If you ask Pep Guardiola which team were his most difficult opponents en route to winning the Champions League, I can guarantee that his answer won’t be Manchester United.
It will, of course, be Arsenal.
In yesterday’s final at Wembley, United were clueless and gutless.
They scored with practically their only attempt on goal and for the rest of the game were chasing shadows. In the final half an hour it was clear that they had given up. They had been beaten on the pitch and beaten in their heads. It was almost embarrassing to watch their lame capitulation.
If the referee had been the same card-happy Swiss dipstick that we got for the second leg in the Nou Camp they would also have been down to 10 men long before the end.
Rooney blustered around the place with his familiar “you spilt my pint” expression. He took his goal well but otherwise was completely ineffectual. If he’s the best that English football has to offer it’s no wonder we’re so bad in international tournaments. He’d be lucky to make the bench for Barcelona.
Valencia might as well have been IN Valencia for all the good he did, Giggs looked more superannuated than super injuncted, Carrick and Park spent the game chasing shadows and I had to check the team sheet to be sure that Hernandez was playing.
The fact that Vidic and Van der Saar had good games was all that kept the score respectable.
And as for Evra… well, watching it in North America, there was a great moment towards the end of the game when the Fox Channel co-commentator said: “It’s men against boys.” (Evra, you’ll remember, made the same gloating comment about us last season).
When the cameras cut away to the claret conked Caledonian after the third Barca goal he looked as utterly defeated as I’ve seen him since the Invincibles used to dish out regular drubbings to his teams. He knew there was no chance of repeating the flukey 1999 win this time round: for one thing he could see that his players had no fight in them.
From an Arsenal point of view it just made me angry.
This is a very ordinary United side and certainly the weakest English champions for a very long time. If Arsenal had had a little more maturity and composure this season we would have won the league at a canter.
Contrast yesterday’s game with our recent matches against Barcelona.
This season we deservedly beat them 2-1 at The Grove. And at the Nou Camp we were well on the way to knocking them out until the aforementioned Swiss conehead sent off Robin van Persie in what looked then and still looks now like a premeditated act of vindictiveness or corruption.
Up until then Barca had hardly had a clean chance on goal. And even after the sending-off we were only one Bendtner touch away from putting them out of the competition. With only 10 men. In the Nou Camp.
At the final whistle Guardiola looked as relieved as you’ll ever see him.
Last season they absolutely outplayed us in the first half at The Grove, but unlike United we didn’t give up. We came back at them like tigers in the second half and earned a 2-2 draw from 0-2 down. We were well beaten in the second leg because we were bereft of half the first team through injury.
So – and I apologise for the delay – it’s time to return to the message of my headline: how the United defeat yesterday offers hope for Arsenal.
In the Arsenal Arsenal comments after the game I noticed this statement from TotalArsenal: “I reckon that over the next few years only Arsenal(‘s style of football) will have a serious chance to beat Barca in the CL. Come on Arsène, buy us a few decent players and we can do it!”
I have no great love for Barcelona. They tarnish their brilliant footballing reputation with cheating, diving and simulation. But they play a brand of football which is quite mesmerising.
It also feels absolutely modern, a turn-of-the-wheel in how the game should be played (and yes, I know its roots go back to Total Football and beyond to the great Brazil side of 1970). United’s play, by contrast, looked unsophisticated and old-fashioned.
I agree with TotalArsenal: In the EPL only Arsenal have a footballing philosophy that can hope to match the Catalans.
Which is why there are grounds for optimism for Arsenal. Our end of season collapse was pretty dreadful, but I don’t buy the argument that it was our system that made it happen. In fact it was our system that got us to a point at the end of February where we were in a cup final, we had beaten Barcelona, we were still in the FA Cup and we had a serious chance of snatching the league title.
What happened subsequently was, in my opinion, about a lack of maturity among the team in general and about a lack of quality in some of the players. Both these failings can be put right by letting some players go and by bringing in some more experienced personnel. Arsene Wenger has said that he will be doing both these things this summer.
Arsene’s experiment is not just about trying to win things with young players. It is also about trying to win things with a Barcelona style of play. This season I believe he has finally realised that the existing squad can’t quite pull it off, but his response will be to create a squad that can do it. And he’s right to try and do so.
I expect more up-and-coming coaches to start to emulate Barcelona’s style. This is the new wave and we need to surf it or get left behind in the doldrums, which is exactly where United are heading.
There is considerable talk of us slipping out of the top four next year. Some of our more negative supporters even have us finishing mid table.
But they’re wrong. I firmly expect us to come much, much closer to being champions next season than we have done for six years. I believe we will dominate the league with the same, modern style of play that has led Barcelona to dominate Europe. And then we’ll beat them too.
Saying that you trust Arsene these days is exposing yourself to ridicule from many quarters. I don’t care. I do trust him, and I will enjoy the humble pie that his critics will be eating this time next year.