ARSENE WENGER came into the pressroom at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium and stared up at a TV screen that showed Manchester United leading Chelsea 1-0 with only a couple of minutes on the clock.
Eager journalists rushed to be first with the bad news. “First minute.” “36 seconds.” “Hernandez.”
Wenger didn’t seem interested. For all his talk of mental strength and mathematics, he knew his team had blown it weeks ago.
The defeats are now so familiar that it is becoming harder to summon up the rage. At the end of Stoke’s 3-1 win he walked straight over to shake Tony Pulis’ hand, and his remarks to the press were uncharacteristically gracious.
“Football is a balance between possession and progression,’’ he said, an elegant way of saying that Arsenal had spent the day knocking short passes to each other in front of Stoke’s defence and not creating any chances.
When Tony Pulis came in a little later the first statement put to him was: “Arsene Wenger said you outfought them,’’ and you could see Pulis bristle a little at the familiar and irritating suggestion that his team had crunched their way to victory with brute strength.
Except Wenger hadn’t really said any such thing. He had admitted his own side had not turned up with enough competitive spirit, and congratulated Stoke on their greater sense of purpose.
That was one way of putting it. Arsenal’s performance in the first half was insipid, but there were times in the second when they appeared to be undergoing some kind of collective nervous breakdown.
The yips were the only collective thing about them: the team had broken down into 11 individuals all making embarrassing mistakes and shouting at each other.
All Stoke had to do was guard their defensive positions and wait for another Arsenal player to trip over the ball.
Twenty-four hours previously at Upton Park, there had been the same grimly fascinating spectacle of a team’s public disintegration.
Trailing 1-0 to Blackburn, West Ham’s efforts to chase the game were so horribly inept that some of their own fans had started to leave 30 minutes from time.
Robbie Keane had been introduced into this chaos from the bench with about 35 minutes to go, and barely touched the ball for 20 minutes.
West Ham couldn’t put a move together.
Keane eventually decided to make something happen himself. Abandoning his position up front, he went hunting for the ball in midfield; involved himself in the play with a couple of calm touches and threaded passes, and suddenly West Ham had worked a good position around the Blackburn box, culminating in Thomas Hitzlsperger equalising with a fierce shot through a packed penalty area.
Unfortunately for Keane he will get no credit for the cunning way in which he helped play his team back into the game.
He had the chance to win the game for West Ham in the last minute and wasted it with an unbelievable air-shot flub from three yards, and when a striker produces such an abomination that’s all anybody remembers.
The half-hour showed that Keane is a quality player fast disappearing under layers of rust.
As he approaches his 31st birthday he has added a level of guile to his previously rather random build-up play, but his club career has become so fragmented, regular football so elusive, that he is never sharp.
So he has embarrassed himself twice in a week with horror misses against Manchester City and Blackburn and West Ham will probably be relegated as a result.
Keane’s club form has never really affected his chances of playing for Ireland because he was always so much better than the alternatives.
Yesterday at Stoke, there was further evidence that that is no longer the case.
Jonathan Walters’ powerful, direct running drove back Arsenal’s defenders, and when a mistake by Djourou gave him the chance to kill the game his finish was clinical. It was hard to imagine the current out-of-sorts Keane having such an impact on a match.
That doesn’t mean it’s over for Keane just yet. For evidence of that he only had to watch the match at Old Trafford, where Ryan Giggs, who won his first league title when Keane was aged 12, provided another unanswerable moment of quality as Manchester United beat Chelsea to all but seal their 19th, and Giggs’ 12th, league championship.
The pressure on United starting the game had been intense, yet it was Chelsea who imploded, with David Luiz’s mistake letting in Hernandez in the very first minute.
You could tell that Chelsea did not have it in them to come back when you saw Luiz absolving himself of blame, responding to Carlo Ancelotti’s furious calls from the touchline by shaking his head dismissively and repeating: “Not me! not me!’’
Ancelotti replaced Luiz at half time, but you suspect Alex Ferguson would not have waited that long.
Manchester United haven’t had it easy this season. Their unstable financial structure is a constant source of low-level worry, and the group of reinforcements they signed last summer seemed so pitifully inadequate that their best player felt emboldened to use it as a pretext for handing in a transfer request.
UNITED weren’t the only big club that had to deal with that situation — the captains of Arsenal and Manchester City also seemed determined to leave their clubs, while Liverpool’s biggest star joined Chelsea, where he seems likely to finish the season having scored more goals against his new team than for them.
But Ferguson is the only manager to persuade his star to stay while simultaneously preserving the fierce team ethic that in the end set United apart.
When Rooney was subdued early in the season, Ferguson got United through it by coaxing brilliant performances out of Dimitar Berbatov and Nani.
When some fans were waving banners calling Rooney a whore, Ferguson stuck by him. And when one of the summer buys Rooney had claimed to be so unimpressed with turned out to be the signing of the season, Ferguson was ruthless enough to discard Berbatov and give Hernandez the run in the team he deserved.
The argument over whether this is a great United team will hinge on what happens at Wembley on May 28.
As far as the league is concerned, there is a tendency to denigrate the achievement because the competition in general has been poor.
But it’s not United’s fault that they were up against no truly relentless opponent in the mould of Arsenal’s Invincibles or Mourinho’s Chelsea.
It was a season when every team faced problems of its own, but Ferguson has coped with them all and seen off all his rivals.
Roy Hodgson lasted barely half a season, Ancelotti is history at Chelsea, Mancini’s continued employment at City depends on Mourinho keeping his job at Real Madrid, and even the beloved Wenger is under unbearable pressure to jolt Arsenal out of their pattern of failure. Their struggles underline the awesome extent of Ferguson’s achievement: his 12th title in his 24th full season at England’s biggest club.
This year’s tour de force has strengthened his claim to be regarded as the greatest manager English football has known.
If he somehow defies the odds and defeats Barcelona too, matching Bob Paisley’s haul of three European Cups, he will have settled the argument for good.
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