Cup Feeling

The ‘build-up’ to the FA Cup Final – how long? Did somebody not bother to tell ITV that – ludicrously – the kick-off was hoiked back to accommodate god-knows-what-or-who? So they started blathering about lunch-time as usual and just kept on, presumably with the producer making windmill signs and mouthing just keepit going!! until kick-off arrived aeons later. By which time the TV audience is so bloated with nacho-consumption they’ve lost the will to live, or on the lager equivalent are so paralytic they think Roy Keane is Simon C and that the big girl’s blouse up front for Chelsea is Aleesha D. I had twigged (LOL?) we were evolving into a dumbed-down species of highlight-obsessed couch-spuds but… c’mon people.
More seriously – like hoogely/anthropologically importantly – does anyone have that real Cup Feeling anymore, I wonder? The one where dressing rooms around the isle go quiet as the radio chunters out the draw? Or where small boys skip joyfully round the living room on hearing ‘Liverpool away?’  Do they?  When the semi’s are played at Wembley? When most of the playing participants did not (now) grow up with this gorgeous fervour – indeed nobody, I suspect, grows up with it now in the way that we did – when it meant something?

How could it be the same when the powers that be schedule the kick-off for tea-time? Tea-time being – in terms of world history never mind the FA Cup – a footie-free zone in much the same way that Christmas Day, to my pretty certain knowledge, is a pancake-free festival. So audible harrumph here and like… what is occurring?
An Opening Ceremony, that’s what! With a magnificently appropriate (i.e. sickeningly glammed up) Abide With Me cherrying the naff freezer-cake. If only those flash geysers of flame that puncture the skies of North West London as the players begin their arrogant, or humble, or nervous walk to the pitch could be toppled sideways, torching the chavvy pomp of it mid-chew of its pineapple Wrigleys.
But okay the game, the game. No surprises that Fernando is on seat-warming duty again for Drogba; only this time he is genuinely unfortunate, having finally suggested the artist/striker formerly known as Torres may be cracking that hard horny eggshell. Chelsea start better. Predictably perhaps, a whiff of Sunday League from the red midfield leads to an early goal for Ramires, as Spearing’s poor touch leaves an opening. Chelsea’s burst forward is converted by the baldy-pacy-wiry one after Reina leaves his near post a tad exposed. On balance, 1-0 at the half-hour mark about right.
Chelsea seem more composed, more purposeful, less nervous. Pretty early, the sense from Liverpool fans is that they anxiously yearn rather than hope for more than mere possession; they want the ball to threaten; it doesn’t. As things develop – or not – a moment of haplessness again seems more likely than a moment of inspiration from any of the five strung across midfield. And the red support groans. Even Gerrard has that pallid look; things don’t link. We all think of the league table. The game eases to half-time.
The second chunk mirrors the first in the sense that Chelsea get a desperately easy goal – Drogba this time the beneficiary. Lampard has threaded a pass too comfortably and the Ivorian thesp has turned merely adequately and scuffed a left-foot shot through Skrtel’s legs beyond Reina. The kind of goal that turns your stomach as fan/manager/nutmeg recipient. The thought arises that Chelsea might get 4 if say Kalou was something like.
However, he ain’t. And neither – famously – has been that lanky no.9 for Liverpool. Yet on he comes, quite rightly, though not altogether in the expectation that he will change the game. Out of absolutely nothing, the ball breaks to the much maligned one in the Chelsea box. He proceeds to calmly – if slightly laboriously, if this is possible? – skin John Terry before lashing into the roof of the net. Thus the Pool go from the verge of a hammering to the lip of glory in a transformative, pony-tail bobbing slo-mo.
We, the extra-tribal to this fest, like this; partly because Carroll has at least something boyish about him, something naive, despite that clearly inadequate, over-fussed and ill-advised barnet. (But most Top Players have those, right?) He looks, on this occasion – very much to his credit – like someone who both understands and cares about the FA Cup and it’s great, actually, that he (that?) makes a difference.

This variously described giraffe/dinosaur/hetero-retro-centreforward comes on here to course about in a convincing, even occasionally lung-bursting fashion. He heads things; he frightens the metaphorical horses; he scores and has one spookily adjacent; so adjacent the post-match stuff and much of the next twenty years on Merseyside will be dominated by that particular header. If another 16 camera-angles go on to ‘prove’ that it was a save from Cech, it will rank with that Montgomery moment for Sunderland, thereby making a legitimate contribution to Cup History.
In short, Liverpool were awful then courtesy of Carroll, right back in it. They pressed for an equaliser and it never came. Henderson busied himself to almost no effect, Gerard and Suarez were ineffective to the point of listless. Elsewhere Kalou yet again showed his almost complete package of inadequacies, squandering opportunities to break and to score as Chelsea faded with the unity and purpose they had shown earlier, under the red but B Category crypto-onslaught. The final score, at 2-1 to Chelsea, was absolutely right, assuming that non-goal was correctly called. So… cue that further debate.
Despite its limitations – its obvious lack of fluency and relative vervelessness – a better final emerged than the lousy fare generally served up for this particular showpiece. Few moments of quality, none of significant shame. Chelsea in the first period cruising at a level unlikely to be attained by their opposition, you felt, but Liverpool honourably competitive at the ‘death’. No Torres. Drogba – who was again present rather than good in my opinion (sorry – IMO) and who again was greedy rather than generous, will collar most headlines… along with a disappointed rather than a disappointing Carroll.
Many Blues won’t be stopping too long to contemplate their underachievement in the second period but some will. Because running counter to the silvered but shallow and nonsensical time-shifting from the FA and …whoever, and despite the pre-match evidence for age-relevant Olympic-smudged taste-shafting, there is an appreciation of quality alive in the game. Fans want to win but they want to drape themselves in some association with glory too – implying something wonderful as well as and beyond winning. The nature of the cup – this FA Cup, this proper cup! – is conducive to that magic, making it precious. So less of the tampering, eh?

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.