When you’re beaten well, as Arsenal were on Tuesday, it’s almost easy to be gushing about the opposition. When you’re beaten by a hair’s width, it’s evidently not so easy.
Alex Ferguson proved that rule last night. In the aftermath of his side’s exit from the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich, he gave tetchy interview to ITV (or was it MUTV? It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes). His suggestion that Bayern players surrounding the referee was the behaviour of ‘typical Germans’ was well below the belt, and I suspect recriminations for that comment would have been far more severe had it been uttered by someone at Chelsea.
Half the Bayern side aren’t even German. Aside from anything else, Ferguson wasn’t aware of the clear irony: Utd have a tremendous and unrivalled record in harassing, cajoling and influencing referees.
Ferguson’s suggestion that Bayern players deliberately targeted Rooney’s ankle jars, too. And even if it were true – you took the risk playing him, Alex. If he wasn’t 100% fit and gets injured, the buck stops with you.
Ferguson’s poor sportsmanship – he also claimed that the better side hadn’t won – stretches wider at Old Trafford. As his interview progressed, several shouts of ‘cheats’ could be heard, presumably from Man Utd players or officials. Will we hear anything more of it?
But that’s by the by. It was a remarkable night of football, in which Man Utd were by a distance the better side during the first half. Nani looked something like the player his early potential promised, and I thought Valencia was again very effective down the right. ITV commentators remained largely oblivious to all that however: after all, Wayne Rooney was on the pitch. When the Evertonian got injured and it looked like his game was over, they suggested that ‘just him being present’ for ten minutes was worth the risk. Sickening sycophancy.
But by the time the second half was over, Bayern had worked their way back to 3-2 and put the tie beyond Utd on goal difference. As he ranted, Ferguson was unwilling – or unable – to see how his own side had been the architects of their own downfall. Da Silva had been brilliant against Ribery, but his two yellow-card challenges were silly in the extreme. Carrick was poor all night, and was culpable for the first Bayern goal - Vidic’s suspect positioning was also partly to blame. Finally, his chance made chances even with ten men, but couldn’t take them to kill the Germans off.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen top sides lose their rag after defeat in a big game. Utd have been famous for it – they certainly lost it at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, and big-time the season before that. Chelsea have obviously been guilty of similar behaviour on more than one occasion – Ballack was certainly affected by impending defeat when he got sent off against Man City earlier in the season for example, and Drogba’s antics after the Barcelona defeat last year have been widely written about. Is it just the case that all the best sides struggle to accept defeat?
But Man Utd’s sense of injustice was manufactured (just as it was after Chelsea’s win on Saturday, where the referee was just poor all round). In reality, individual errors made Man Utd vulnerable to the sucker punch, which Robben duly delivered. How his pace, creativity and class are missed at Stamford Bridge.
But how does this relate to Chelsea’s fight for trophies? Man Utd now find themselves where we were three weeks ago, facing disappointment in the league and narrow exits from Europe. How well, and how quickly, Utd respond could well determine where the Premier League title ends up this season.
Reading between the lines of Ferguson’s interview, the Scot wasn’t feeling too confident. But don’t be fooled: he has proved a master of motivation over the years and I wouldn’t bet against a strong Utd reaction to this disappointment. There are five games to go, but I suspect plenty more twists and turns…
|Chelsea (74 pts)||Man Utd (72 pts)|
|Bolton (h)||Blackburn (a)|
|Tottenham (a)||Man City (a)|
|Stoke (h)||Tottenham (h)|
|Liverpool (a)||Sunderland (a)|
|Wigan (h)||Stoke (h)|