Monday, January 12, 2009

This Sporting Life

A Weekend Voyeur's Monday Morning Quarterbacking

I did nothing but watch sports this weekend. (Well, and eat and drink - while watching sports!) Sure, the Ravens game was on everybody's radar here in Baltimore, but for those of us with GOL TV and the Fox Soccer Channel, there were some high-profile matches on offer Saturday and Sunday. Like Manchester United hosting Chelsea at Old Trafford and David Beckham making his AC Milan debut before a packed house of 80,000 fans in Roma (say what you will about old Becks, but he guarantees a mass of ass in the stands!)

Seeing Red, Feeling Blue



In the English Premiere League, which for my money has superceded Spain's La Liga as the world's best domestic league the past two years (besides the Big Four clubs at the top, you now have Aston Villa, Everton - and even Wigan! - fighting to qualify for the chance to play European football!), the big money match was Chelsea at Manchester United. Usually these big club clashes are a boor, predictably ending in a draw as neither side wants to risk a defeat by going all out, and the first 45 minutes looked to be following this set scenario. Then Man U got a beautiful Cristiano Ronaldo header from a corner kick just before half-time! An officiating blunder nullified the goal, so the Red Devils regrouped for a corner kick by Giggsy that resulted in...another goal! This time a Vidic header, roughly 10 seconds later!


Third Time's the Charm: Berbatov's one-touch was sublime

The late goal seemed to deflate the Blues, who went on to get hammered 3-0 after Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov added second half strikes. (Chalk up Berbatov's goal to Scolari - he had just put in bewildered sub Di Santo, and within seconds the clueless 19-year-old lost the veteran Bulgarian striker in the penalty box, allowing the unmarked Berbatov an easy score from a set piece.) Hate to say it it, but this old-fashioned ass-whuppin' effectively ended Chelsea's title hopes. It was a confidence-sapping, soul-crunching defeat for Big Phil's boys in Blue, Chelsea's worst result at Old Trafford in 15 years. Even worse for Scolari was the sight of his nemesis the "Special One" (Jose Mourinho) in the stands smugly observing his former club being outclassed by Man U. (The two have often clashed in the past, dating back to the days when Mourinho was coaching FC Porto and Scolli was the Portugeuse national team gaffer.) The writing was already on the wall for London's runnerups, who finally lost at home this season and suffered inexplicable draws at Stamford Bridge against the likes of Fulham, Hull City, Stoke City and West Ham. They've won just one of their last six matches and have now lost to all their rivals in The Big Four.


The Special One was not amused by Scoli's follies

And the thumping had to scare Liverpool as well. Much as I thought this was the Reds' year, Man U. - love 'em or hate 'em - just has too much talent in that squad to be ever be ruled out of the EPL title; it's theirs by rights, de facto until someone wrests it from their dead, cold world-class footsies. Rooney, Tevez, Berbatov, Evra, Ronaldo, Ferdinand, Scholes, Nani, Neville, Carrick, Giggs, the fleet-footed Park. Boy Howdy! (And I'm not even including the injured Owen Hargreaves, who would start for any team in any league around the world when healthy.) If I sound like a Man U fan, I'm not - far from it, but I give credit where it's due. "Slur" Alex Ferguson is a grumpy old git, but that focker sure knows how win year-in, year old, assembly line style.

Chelsea has a great squad, but other than ex-Porto Portuguese international Jose Boswinga (who Man U was hot to sign), they didn't pick up any new talent to supersize their 2nd-best squad of the last two years. Deco? He has his days, but I thought he was finished when Barcelona unloaded him. He's not the answer in a midfield that boasts Frank Lampard, Ballack and Joe Cole, but sorely misses Michael Essien and Claude Markalele. And much as I love Didier Drogba, out for most of the season with injuries, the Cote d'Ivoire striker was absolutely rank on Sunday. I know he's rehabbing, but he's far from in-form, and Anelka and Kalou should start ahead of him until he stops playing like he's from Cote de Rust.


Drogba was dreadful

Beckham Getting His Kicks at AC Milan


Beckham marks Roma's John Arne Riise

David Beckham only got "average" grades from the stingy Italian media following his AC Milan debut against Roma: 6 out of 10. But they may have missed the point. Becks hadn't played in a couple of months, was playing his first game with a new team (a veteran team pretty set in its ways), and played 89 minutes despite being basically inactive before his arrival. Factor in that the game was a sell-out in Roma (80,000) and that Beckham Milan shirts are going for roughly $90, and you get the vibe that Becks in northern Italy is a match made in heaven.

I think Beckham enjoyed once again playing with and against quality stars after suffering through two seasons with the worst team (the L.A. Galaxy) in the worst domestic league (MSL) in the world - even Brandon Donovan saw the light and escaped to Bayern Munich recently. It's great to want to be a savior for a noble cause (saving American soccer), but at the end of the day, good players don't want to waste what good years they have left toiling in what amounts to the minor leagues. Star light, Star bright, as Madonna would say.

I thought Beckham had a good game, lots of crosses, corner kicks, intelligent play. It's a sticky wicket, his arrival, because it means that Andrea Pirlo - the Italian Beckham, a playmaker whose set pieces rival the Englishman's - was relegated to plaing defensive midfielder for most of the game. But Beckham always plays hard and is a team player. Sure, he's lost a step (he'll turn 34 this May) - his lack of pace was highlighted during a late run at goal when the Roma defenders easily cut him off - but his addition to Milan makes them the new Galaticos of Italy - the Geritol Galacticos, mind you. Kaka, Ronaldinho, Pirlo, Seedorf, Beckham. Not a bad midfield, if rather well-worn: two former FIFA Players of the Year and all international players who represent their national teams. Clarence Seedorf is still a superstar (he's also an ace sports commentator, one who can speak in Dutch, Spanish, English and probably Italian) - a consistent playmaker responsible for most of Milan's offensive creativity - but he's on the far side of 30 now. Ronnie shows flashes but is definitely past his prime (maybe he lacks motivation, having done and won it all before). Kaka and Pirlo are tireless pitch warriors but are not getting any younger and their bulldog enforcer Gattuso is out injured. When you add in mercurial veteran Filippo Inzaghi and returning son Andriy Shevchenko up front, this is indeed an old team, if not yet AARP Milan.

Of course, Milan should have won the game, a 2-2 draw that saw them squander a 2-1 lead build on back to back goals by their lone youngster, the Brazilian Pato (yes, The Duck!), thanks to a porous defense. Paolo Maldini is a legend and still has the legs, but c'mon, the guy turns 40 this year and Nesta's long gone. This team needs a strong back four!

I love AC Milan and Beckham's addition adds a spark to a Old Guard-transitioning-to-Youth-Movement team suffering through another under-achieving season (too many draws!). Give 'em time, Milan martinets! Or, as the The Gazzetta dello Sport reported, Beckham gave the Rossoneri "ninety minutes that nobody expected" and "played hard, crossed, shot and helped with humility. For his debut it was enough."

Check out highlights from the match and see for yourself:
AC Milan 2, Roma 2 (YouTube)

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