Faustino Asprilla Syndrome and the not-so-sweet F.A.

United travelled to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea in a Champions League Quarter-Final First Leg last night, emerging with a highly creditable 1-0 victory, their first at the Bridge since 2002.

It wasn’t a bad game, but it wasn’t a great one, either.   United probably deserved the win and scored a terrific winning goal, thanks to a wonderful crossfield pass from Michael Carrick,  a great first touch from Ryan Giggs that completely bamboozled his marker, Bosingwa and a cool sidefoot finish from English football’s poster boy-gone-wrong, Wayne Rooney. 

Chelsea will feel aggrieved that the Spanish referee – despite being subjected to the inevitable ‘mobbing’ tactics that Chelsea have used for years to intimidate referees – refused to award them a penalty after Patrice Evra had bundled over Ramires in the area right at the end of the game.  Replays showed that it was, unarguably, a penalty and it does make you wonder what the ‘extra’ officials behind the byline at each end are actually doing.  The one behind the United goal must have had an unimpeded view of what was a clear foul by Evra. yet did nothing.

The Chelsea mob gang up on Mike Riley at White Hart Lane……

This will have been particularly gratifying for United fans, who have suffered some appalling decisions by officials in games against Chelsea of late.  Last year, Didier Drogba scored a goal at Old Trafford that, in effect, won the title for the Londoners, despite being about 5 yards offside when he received the ball, whilst in the League game at Stamford Bridge just a month or so ago, referee Martin Atkinson had an absolute nightmare; refusing to send off the already-booked David Luiz for a clear bodycheck on Rooney and awarding a highly dubious penalty to Chelsea after an Oscar-winning triple salco from Zhirkov.   In other words, United were due a bit of luck against Chelsea and last night they got it.

The tie is a long way from being over; Chelsea have won often enough at Old Trafford recently to feel that they are still in with a chance, but they will have to play a good deal better than they did last night.  The particular conundrum facing Carlo Ancelotti before next week’s second leg is how to get the best out of his January trophy signing, Fernando Torres.  Apart from one late header brilliantly saved by Van der Sar, Torres had another woeful evening.  So desperate is the £50 million man to break his scoring drought (Over 600 minutes now, so we’re told) that he was twice reduced to diving in attempts to get a penalty.  Pathetic for a player who once reduced defenders to gibbering wrecks as he prowled the Aldi Stadium, but Torres is no longer that player – and the fear for Ancelotti and Abramovich is that he’s going to be the next Andrei Shevchenko rather than the next Didier Drogba.  

Drogba was chosen to partner Torres last night, rather than Nicolas Anelka, who is Chelsea’s leading Champions League scorer this season.  This decision by Ancelotti was surely a nod to the owner’s bankrolling of the Torres deal – leaving him out of such a high-profile game would have been tantamount to an admittance that Torres – temporarily at least – is a busted flush. 

Chelsea will need to play better next week and with his job (probably) on the line it wouldn’t surprise me if Ancelotti benches Torres and brings back Anelka and Malouda alongside Drogba in the 4-3-3 system that has served them so well in the past

The arrival of Torres in the January transfer window has created rather than solved  a problem for Ancelotti.  Prior to the Torres deal, Chelsea could deploy two contrasting strikers in Anelka and Drogba, bringing on the promising Daniel Sturridge as an impact substitute and by and large, it seemed to work well.  Chelsea played 4-3-3, with Anelka nominally in one of the wide positions and either Malouda or Kalou providing width, with support from Cole & Boswinga.  With the arrival of Torres  and Sturridge farmed out on loan, Ancelotti had to experiment with various combinations to see which worked best and has even abandoned Chelsea’s tried & trusted 4-3-3 formation in favour of a 4-4-2, which must be seen as a work in progress; certainly it didn’t look too convincing last night.

Torres the Problem Child

All of this is what I would refer to as a recurrence of Faustina Asprilla Syndrome, so-called because its first emergence came following  Kevin Keegan – in his first spell as Newcastle manager – buying Asprilla, a talented but temperamental Colombian striker from AC Parma in January 1996.  Up until that point, Newcastle’s season had been a revelation.  They had a lot of talent and played a really attractive brand of attacking football with players like Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, ‘Quasimodo’ Beardsley and Keith Gillespie ripping defences apart.  By the time Asprilla appeared – famously wearing a fur coat in a north-east blizzard – Newcastle were 12 points ahead of us at the top of the table.

It wasn’t Asprilla’s fault; he did as well as you would expect a South American whisked away to Tyneside in the depths of an English winter to do, but his arrival forced Keegan into changes that he probably regrets making.  Gillespie got injured at Old Trafford in late December and Quasi was dumped out on the wing to make room for Asprilla.  Ferdinand’s goals dried up, Beardsley’s influence diminished and slowly but surely, United’s ‘kids’ reeled them in.  In Manchester, we loved it, just loved it…..

Chelsea’s worries about  Torres were of course overshadowed last night by the latest moral panic over Wayne Rooney.  Rooney didn’t have a great game on Saturday at West Ham, but, importantly, managed to score a hat-trick anyway.  After despatching a perfect penalty past Rob Green for his and our third goal, Rooney became embroiled in an altercation with a Sky cameraman behind the goal, who allegedly wanted him to, er, kiss his camera.  Rooney reacted with scorn, anger and industrial language, all of which was duly transmitted to the watching millions and caused Sky Sports – that acme of moral rectitude – to issue an immediate apology for Rooney’s foul-mouthed outburst.  This, by the way, is the same Sky Sports who formerly employed those bastions of decency, Richard Keys and Andy Gray as their flagship presenters for many years. 

Rooney mouths off…cover the childrens’ ears, Marjorie!

And then of course, the guardians of our national pastime, the F.A., lumbered into action, charging Rooney with using foul language and trotting out the usual mealy-mouthed, self-serving  rhetoric about their expectations of players etc, blah blah blah.  Rooney had issued an apology via United’s press office within hours of the event occurring, but was still looking at a two-match ban if found guilty.  In the end, he accepted the charge but contested the ban, taking to the field at Stamford Bridge last night with the F.A.’s verdict unknown at this point.  You could almost sense the assembled hacks willing him to compound his stupidity at Upton Park with a further bit of nonsense last night, but as it was, his behaviour was that of a choirboy.  He smiled beatifically as the Chelsea intelligentsia baited and booed him at every turn, he looked rueful but nothing more when provoked by late,  dangerous and unpunished challenges from Essien and Ramires, he smiled and said nothing, tumbling across the turf in celebration as his precise sidefoot finish put United ahead.  In short, his behaviour was exemplary -and he had a seriously good game as well, posing a threat to Chelsea’s goal on a regular basis, linking with the midfield and defending when he needed to.

Wayne favours the Matthew Harding Stand with a smile..

No matter; this morning, the FA did that thing they always do when they try to come across all stern and magisterial and just end up looking and sounding pompous.  Rooney’s two-match ban stands and will come into force immediately, meaning that he will miss this weekend’s league game against Fulham and next week’s F.A.Cup semi-final against……..hang on a minute!

The Chairman of the F.A. is a guy called David Bernstein, who was formerly similarly occupied at Manchester City…our opponents at Wembley a  week or so hence…  Here’s what Bernstein said when he left Middle Eastlands to take up his new post;  “I would like to thank our wonderful fans for their backing. They have been fantastic in their support, which has never wavered even during the most difficult times. I have been touched by their kindness and enthusiasm. I have supported Manchester City since I was a boy and I am desperate for us to succeed.”

How desperate is that, then David? 

“Two games?  That’s brilliant, David! Can you let Mancini know?”

Rooney’s offence is to use language that you would hear in any football match at any level on any given Saturday, but critically, he used it to an idiot cameraman and the audio picked up his angry comments.  This is where the duplicity of the media comes in – broadcasters like Sky want more and more access to Premier League football; they’d be interviewing players in the shower after games if they could get away with it.  They want it – warts and all – until one of the warts turns foul-mouthed on them one sunny Saturday lunchtime, at which point they suddenly made a dash for the moral high ground and tried to distance themselves from Wayne’s World and its Four-Letter Tirades.  Can’t have it both ways, guys….

However, the real issue  here is the moral redundancy of the (sweet) F. A., who, having already staggered us with their incompetence, now add venality and a strong whiff of anti-United bias to their portfolio.  The forthcoming F.A. Cup semi-finals are a typical, farcical example of how little these be-suited toadies consider the welfare of the ordinary football fan. 

Consider the situation; on the weekend of the semi-finals, you also have the Dippers in town to play Arsenal at the Emirates and the London Marathon.  You have four teams from the North Midlands (Stoke) or Northwest (United, City, Bolton) forced to travel down to the dubious delights of northwest London to play these games, costing supporters god-knows-what for the tickets, their transport and no doubt a king’s ransom for Wembley’s overpriced refreshments. 

The policing bills for this weekend of fun and frolics will be enormous, especially when you consider that Stoke & Bolton fans on one day and City and United fans on the other day are going to be using the same stations and transport links.  After each game, you will have one set of very happy fans travelling home alongside another set of very unhappy fans.  The potential for major confrontations is unprecedented and when it happens, the politicians and journalists will wring their hands and lament the declining standards of our society.  Yet, with a little more consideration for the needs of the average fan,  all of this could have been avoided.  Old Trafford lies more or less equidistant from Bolton and Stoke, so that semi-final should have been played there, or at Eastlands.  Policing United & City fans was always going to be a problem, so  the potential for trouble  should have been minimised by keeping the travel time to and from the game as short as possible.  In other words, it should have been played at Anfield.

However, as any fule kno, all match-going football supporters are being made to suffer with idiotic arrangements like this well into the future, with inflated ticket prices and all the grisly overblown hype of ‘The Wembley Experience’ in order to bail out the incompetents of the F.A. who frittered away fortunes in the building of this soulless and frankly unremarkable arena .  Originally estimated at £245 million, the final bill was somewhere between £750 milion and £ 1 billion.  It even cost the F.A. £17 million to relocate to Wembley from their old gaff at Soho Square!  They must have hired a fleet of gold-plated helicopters to do it….

As for Wayne Rooney, I hope that he is giving serious consideration to the idea of declining to play football for Ing-er-land until further notice.  His initial behaviour was unacceptable, but he issued a prompt apology, yet his punishment is out of all proportion to his offence.  He’s been made a scapegoat because of who  he is and the club he plays for – and that, frankly is a disgrace.  The fact that the organisation imposing this ban is bereft of any credibility just makes the whole situation even more farcical.

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