Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Reds delight in face of Blue might

It's not often that I'd feel compelled to toss verbal confetti towards Sir Alex and his Red Army, but after one of the more enthralling title races in recent years, I'm happy to say that Manchester United deserve whatever praise comes their way.

The sense of schadenfreude weighed heavy as Arsenal held Chelsea at Ashburton on Sunday, thus finally halting the Blues' creaking title challenge in its gold-plated tracks. As a proud Gooner (I normally try to keep party politics out of these posts, but you'll forgive me the odd slip), serving up a championship on a plate to the team with whom we have most vied for supremacy since the late nineties is bound to smart. They even had their feet up at the time. But then, after the breathtaking pace of some of their football this year, they probably deserved a short repose.

It's the love of a truly beautiful game that urged me to put tribal loyalty aside, ever so briefly, and root for Red over Blue in the final reckoning. Chelsea's dark arts have brought them their fair share of recent success, and, driven on by the increasingly monomaniacal Mourinho, one had to admire the unstinting commitment of the likes of Terry and Drogba, Essien and Cech. Despite the paucity of their resources, Chelski's challenge was this time little-augmented by raids on Abramovich's piggy bank; instead it was brutally elemental, as if hewn from the very rocks of Mourinho's formidable self-confidence.

Yet when it came to the blinking contest, Ferguson and his charges seemed unfazed. The verve that has been the hallmark of his team's play in 2006/07 was not dimmed by the relentless efficiency of their pursuers (9 consecutive wins between 31st Jan and 18th April, including 8 clean sheets), as if United's desire to prove the worth of their precocious talent above Chelsea's mental resilience galvanised them to greater levels of endeavour. Two behind to Everton at Goodison became 4-2 to the Devils, while Chelsea's concentration was distracted by Bolton's aerial threat. At one time, I checked the scores to see United behind and Chelsea ahead - but as those fortunes turned so did the chances of a third Premiership trophy making its way to Kensington. Tonight's anticlimactic 0-0 affair saw steely resolve pitted against youthful flair, Chelsea's ice against Manchester's (somewhat throttled) fire. Ice may have edged the contest on balance, but the flame still burns. United need only inject the appropriate fuel to create an inferno at Wembley come 19th May.

These may appear the empty blandishments of a supporter whose own team checked out of the silverware hotel months ago, but in all honesty, I think that there is much to applaud in Ferguson's refusal to settle for the pipe and slippers. I cursed his soul when he reneged on retirement a few years back, and wished him nothing but bitter failure for his trouble. But after Arsenal's fleeting exposition of enlightenment football during the invincible campaign was crushed by Chelsea's utilitarian grit, United's response has been laced with the most sweetness.

For that, I can ignore the past antagonisms... at least until next year.

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