Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On United (Oh, My Tender Sensibilities)

I hate Manchester United. Have for as long as I can remember (Though I'm pretty sure Ryan Giggs was my first ever football crush. Teenage me had very odd tastes.), and I wasn't even yet paying attention when they caught Kevin Keegan's Newcastle, and he never got to love beating them. (I shudder to think of the levels of my impotent rage if I'd have known that was going on at the time.) And Sir Alex Ferguson is probably my least favorite person in football, just pipping Francesco Totti and Pavel Nedved for the honor. It's his intellectual arrogance, I think -- the way he's constantly suggesting that he can control himself effortlessly, while simultaneously causing everyone he faces to crumble before his mental strength. (Reason #1 I love Jose Mourinho is his ability to shatter that conceit, but that's another post entirely.)

All of which makes it very hard for me to say this, but I don't think any team has impressed me this season like United did last night in beating Roma at the Olimpico. It wasn't even close to a flawless performance -- their defense looks incredibly confused on early set plays, Anderson was embarrassingly bad, and they were pinned back in their end for a long stretch at the start of the second half -- but there was so much good that those huge flaws were somehow easy to ignore. And by "good" I don't just mean Ronaldo and his spectacular skill. I don't mean Rooney's bullheadedness, or his still surprising flashes of football intelligence. By "good," I mostly mean their workrate; their incredible, cliched, will to win.

In my short memory, I can't recall a team like this -- the kind that's at the top of every highlight show, has as its leading scoring the biggest preener in football (Poor, fallen Robbie Savage.), and features celebrations ranging from flips to proudly brandished pacifiers -- playing with the sort of barely controlled desperation United display. They're hugely confident, yes, and they know that, at some point in every match, the pretty one out on the wing will get them a goal, but there's no casualness in them at all. They're not playing the ball around, waiting for Ronaldo to do his thing. Instead, against Roma, they absolutely ran their legs off, often playing with 11 men behind the ball. And they weren't just putting in token appearances in the defensive end, either -- Rooney digs the ball out in his own end countless times every match, and Park Ji-Sung was a like a little terrier, buzzing around ferociously when Roma had possession, refusing to give up on the ball.

It makes me gag a little bit to admit it, but United were thrilling to watch last night, and it was because of their pleasure in the fight far more than it was their goals, or their gorgeous, one-touch midfield play. Which, somehow, makes it much harder to take -- I keep telling myself SAF has nothing to do with that determination and desire, but at this point even I am starting to suspect that I'm lying through my teeth.

If they both go through, I can't begin to think how Barcelona will survive the assault.

[As usual, Brian articulates football better than anyone else, the bastard.]