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Posts Tagged ‘Grant’

 

I will never curse black clouds on the horizon again.  If not for rainfall, Chelsea, and not United, are champions of Europe today.  If not for a sodden pitch and an unplanted plant foot, and I’m writing a very different column today.  A penalty shootout is the worst possible way to end a long Champions League season, but I will say the drama of the finale kept my heart thudding like the kick pedal on my Rock Band drum kit.  Rivalry aside, my sympathy goes out to John Terry, a great captain and a class player who doesn’t deserve to live the rest of his life wondering if longer cleats or a slower approach could have made him a European champion. 

     United was outplayed for the majority of the match.  Consider they could easily have been up 3-0 at the half.  Ronaldo’s precision header found the net, but United missed opportunities on Rooney’s dead-on pass into the box that skidded by Carlos Tevez, and Cech’s brilliant double stop of a Tevez header and Carrick’s follow-up. Tevez, playing a head game of anticipatory football, had come off stride, expecting his defender to reach the ball before him on Rooney’s cross, but he fooled himself and came up short.  Running on to that ball, it’s a near guarantee that Tevez slides it into the back of the net.  Of course, only a fortuitous bounce off of Rio Ferdinand’s turned back allows Lampard a tap-in goal just before the whistle, but that’s the nature of the beautiful game. 

     In the second half and extra time, Chelsea were clearly the better side.  Outshooting United nearly two to one, they deserved to be in the lead at the end of regulation.  John Terry in particular was huge in this game, making a number of plays in the first half and a game-saving body-moving-one-way-head-moving-another save on Ryan Giggs left-footed extra time shot.  Chelsea’s defenders can be proud today.  They held Rooney and Tevez in check admirably, and aside from Ronaldo’s headed goal, managed to continually frustrate the best player in the world.  Offensively, only two shots that clanged off the post prevented Manchester United from failing in their quest for the double.

     Penalty shootouts are desperately un-American.  Even the rest of the world can agree they are no way to conclude a grueling season or tournament.  How ironic that the last World Cup in America was decided on kicks!  After playing an entire season, to have the competition come down to what is largely a matter of luck—guessing correctly—undersells the athletes and the competition itself.  I don’t care if it was one-thirty in the morning.  It’s the last game of the season.  Play until someone scores a legitimate goal!  I also don’t understand why so many tournaments eschew the golden goal.  Nothing is more infuriating than having a team go ahead in extra time and for there to be an equalizer, and then the game goes to penalties anyway.  Golden goal should always be in effect, with the referee’s discretion to determine adequate possession.  As far as I’m concerned, if both sides touch the ball in extra time, a golden goal stands up, and the tourney ends.  The inherent drama in that and the instant celebration that would ensue are just as dramatic as a penalty kick finale.  As far as player fatigue and substitutions, allow an additional sub for every fifteen minutes of extra time, and if the game goes deep enough—here’s a revolutionary idea—allow now-rested players to retake the field.  Every football pundit I read writes the same thing about penalties deciding a final—it’s always the least desirable way to end a match.

     Un-American or not, the penalty shootout did contain a great deal of drama, from Cristiano Ronaldo’s stutter-step miss to Terry’s unfortunate hydroplane.  That’s the nature of the PK—the tide turns in a matter of moments, and the horns of the goat grow freshly on a new forehead.  As much as I hate Chelsea, it’s hard to despise a competitor like John Terry, who kept Chelsea in the game in the first half with several interceptions of dangerous crosses, and outright saved Chelsea’s hash with his outrageously athletic header to deflect Giggs’ open net finisher.  At the end of the match, the poignant scene between Terry and his manager, Avram Grant, was enough to soften even the most staunch United supporter’s rancor.  Terry, looking the very definition of the horse in the joke (Aside—A horse walks into a bar.  The bartender says, “Why the long face?”), was comforted not only by his own teammates, but by classy rivals like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, veterans who surely recognize the cruelty of fate, the assiduous dedication needed to win silver, and the pain of watching limited opportunities pass by.  Equally moving was the empathetic shows from members of the same national team.  Ronaldo and Nani went out of their ways to offer a pat on the back to Carvalho, and the audience can surely recognize that no player wished for this ending to the season.  Cruelty, thy name is penalties.    
    
     For there to be any doubt of Avram Grant’s future at Chelsea is wretched. Surely the gentleman deserves a shot at bringing this team back to contending for the top spot in the Premier League.  Surely he has proven himself in European play.  There is absolutely no shame in losing a Champions League final on penalties, especially when he was within a few slippery blades of grass of winning!  There is a holdover of European anti-Semitism at work, especially with the Eastern European Roman Abramovich sitting in the owner’s box.  It’s hard to call any anti-Semitism a “holdover”, especially when it occurs in that area of the world, where hating Jews has such a long and bloody history.  I might be being unfair, but given Chelsea’s history of incidents involving Chelsea supporters, I suspect that Grant’s lack of favor is at least partly related to his Judaism.  I have been extremely impressed by the man since he took over for Jose Mourinho.  He took out of form/out of favor players like Michael Ballack and got the most out of them late in the season.  Didier Drogba, too, after missing much of the season with injuries and the African Cup of Nations, found the better side of his mercurial nature and contributed in making the Premiership title race more than just a formality.  If Grant does not return, another club would be wise to snap him up quickly.

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Three weeks from now, the first all-English final in Champions League history will take place.  While some will bemoan an all-Premier League final as less than representative of the best intentions of the Champions League, the next three weeks offer a rare opportunity.  Manchester United and Chelsea will compete on two different levels.  First, they’ll compete in England for points and the Premier League title, with United only slightly at an advantage due to goal differential.  On May 21st, the teams vie for the title of champion of Europe, in a direct match-up at the neutral site of Moscow.  This game will provide a rematch of last week’s, when Chelsea outworked United and got a deserved 2-1 victory on Michael Ballack’s penalty kick goal in the 85th minute.

 

Though I am a United supporter, in European play I always support English teams, so in a way an all-English final is win-win for me.  On the other hand, I hate Chelsea.  It’s always dangerous to characterize a very large group of people, but I’ve heard too many anti-Semitic and racist comments from Chelsea fans to ever consider the group less than despicable.  Avram Grant has been buffeted by rumors of his imminent firing all year, and has never gotten the credit he deserves for stepping into the shoes of the popular and charismatic Jose Mourinho.  That task could never be easy, given Mourinho’s success with the club, but on top of all he’s handled with aplomb, Grant must hear anti-Jewish chants from his own club’s supporters.  Grant certainly deserves to be back next season, given the comeback Chelsea has pulled, bridging five points in the past few weeks.  He also deserves to hear those horrific chants replaced by something more fitting a civilized nation, but sadly, there’s little chance of that happening.

 

There are so many compelling leagues in the world’s most popular sport.  Picking a league to devotedly follow is difficult.  It’s impossible to follow them all, unless it’s your job as a football journalist.  For me, which league to follow depended on American television coverage.  On Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV, I have access to a limited amount of games from many different leagues.   In South America, Brazil, Columbia, and Argentina boast highly competitive leagues, but many of the best native players play in Europe.  GolTV broadcasts the German league, which boasts many of the German players who always contend for World Cups.  German powerhouses like Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen dominate the league and acquit themselves ably in European competition.  France’s Ligue 1 powers historically include Marseilles, Lyon, Nancy Lorraine, and St. Etienne, but as is the case in South America, the best French players play in other leagues. 

 

The Spanish, Italian, and English leagues offer the most coverage for American football fans.  These also happen to be the best leagues in the world, offering by far the largest sampling of the world’s most exciting and skilled (not to mention richest) players, and the clubs that continually compete for Europe’s most prestigious honor.  Spain’s elite, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are among the most valuable clubs in world football.  Italian clubs like Juventus, Roma, Inter, and AC Milan offer stacked international rosters, plus nearly every Italian who played on the 2006 World Cup championship team.  Finally, the English Premier League is exemplified by its “Big Four”: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, and of course Liverpool, the most decorated English club in European history.

 

While I keep an eye on the other leagues and make certain to tune in to derbies and high profile match-ups, I dedicate the vast majority of my time for viewing soccer to the English League.  First of all, the language is a huge factor, and having commentators, managers, and players who speak English helps my understanding of the game.  The English league also gets the most coverage on American television and the majority of column inches of coverage on American sports websites, such as espn.com and si.com.  My favorite players from Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, namely Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Ballack, and Steven Gerrard, also play in the English league.  Many of the English national team’s newer stars, like David Bentley, Theo Walcott, Gareth Barry, and Jolean Lescott play for the other teams in the Premiership. 

 

Another reason for following the English game is its style of play.  The English, who are often credited with inventing the modern game of football, play a very physical, aggressive game that still allows for sublime skill.  Witness the contrast of a Rooney and Ronaldo pairing.  Rooney, the British bulldog, tenaciously covets ball possession in the final third of the pitch, and is nearly impossible to knock off the ball.  Ronaldo often flops to the ground at the slightest of touches, and draws plenty of free kicks in dangerous areas.  Ronaldo will finesse his way by defenders and Rooney will attempt to sledgehammer through them.  Dogged will and hard, physical fouls pair nicely with athleticism and elegance in the English game.

 

Finally, having other people in the area who also follow the English league helps.  There’s another teacher in my school—a genuine Englishman—who follows Tottenham, and is able to offer insights based on a lifetime of following football and actually attending games.  For as many Man U, Liverpool, and Chelsea shirts I see on the backs of folks in the Boston area, virtually none of them have ever been to a game in England.  I will be remedying this gap in my sporting resume next year, when in April my wife and I will travel to England, and hopefully take in three games in a week.  Look for details about the long-awaited trip to England in my next entry!

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