need to Firmly Establish That The Club Is Bigger Than Anyone and the player’s patchy form. Incidentally, I loved and respected the with-holding of Giggs from the Norwich game to allow a fitting and world-wide doffing of caps in this magnificent moment. Being no fan of Arbeloa, I could see the thinking (ish) re the call on Nani… but thought and think it was muddled – irrespective of the freakish red card issue. (Nani is sometimes unplayable but for me, he is too often absent – simply lacking the backbone for the big night.) Brave calls aboundeth, I thought, but before we give him the hair-dryer let’s take a second or two to rate and respect the amount of faith Sir Alex was necessarily displaying in the likes of Welbeck and Cleverley in particular. Top stuff. Pity they lost.

They lost because a tremulous winger in the tradition of lightweight, tricksy non-tackling mediterranean Pat Nevins was deemed to have crossed the threshold of what is acceptable in terms of raising your boot against an opponent. Nani, in following an aerial ball across his body in anticipation of ‘bringing down’ said ball, raised his right foot 4 foot 3 and a quarter as he pivoted. Either he was completely unaware of the approach of Arbeloa or he wasn’t. If the latter is the case then it is conceivable he knew –and indeed intended to make contact – or not. The various possibilities, let’s face it, are likely to be sieved through our own prejudices for and against the player/the club. As a player you know what you mean to do but as a spectator upon this one… difficult. I am clear that it was a yellow because it was not sufficiently dangerous or spiteful to be red, accident or no.

However, this conception of mine that there is a relevance to any ‘degree’ or sufficiency of danger may or may not be extant in the rules. As with seemingly every other high-profile transgression, we’re into this minefield of how or whether things can be judged ‘consistently.’ For me – they can’t. We aim for consistency of course but the dull MOTD chorus around this needs… needs to grow up, actually and think. We need good decisions on a million subtly different fouls or challenges or abuses of the laws. Scenarios which are as varied as the opinions upon them. It makes no sense then to simply bawl about consistency (from referees) when offences are manifestly not the same in degree of intent/violence/seriousness or otherwise. We need a referee who will discriminate well – an intelligent judge – over one applying some ludicrously crude and limiting letter-of-the-law. Let’s hope that we get lots of these kinds of refs, who can make and articulately justify such decisions, because then we will have consistently good football justice. So – even if there was a flicker of cowardly dangling or fishing with the foot by Nani – yellow!

Twenty-four hours after the event several things still fascinate. Firstly the notion that United, in playing a kindof retro-Brit longish, quickish, possession-negligent way, sitting alarmingly deep in the manner of an England side at a World Cup, invited the opposition to a) to get comfortable in the cauldron b) play. Consequently, while the home side scurried and scuffed and lashed the ball aimlessly forward in the first 30 minutes in particular, Real picked their passes. Ronaldo and co, without capitalising, did receive the ball in space around the box or out front. Maybe United got off rather lightly, early doors, as the initial pattern of the game was for Madrid to enjoy it whilst a wasteful and possibly tense United got it over with.

Surely United needed pressure? By all means play with pace but also with control? Get the crowd in there with you. Crucially, really test the Real back four – which ain’t (arguably) that special.

Time flashed past but there was little in the way of coherent passing movement from the reds. Undoubted positives included the mobility and willingness of Welbeck and the in-out dynamism and comfort of Cleverley. If the former ever turns goal-scorer (which sadly I doubt) he will be a near complete player. Giggs grew and got more vital as the game turned against him – a tribute in itself to his fitness, ability and love of the club. He hit more outstanding passes than anyone on the park. Van Persie, cruelly for United, has just hit one of those inevitable dips at utterly the wrong time; he looked quite like an ordinary striker. With things hardly fluent, that tendency to hurry or snatch a little remained.

Defensively United may have gotten away with this drop off and let them play thing if 11 men had persisted. I did think it was an error to play Vidic and Ferdinand together against such a fleet-footed and imaginative opponent but in truth these two elite stoppers were reasonably comfortable until Nani departed. But when United were reduced to ten and continued to sit deep, they were ruthlessly exposed. Ronaldo’s cute reach and Modric’s emphatic hit were in their separate ways, expressions of a high order.

One view of the game – not a popular one, or an easy one to take, perhaps – might be that Real’s composure was markedly and obviously better than United’s and that therefore their regal whitenesses represented some truly elite level of the game that United could not stretch to.(?) Overall they may be the classier – the better side. However I doubt we would be saying that had Nani stayed on and the beginnings of a Red Surge gathered towards irresistible home victory – something that seemed quite possible around the fifty minute mark.

A shame that this proper-grand and evocative sports-drama was undermined by a single issue. United lie 12 points ahead in the Premiership and will certainly be champions – so back next year. Back with the energy of Cleverley and the still-developing cool and quiet authority of Carrick. Plus the lethal brilliance of Van Persie and who knows… maybe that Rooney lad? Expect acquisitions front and back and a renewed purpose; Ferguson will want another thrash at it, methinks. They will be a force again.

This year, despite their near-unseemly dominance at domestic level, I have rarely thought the Red Devils good enough to win the Champions League. Real Madrid though, may be that good.

Pep … or pebbledash? That may be the question.

Pep. It sounds like a Sports Drink or a feisty Weimaraner with particularly twitchy-pointed, galaxy-searching ears; that’s as well as being the prefix to ‘talk’, naturally. It could be a zingy product for the all-new sprucification of our most fungal, spaghetti-clad saucepans. It could be, in fact anything sharply illuminating and of course, in a sense, it is. So the thought strikes me that although the media has been in a state of Chelsea Approval Frenzy in the last 24 hours, it might be appropriate to check that reactionary imbalance by returning, for a moment, to the previous state of Guardiola idolatry; Pep being quite genuinely prince of most of what is good (in football) and cleansing even.

Post the fascinating and revealingly crypto-jingoistic ‘reactions’ to Chelsea’s victory over the Catalunyan Gods, I advise some further reflection. On the one hand because I am – uncharacteristically, in my defence – applying the enthusiasm break and on the other because frankly our judgements have surely been on the pop. Pep’s carousel may have twirled in a country cart-wheel rather than a metro-sexually cosmic kindofaway last evening but come on guys, some proportion pulleeease.

I know… the irony, the irony….

But I keep seeing that Chelsea centre-forward – him, the ‘African Lion’ one – rated 8; Miereles 7; half the Barca team 6. I’ve seen a sub-heading ‘Drogba tour de force’. I’ve heard oodles of supportive pebbledash around that house-sized museum-piece English Grit and Determination. And it’s got me hacked off.

Okay so Chelsea won an admirable victory against a side so widely regarded to be the best in the world that discussion on that, at least, seems pointless. They were indeed well organised and the arguably heroic John Terry and his nominal(?) manager have to take substantial credit for these facts of the matter, interloping cruelly as they do into my altogether more supra-factual argument. I can buy and even raise a churlish grin to the win for journeymen lumpers over twinkling throroughbreds. However I might just remind the chest-thumping hordes that despite said win Chelsea’s throwbackism is something Pep (and the rest of the sentient universe) is entitled to put into perspective. Something his team may well yet do upon the return fixture.

Let me dare to go on the offensive – worse – the pretentiously offensive. For somewhere in the holding-player-free midfield of my absurdist pomp I do feel a righteous indignation brewing; one that I hope might in some way reflect the inspired tippy-tapping of diminutive boots in the Barca heartland. (Did warn you!) It feels like (and perhaps I kid myself?) worryingly ambitious footietruths flutter beneath my fingertips like passes waiting to be threaded. But am I man enough – as in brave enough, courageous in a Xavi-esque, accepting a pass in an unfeasibly tight ‘situation’ fashion enough – to actually express this ludicrously purist vision/deception/hallucination juggling its er… balls? Because the question is about seeing what’s really there… and what quality it has. Right?

Chelsea dun gud. Without any one of them being creative hardly at all – indeed maybe (sadly?) because not one of them tested the deliciometer – they were able to rumble towards the win. They neither broke the Catalans’ spirit nor really tested the core of their defence – known to be the one near-human weakness they deign to exhibit. Despite this, defensively, all over the park, they did a job on Barcelona and that may rightly be viewed as a triumph. Just not really by me.

Chelsea do have some quality and I merely suggest therefore that their limited game-plan undershot given the conspiracy of fortunes working in their favour. (Woodwork smudged and gimmes unclaimed, remember?) They cannot have aspired, pre-match, to give possession away routinely cheaply or fail to generate chances or momentum through retaining the ball or through individual moments of skill. I expect them to be disappointed that – for example – Drogba missed two real opportunities in the first handful of minutes through lousy first touches. And that his clumsiness with those precious openings was mirrored throughout by a general coarseness in play. And I repeat I do understand why Di Matteo took a defensive approach and that I am unable to argue it was unsuccessful but… look at the other side. The brighter one.

Pep and his truly magnificent representatives talk a good game and then they go play it; consistently. They are a special incarnation of the most pure expression of Skill Theory – a theory I am about to make up but which (fair do’s) they own and personify, actually. Their/my theory is about the simple, unequivocal supremacy of skill over muscle. They are the oak-beamed, lime-plastered dreamhouse, the rest the dour or pebble-dashed semi. Consequently I unashamedly favour an oaky, carousel-appreciative position on footie. And I have to defend it against heathen incursion by luddite Englishmen like Mikel, Drogba and Ivanovic.

Last night notwithstanding I reckon the overwhelming success of Barcelona FC may be the single greatest joy of and for the sporting billions currently resident on the big blueish toggerball we call home. Theirs is the most sublime achievement in an age and environment where short-termism, cynicism and outright dishonesty tend to prevail. They are certainly not beyond the occasional lapse – diving or at least exaggeration springs to mind – but the higher quality of their higher purpose should not only be applauded… but protected. In this sense I cannot join entirely with the whiff-of-regression-to-clumphood-associated chorus of approval for Chelsea. We’ve spent too many decades bemoaning lack of quality to suddenly trump it.

Lastly a further word on Drogba – whom part of me wishes to deny the oxygen of publicity. I did see an 8 rating for him in a national newspaper and a subheading on Drogba’s ‘tour de force.’ Both offended something in me – was that just me? What I saw was a largely poor but reasonably ‘willing’ performance made embarrassing by histrionics – his logo reading Ultra Ponce rather than Superman. If I were to turn back the clock much as the blues did, I’d say he made a chump of himself. But he was, as they say, a winner.

Guardiola, however, still holds the treasure.

Eight changes…

“Eight changes” – of what, kit?  Once every 12 minutes or so, to maximise bird-pulling possibilities/employment of backroom staff? Of formation? Of tack, or strategy, or manager? (Now we know it can’t be that). No, this phrase that seemed to resonate so, from the Five Live commentary from Lisbon was merely a matter of numbers – superficially. Playing numbers; meaning players who are good enough to wear the red of United, away, in the Champions League, in what is likely to be the most challenging fixture of their group stage.

But I’m even more than usual an unreliable witness. In fact no kind of witness, other than the aural kind, following the infuriating refusal of our antiquated telly to trap ITV. (For some reason the channels are slipping away like a soapy ball circa 1968 from under Bill Foulkes’s boot.) And rather than sling the thing out into the street, after having the kids take turns to hold down the 1 on the remote – which worked for about 30 seconds – I spoke gently to the telly and doinked it,  reaching for the laptop… and Five Live.

Which is rarely a disappointment.

And so, whilst other senses were engaged with the business of wolfing down pasta/tuna/pesto – or P and T as it is affectionately known in our house – my ears tell me that a proper European night was unfolding in balmy Lisbon. Atmosphere; chances; flashes of brilliance or that diaphragm-gurning fear of such brilliance from their number 8/9/delete where appropriate. A stunning home goal, with Johnny Evans critically drifting when an admittedly special pass unzipped him. A rare but welcome sharp finish from everybody’s favourite shagger, Ryan Giggs. (Blimey girls, imagine how sexy the boy Ryan would be if only he could have… finished?)

United are ludicrously tooled up in the penetration department. Though I didn’t actually see them I believe Berbatov and Owen were amongst the predators left unspent on the bench – this in addition to the part-used Nani and Hernandez. A small digression here, before I go onto further labour this point about United’s absurd luxury of gifts…

I was on the Llyn Peninsula only the other week when who should almost bump into me – presumably in some crass attempt to get my autograph – but M Owen esquire. He looked small, young and very fit; end of. He will clearly have few opportunities but the otherwise supra-dull Mr Owen will, in his boringly defiant way, surprise no-one with a couple of significant, well-taken goals (Carling Cup/late on in Champions League matches?) and I for one, will be pleased for him.

But how far will the fizz and the flash and the alround foxy-in-the-boxiness of United take them this campaign? Evans’s blunder will not be a solitary blip on the defensive charts – though he will feature less once a) senior players are fit, if ever and b) Fergie realises he has to pick Jones ahead of him… everytime. Over recent seasons United have been pretty close to outstanding but you would fancy top players to expose their defence. Vidic can be made to look poor by pacy strikers catching him flat-footed; Evra’s defending for the last year has been, in my view, consistently shocking; Ferdinand is often imperious but more often absent.

However, to Ferguson’s great credit, United have been about attacking for aeons. As soon as you give them the ball, they are a threat. Amongst his other undoubted gifts, Rooney’s pace is at times unplayable. A simple one-two may be executed, leaving a defender utterly out of the game as the formerly balding one bolts for the return – or the return of the return. Hernandez is that precious thing the natural snaffler of sharp chances. Nani can play, no question, but needs a kick up the arse and most of us would like to give it to him.

On the one hand the team is manifestly brimming with goals… but hilariously there are a few dunces in the corner in this regard – Carrick/Fletcher/Anderson certainly, and to a lesser extent, Giggs. But to answer my question… United are looking better than last year and I like the freshness (and the challenge) Jones and Smalling are putting out. If they remain impregnable or their relative inexperience is not significantly found out then the reds are serious candidates – as in truth are City – for the last four. Barcelona remain favourites.

Back to Lisbon and a draw probably acceptable to both sides. A match with momentum and colour and something of that special atmosphere. A proper European night then, honourably competitive; one to cap with a walk on the coast path and a humbling perusal of the stars. In reality it’s thirty yards up and down the road, with the dog snorting snail-traces; bats though.