Friday, 27 May 2011

This Is The One (Part 2)

"And so, to tonight. My opinion hasn't really changed since I blogged about the game a few weeks ago. I fancy us to score, at least once. Vidic and Ferdinand will be a strong threat from corners, and if they play Puyol and Sylvinho, that's a definite weakness. I think we'll surrender the majority of possession, and just make sure that Barcelona always play in front of us. Xavi and Iniesta, two wonderful players, can pass the ball around as much as they like, providing they don't play in Eto'o or Henry in behind. And as for the little maestro, Messi - we have to stop the cross field ball that Barca play. If you look at some of their goals from previous CL games, it's a ball across to Messi on the right, who cuts inside onto his left foot and causes mayhem. If Evra has an outstanding game, he can combat Barca's main attacking threat. Team I would pick:

   van der Sar
O'Shea  Rio Vidic Evra
Carrick Anderson Park
Ronaldo Rooney Tevez

I have nothing left to say."

You know that phrase "The more things change, the more they stay the same"? Two years after writing those words on the eve of a Champions League Final versus Barcelona, here we all are again. The experience of last time has burnt me I'm afraid - as much as I want to, I just can't see us winning it. I'm not sure we're as explosive going forward as before, and we certainly don't have the wildcard of Cristiano Ronaldo anymore either. The scariest thing though? Barcelona are better now then two seasons ago - Villa better than an ageing Henry, Alves better than Puyol (at right back), Abidal better than Sylvinho. I think Messi is better now than he was then, ditto for Iniesta. Their side is not only packed with skill and craft, but with experience and know-how. Their manager is young, but he's won this competition before, and he's won back-to-back La Liga titles. Put simply, they are the best club side in the world, and the best side I've ever seen.

BUT! In a one-off game, every team is beatable. Even this one. Blimey, Arsenal beat them a few months back, so we KNOW it can be done. A poor performance from them, and anything is possible. It'll need one hell of an effort from every player, but I have faith in them. And you'd better believe that if any manager can instigate their downfall, it's the great man himself, the heartbeat of Manchester United, Sir Alex.

A game of this nature means that every football fan - particularly those with a Mancunian leaning - has rambled on about tactics and gameplans etc on their blogs or websites or on their podcasts for a wee while now. To be honest, I'm not into that - I just enjoy watching a good game of football. The excerpt above pretty much stretches my interest of football strategy to the limit. As such, I'm not even going to try analysing the game - if you're interested in that stuff, don't bother with me, go straight to Jonathan Wilson or a Man United blog for your nerd fix. But in terms of line-up, I can only see Fergie going with:

van der Sar
Fabio Rio Vidic Evra
Valencia Carrick Giggs Park
Rooney Chicharito

I'm not sure how I feel about that - I'd perhaps ponder dropping Chicha (which would be harsh on the lad) and putting another midfielder in, either Anderson or Nani. It's a shame Fletcher has been out for so long and won't make it, to be honest, as we're a better side with him in it when he's at the top of his game. The problem is, sticking Rooney up top on his own and putting another central midfield player in suddenly makes us seem very defensive. Teams have tried that in the past against Barcelona but they've always found a way through, and you wonder if it's best just to fight fire with fire. Chicha the highest player forward and Rooney putting in a shift when we don't have the ball? Might be a better bet.

But that's enough of all of that. I'm nervous, but the fact I believe we're underdogs makes it a bit more bearable. With football, it's always the hope that kills me. Prediction? I'm going for:

Barcelona 2 -1 Manchester United

Villa, Messi - Vidic

But I just hope it's a great game. The occasion deserves that, and both teams are more than capable. Enjoy the game, and COME ON UNITED!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Oh We Could Be Heroes

I'm guilty of doing this a lot, I know, but let me take you back to a previous time. For this blog entry, let's try July, 1999.

It was before dinner one night when I walked into the lounge to find my older brother watching the TV intently. To my amazement, it wasn't Baywatch, Eurotrash or anything with female breasts in, but cycling. CYCLING?! BOR-ING, I thought to myself, and settled down on the couch with a magazine. But with the TV turned up loud and the commentator getting rather excited, I found I couldn't concentrate on reading, and soon I was watching along with my frere. And bloody hell, it WAS exciting! The sands of time have meant that names and teams have slipped out of my mind now, but what I can remember of that day was that it was a classic "flat stage" of the Tour de France - a rider was out in front of the main field, desperately trying to cling on and reach the finish line before the main pack caught up to him and swallowed him up. It was absolutely engrossing, and I loved it. The next night, I sat and watched the highlights through choice. I loved the drama of it all, I loved the fact the race was split into different components (best sprinter, best mountain rider etc) and I loved the countryside of France.

And because it was July, 1999, not only was I introduced to the greatest bike race on the planet, but I was introduced to a brash Texan who's name I'm sure you'll all know, whether you know the sport or not. Who's story I'm sure you'll all know, whether you know the sport or not. What you probably don't know however is how much impact Lance Armstrong had on my life. The 'Tour de Lance'? It was for me, and even though I fell in love with the race, I cannot pretend that I watched it as a neutral. From 1999 through to 2005, I felt like I cycled every step with him. The mere mention of Jan Ullrich's name made me flinch and hiss. I LOL'd at people who criticised him. I couldn't understand how people weren't rooting for him.

There's always been smoke around Lance Armstrong, but for him, his legal team and for staunch supporters like me, it was always easy to blow it away with a wave of the hand. Floyd Landis said something? He's a joke. Tyler Hamilton? Ditto. This French man has said this? He hates Armstrong. David Walsh has co-written a book packed full of rumour and suggestion? Well, he's just a prick anyway. A relatively unknown rider has said something? Oooh, who's Mr Jealous Cakes?! And so on and so forth. You casually dismiss each one, you discredit each one, you move on and hope that the noise subsides. But before you know it, the noise comes back, and it's gotten louder.

A few days ago the US television programme "60 Minutes" reported that George Hincapie, for so long a trusted ally of the Texan, is among three former team mates to testify - to a US federal grand jury, no less - that they saw Armstrong use performance enhancing drugs. It doesn't end there, either - is also believed that Hincapie confessed to supplying his team leader with EPO. With Landis or Hamilton or Andreu you can scoff, but not Big George. As the cycling presenter Ned Boulting tweeted:

"It does seem as if the tipping point was reached last night. The momentum all one way now, surely."

And Hincapie himself? He tweeted:

"I can confirm to you I never spoke with '60 Minutes'. I have no idea where they got their information. As I've said in the past, I continue to be disappointed that people are talking about the past in cycling instead of the future. As for the substance of anything in the '60 Minutes' story, I cannot comment on anything related to the ongoing investigation."

Sometimes, it's not what you say. It's what you don't say.

How do I feel? As someone biased, it would be really easy for me to change tack - start telling you how it doesn't matter, it's in the past, everyone else was at it, the end justified the means, look at his charity work etc. But I can't do that. I'm totally sickened by the whole thing - sickened that I was taken in, that I believed, that I held this man up as something he wasn't, that I proudly wore the wristband telling people to "Livestrong". How the fuck does injecting yourself with shit constitute as living strong, Lance? At this moment in time, there's been no confession - only more denials - and no solid evidence, but Ned Boulting is right, I fear. There's always been smoke, but now we're walking round the corner and seeing the fire.

You know the real tragedy of it all? Much like the baseball player Barry Bonds, it's the continuous denials. If you did it, just be a man and say you did it - don't hide, don't pretend. Don't discredit and ridicule everyone who's telling the truth, the people who are trying to make the world see the light. The American people don't hate Barry Bonds because he took drugs - they hate him because he's a jackass. Like Bonds, Armstrong reached the crossroads and picked the wrong turning. I fancy he'll keep on denying until he can deny no longer, but by that time nothing he says will matter. The damage will be done.

The case of Lance Armstrong does underline one thing however - that I must now accept that sport has to be watched through cynical eyes. There are no heroes, no fairy tales, no magic, no perfect stories. Athletes must never be seen as being "role models" to our young people. I was as shocked as most people were about the identity of the footballer who had an affair with Imogen Thomas - I'm not going to name him here but obviously everyone knows who he is - but looking at him through dispassionate eyes, I realised that as long as he played well for my team, I didn't care. That might be a sad state of affairs, but as The Stranglers said, no more heroes.

On my bookshelf I have these items:

DVD and accompanying magazine about Lance Armstrong
"Lance Armstrong: Images of a Champion"
"23 Days in July: Inside Lance Armstrong's Record breaking victory in the Tour de France"
"Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force"
Lance Armstrong's two autobiographies

When the whole truth is revealed - and it will - if you want any of those items, just let me know. Otherwise they're all going in the bin.

A legacy trashed, forever.