Call it gone in 37 seconds.
That's all the time it took for Ji-Sung Park to thread a pass to Chicharito behind the falling over David Luiz (cue the Sideshow Bob framing Krusty the Klown jokes) and for the Mexican scoring-machine to put Manchester United ahead 1-0 over Chelsea in the clash to all but decide the 2010-11 Premier League title. The victory puts United on the brink of its 19th First Division/Prem title, pushing the club past Liverpool, to the Merseyside institution's helpless consternation.
As outlined on Friday, as a nuetral it's hard to get warm-and-fuzzy feelings toward either United or Chelsea. So in a weird way, the early goal was the best possible thing that could have happened for this match. Think how many times in recent memory when marquee, title-deciding matches turn into -- at best -- dull, nervy slogs (see: Roma 0, AC Milan 0 from later Saturday) and -- at worst -- angry, cagey, cynical affairs where every whistle from the referee becomes a World War III-worthy flashpoint with a mob of incredulous players surrounding the official.
At a bare minimum, this game was decided by the quiet, assured domination of Manchester United.
Chicharito's goal relived some of the pressure that could have built up over 90 minutes here if the game remained scoreless. Even if that's not the direct cause of Sunday's controversy-free match, it's a bit refreshing that decisions of the referee -- in this case Howard Webb -- overshadowed the actual proceedings. Aside from not sending off Branislav Ivanovic for a suspect second bookable offense and a possible penalty kick for Manchester United, it was a good day for the man in the middle. Sad that a compotent performance deserves to be lauded, as it's the exception not the rule.
As for those proceedings?
Again, tough to stomach as a nuetral, but at the very least Manchester United put itself on the brink of the league title with a confident performance which left Chelsea looking almost as bad as FC Shalke for the first 35-odd minutes. Ryan Giggs, Park and Wayne Rooney went around John Obi Mikel if he wasn't there, with acres of space between the Chelsea midfield and defensive line. Antonio Valencia, in sparkling form back from his gruesome broken leg, had license to roam up-and-down the right flank with maybe Ashley Cole breathing hard once or twice in his direction. (Anyone else see the fork sticking out of John Terry's back?)
The final score certainly flattered Chelsea, too, as Rooney himself missed three or four solid chances to push United's goal difference higher -- namely a goal line block from half time substitute Alex. The Blues did have chances, piling up seven shots on target, two more than United, but Edwin van der Sar was always positioned in the right spot to make the save, though it's never a good thing when Chelsea's top attacking option is Soloman Kalou. Frank Lampard, otherwise invisible, did score a classic Lampardian goal with a toe-poke from a barely onside position.
A funny moment even came late when a Chelsea player tried to catch the Dutchman off his line with a shot from some 50-yards away. Van der Sar pantomimed a massive wipe of his brow when the ball landed in the top netting.
It was that kind of day for United, which with this being soccer where everyone wants to judge on style points, will have to hear detractors wonder why this team wasn't as "magical" or "awe-inspiring" or "wonderful" of previous Red Devils' incarnations. This argument is endemic of soccer as a whole, as the sport is more art than science. For many it's not enough to simply win, you have to win with style, flair and panache.
In an imperfect season, the facts still show United have scored more goals than anyone else in the league (73), while allowing the third least. Sunday's win at Old Trafford pushed the Red Devils home record to 17 wins, one draw and zero losses. This certainly offsets United's pedestrian 5-9-4 road record, with only 28 goals scored compared to 24 allowed.
By any metric, United were the best team from August to May. Once Sir Alex Ferguson's boys grabbed the first place reigns in Week 14 with a 2-0 win over Wigan on November 14 they never fell out of first place. Not even back-to-back losses in early March to Chelsea and Liverpool were enough for either Arsenal or the Blues to overtake the champions-elect.
As noted here more than once, United were able to brush aside Chelsea with Premier League leading scorer Dimitar Berbatov pinned to the bench, alongside the club's other most productive (statistically speaking) player, Nani. Again it showed Sir Alex continually found a way to pull the right strings, juggling the Premier League with the Champions League to maximum efficiency. You might not like him, but he did a great job this year guiding the ship to perfection.
Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes and Anderson all played double-digit games in the middle of the field. Park played just about everywhere, almost always to maximum effort. The right back rotation of Rafael (then Fabio) with John O'Shea almost always seemed to work in favor of the Scot. The masterstroke was gradually moving Chicharito from goal-scoring sub to starter, without Berbatov causing a distraction in turn allowing Wayne Rooney a freer, all-around attacking role. Rooney wasn't great this year, but still found a way to score 10 league goals, assisting on 11. (You don't think of Rooney as the classic "playmaker" but that's what he was this season, allowing others to poach.)
Oddly enough only three players -- van der Sar, Patric Evra and Nemanja Vidic started more than 24 games for United, with all three turning out for 33 starts. That defensive trio, along with (when healthy) Rio Ferdinand was what made the Red Devils go. With Vidic and Ferdinand starting together, United lost once -- on May 1 to Arsenal. With Ferdinand starting the team's record was 12 wins, six draws and one loss.
Is this a little stat-heavy to describe a team that is going to win the Premier League and has a spot booked in the Champions League final at the end of the month? Admittedly, yes.
So even if this United team doesn't pass the "eye test" of what a champion should look like in your mind, everything else says it was clearly the best team in a year where the champion is going to have the lowest points total in recent memory. Finding a way to avoid the pratfalls of its nearest rivals might have been the most useful trait this season and United had it in spades.
Like it or not.
Going, going ... gone?:
At some point in his career Avram Grant might have been a good soccer coach. Taking Portsmouth to the FA Cup final was impressive last season and guiding Chelsea to a missed John Terry penalty kick from the Champions League title deserves some plaudits. Yet is winning a couple knockout games, and in the case of Chelsea a team that was already put together, a good indicator of a coach's value? All season with Grant in charge, West Ham has been a sieve on defense, with non-existent marking.
Allowing a goal to Jason Roberts of all people Saturday in an eventual 1-1 draw with Blackburn was the final stake in West Ham's coffin, who sit at the bottom of the table with 32 points. Unless Wolves, Wigan and Blackpool go a combined 0-6 in their remaining games, West Ham is all but done.
Speaking of Wolves, the second-best result of the weekend goes out to Mick McCarthy's team for beating local rival West Brom 3-1 at home, pushing them up to 17th in the table. Wolves control their own destiny with matches at Sunderland and home to Blackburn on the final Sunday. Birmingham and Blackburn aren't totally safe yet either and need another win to ensure safety.
Blackpool and Wigan will have to keep up what they're doing, throwing caution into the wind. Blackpool hosts Bolton on Saturday, when plays at Manchester United on the final day, when the Red Devils might be fielding a starting XI featuring the likes of Darren Gibson, Bebe, Gabriel Obertan ... and Michael Owen. Wigan hosts West Ham Saturday in an ultimate loser's leaves town match, then plays at Stoke City.
The relegation merry-go-round is the only race left at this point, aside from Liverpool's late surge for the Europa League, which continues later on Monday with a game against Fulham.
Stamp of Disapproval:
If his career in England (or Scotland) ever goes completely sideways, Charlie Adam could probably find a home in MLS. The "physicality" of our American top flight division would suit the gap-toothed Scot to perfection.
There's no way to beat around the bush, the Blackpool captain's ankle-breaking stamp on Gareth Bale was a dirty as anything you'll ever see on a soccer field -- and it didn't even draw a yellow card! Bale was already engaged with another Blackpool player and Adam flew in with his stud right into the foot of the Tottenham star. Downright cheap. Even the nefarious Mr. Fuji would agree it was a cheap shot.
Naturally Adam rubbed salt into the wounds of Tottenham, first shattering the leg of Bale and then converting a penalty kick to end Spurs' fading hopes of the Champions League. Adam seemed to have bought into some of his own hype, celebrating the goal like a lunatic, both kissing the Blackpool badge, flashing the jersey and then pointing to his name. You wouldn't think a palooka-looking guy like Adam would be a diva, but he seems to have a inflated sense of self worth. Buyer beware this summer. Adam, who's been fun to watch this season, seems to want a team built around him ... but unless you're Blackpool do you really want an XI where Adam is your No. 1 guy?
In any event, Tottenham -- with the door slightly ajar for fourth place with City's earlier loss -- limped down the finish line, with Gomes continuing to be the most entertaining No. 1 shirt in the world with his traveling comedy show, which Saturday included saving Adam's first penalty kick ... only to drag down a Blackpool player on the ensuing corner kick for another spot kick. (Michael Dawson needs to be called out too, as he's been a shell of his 2010 form, which earned him an England call-up and eventual injury on international duty.)
Watching Spurs the last couple weeks, maybe the best way the club can upgrade is with a new manager. As fun as it is to watch the red-faced, sullen faces of Harry Redknapp, how much coaching is he actually doing? He assembled/took over a great roster of talent, but opponents clearly figured out how to stop Spurs and denying them space and there wasn't a Plan B aside from last-second winners. A coach with a little more tactical acumen might make some sense. You'd think anyone worth their inverted pyramid would love to get ahold of Bale, Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart, Sandro and the rest of the very talented (if temperamental) roster.
As it stands, Spurs record is 14-14-7 with less goals scored on the season than West Brom. In a sense its remarkable the team kept up the chase for fourth place so long.
Mission (Almost) Accomplished:
The door was still open for Tottenham to claim fourth, thanks to David Moyes and Everton defeating Manchester City with a pair of second half goals Saturday at Goodison Park. Realistically, for fourth place to go to anyone other than City, Spurs have to win their head-to-head match Tuesday then win-out, with City losing its final two league games (Stoke City, Bolton.)
City are on the verge of ushering in a new era of prosperity with actual trophies and accomplishments, not just high-priced foreign strikers. Saturday the club gets a chance in the FA Cup final, which is nice, but finishing fourth and claiming a spot in the Champions League fulfills the grand ambitions since the Abu Dhabi group bought it in August 2008. In that sense, three seasons (and three managers) isn't too bad to progress from Sven-Goran Eriksonn (a relic from the Thaksin Shinawatra era) also-rans, to would-be European elites under Roberto Mancini.
To me, the Manchester City squad itself still feels a bit empty, or lacking a personality. Then again, maybe City is the prototype of a 21st century, inorganic super club, assembled in a vacuum and expected to win for a mega-rich owner who outlays tons of cash without a mission statement, treating the club like an expensive hobby with the City of Manchester Stadium serving as the sandbox on a foreign playground.
We'll learn much more about what drives this team in the next 10 days.
Once again, in this space I've run out of superlatives for the coaching job by David Moyes and Everton. Leon Osman might be in the running for most underrated player in the League at the moment, another guy that seems to personify what the club is all about.
Around the League:
Slept through Arsenal's 3-1 loss at Stoke City. Fortunately The Guardian match report was a great read, including the sneering taunts from the Britianna Stadium crowd, which included "We only score from a throw-in," on Jermaine Pennant's blistering strike before halftime. Suffice to say I'll be rooting as hard as I can on Saturday when Stoke takes on Manchester City in the FA Cup Final. ... The Goodison Park signage is a true delight, including a prominent ad for "Crabbie's Alcoholic Ginger Beer." Anyone know if that's available in the States? ... For those scoring at home, your Championship Promotion Playoffs are Swansea City against Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City vs. Reading. Of note, Swansea has gotten 18 goals from ex-Chelsea youngster Scott Sinclair. Cardiff City features everyone's favorite Welsh madman Craig Bellamy, as well as ex-Prem faces like Michael Chopra, Jay Bothroyd and Seyi Olofinjana. Reading look nothing like the side that was in the Premier League with Americans Bobby Convey and Marcus Hahnemann. About the only names left from that team are Icelandic defender Ívar Ingimarsson and Irish forwards Noel Hunt and Shane Long. Nottingham Forest means some face time for Paul Konchesky. ... Blackburn's Christopher Samba has a wonderful post-soccer career as the world's best body guard.
Fantasy Team O' the Week:
Overall a low-scoring week. A clutch performance from recent college grad Drew Konig's Martin A'nnul coming in with 49 points, to claim first place overall by one point. Yaya Toure, Frank Lampard and Ashley Young were the big point guys, all in the single digits. Iki Dort's Dirty Greens also put up 49 points with 11 from Everton goal-scoring defender Sylvain Distin.
Call it gone in 37 seconds.