Oh the horror! The unmitigated horror. Ok, so perhaps not horror. But it’s close. Due to what will admittedly be an extremely fun study trip to the Lake District, I am to be out of Oxford for a grand total of four days. And what that means is temporarily abandoning my directorial duties. I swear to God it’s like leaving a child. I’m missing meetings. I’m giving my cast the week off. Perhaps most terrifying of all, I won’t have a computer. And that means no emails. It feels as though the world may implode.
Writing this the night before departure, I can’t help but feel that I have missed something. I’ve messaged the production team begging them to fill me in on anything they decide. Or discuss. Or even hint at. I’ve organised weekend rehearsals and booked a fight choreographer for my first day back. I’ve done a week’s worth of organising in a matter of hours. Yet the dramatic umbilical cord is still proving difficult to cut.
I am, however, aware that I am leaving my show in safe hands. Lighting plots can be charted. Posters can be ordered. Lines can be learned. And it appears that my little drama world will continue turning for a few days without me. The show must go on, and go on it shall, despite my brief absence. So off I shall go to Northern (and somewhat chilly) climes and focus on Wordsworth, Coleridge and the like, secure in the knowledge that theatrically all will be well. But I might sneak a peek at Nexus on my friend’s phone. Just to be sure.
– Caitlin MacMillan, director of Blue Remembered Hills
This year like no other, the final of the Champions League could hardly do more to reflect the pattern of dominance present in the domestic game. Where the early 2000s saw Bayern, Madrid, and the Italian sides regularly define seasons with their success, the last six or seven years have unquestionably been the era of Barcelona and Manchester United. Serial winners of their respective domestic leagues, these two European giants have also started sprawling themselves over the latter stages of the Champions League year in year out.
It seems more than two years ago that this fixture last drew the domestic season to a close. So much has changed within that space of time. The omnipresence of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi at Barcelona’s core should not obscure the subtle changes to the Catalans’ 2011 mould. Messi himself has risen meteorically in stature. His rebirth as a false #9, the spearhead of Barcelona’s attack, and his subsequently remarkable goal-scoring achievements, has surely seen him complete his previously inevitable procession to the pantheon of inter-generational greats. Elsewhere, Sergio Busquets has matured in his defensive-midfield/centre-back hybrid; Pedro has cemented his reputation as one of the best forwards in the game; David Villa has added a certain sharpness to the striking trio which, although hardly lacking before, has been valuable; and Guardiola himself has gone a long way to proving himself as one of the greatest innovators of the modern era. They are also a much, much better side, and a side that’s full to the brim on confidence.
Clearly though, the changes are far more obvious within the United set-up. The team itself has been very hard to predict; Ferguson rarely elects to play the same XI in consecutive games. The obvious catalyst was Ronaldo’s departure, making the talents and temperament of Wayne Rooney far more central to the side’s functioning. But if ever a team was struggling for an identity it would surely be this side. Over the last two seasons it’s been near-impossible to identify what’s been consistent about United, let alone what’s been so consistently good about them. This season, the breathtakingly mercurial performances (7-1 at home to Blackburn and the two Schalke ties) have juxtaposed awkwardly with some atrociously lacklustre efforts, but most surprising has been the uncharacteristic defensive frailty and mental fragility that’s occasionally crept onto the scene (think back to the leads thrown away against Fulham and Everton last autumn). The one constant factor, and probably United’s biggest asset of late, has been Ferguson, who above all else seems to get his players to perform when the situation requires.
What to expect
Whereas the 2009 affair was billed as an advert for the beautiful game with attacking starlets lining up on
either side, this time around we can expect a far less exotic display. Barcelona are probably one of the most consistent teams of all time in terms of their approach to the game; the following passage isn’t just lazy journalism. They will hold a high line, dictate the tempo and shift the ball around until an opening arises. It will be all Barcelona from the off, and their self- imposed quest to better their possession statistics in each game will undoubtedly be on show. They will couple this strategy on the ball with possibly the most intense off-the-ball pressing game football’s ever witnessed (just ask Michael Carrick).
More interesting will be the approach Ferguson elects to pursue. In 2009 United were the favourites. They had Ronaldo, they had Vidic and Ferdinand, they had the experience of beating Barcelona the previous season and, of course, were returning Champions. Barcelona were unproven. Guardiola was still in his first season, and the glaring deficiencies of Madrid and every other Spanish Primera side made it hard to gauge the extent of their successes in La Liga and the Copa del Rey. Ferguson got arrogant; he departed from the tactics inherited from his deputy Carlos Quieroz (employed against Rijkaard’s 2008 outfit) thinking he could better Xavi and Iniesta at their own game with Carrick, Giggs, and Anderson. Since then, Barcelona have been widely recognised as one of the greats, the core of the Catalan club effectively won Spain the World Cup last summer, and one man has persistently illuminated the way to beat them. Real Madrid may not have defeated Barcelona in the semi-finals, but if the recent succession of riveting clasicos has taught us anything it’s that Mourinho’s strategy is as good as gold when it comes to halting Guardiola’s men. In style, Mourinho hasn’t really done anything that Ferguson didn’t do in the 2008 Champions League semi-final, nor has he improved much on Guus Hiddink’s tactical approach utilised by Chelsea in their semi with Barca back in 2009. Mourinho has, however, done it consistently (barring the monumental blunder back in November after Ferguson-levels of tactical arrogance were unwisely pursued) and he’s done it against a much better Barcelona outfit. Last season’s showcase of defensive majesty in charge of Inter was something to behold, even if it provided a fairly dull neutral spectacle. Sitting deep, allowing Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi time and space on the ball only in unthreatening areas, pressing full-backs Alves and (probably) Abidal fiercely from the front, and relying on the central midfielders to intercept and track runs from midfield while preparing to hit them like a bullet on the counter seems to be the modus operandi when it comes to toppling Barcelona.
But will Ferguson’s arrogance get the better of him again? The signs are unclear: Sir Alex recently departed from the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 formation so regularly employed against Arsenal so as to accommodate the talents of Javier Hernandez. As expected, Arsenal’s superior manipulation of the newly-afforded space left United losers for the first time in 5 games against the Gunners. Such a move against Barcelona would surely condemn the Reds to another obliteration at the hands of Messi and Guardiola. But it is a genuine selection dilemma. Hernandez has been one of the top performers of this year’s campaign, scoring goals against opposition of all quality. Leaving him on the bench along with (as appears to be the trend in “big” games) Nani will leave United slightly shy in the goal-scoring department.
Ferguson won’t risk starting Hernandez, and will set out in sensible fashion with the following side to counter the predictable Barcelona XI:
Van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Fletcher/Anderson (pending on Fletcher’s fitness issues), Giggs; Park, Valencia; Rooney
Valdes; Alves, Puyol, Pique, Abidal; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Villa, Messi
It probably won’t be a classic, but if United follow Mourinho’s example they are capable of causing an upset, and what an upset it would be.
‘Survival Sunday’, as Sky billed the final day of the 2010-2011 Premier League season, proved to be a prophetic title in more ways than one. Having escaped almost certain destruction less than a day earlier it may have appeared to Harold Camping, as his personal jet was forced to hotfoot it to Hawaii rather than the plains of eternal salvation, that the “rapture” had indeed struck across the Atlantic. Fans all over the country whispered prayers and sunk to their knees in desperation, or instead shouted abuse at a lazy winger failing to track the full back, all for the right to sing the most cherished words in English football: ‘We Are Premier League…’
Rarely does the superlative-filled build up to ‘Super Sunday’, or whatever word Jeff and the team pluck from Microsoft Word’s vast bank of synonyms for ‘good’, manage to fulfil the hype; the apathetic turnout for Match of the Day in the Balliol TV room would suggest so. But in reality fans had simply retreated to their rooms in exhaustion after, with eyes diverted from an eventless top four, the teams scrapping for survival and desperate to avoid the estimated £40 million shortfall lurking through the Championship trap door managed to spectacularly meet the quota of thrills, frantic calculations and middle aged men sobbing into their replica shirts. Once the drama had played out and fingernails were all but gone Wolves survived by the skin of their teeth and all 10 of Wigan’s supporters were elated with their survival, while Blackpool and Birmingham joined the hapless West Ham in slumping into the second tier of English football. Of the three, Blackpool return after a fairy-tale season that even in relegation defied all the odds.
The Tangerines game against champions Manchester United exemplified what the Premier League has lost; entertainment in abundance, and a determination to enjoy their time in the spotlight. With 55 goals Blackpool are the highest scoring team to ever be relegated from the Premiership and their haul of 39 points would have been enough to secure safety in each of the last 7 seasons. But underneath all the statistics a special mention, a Premiership obituary, has to be reserved for manager of the year Ian Holloway; a man who has battled with the English language as well as the seemingly impossible task of keeping a side of Blackpool’s limited resources in the Premier League. Press conferences in which elaborate metaphors have compared himself to characters like Crocodile Dundee may have amused and bemused journalists and fans in equal measure but are nothing compared to the amazement at how he managed to convince players like Gary Taylor-Fletcher and David Vaughan that they are of Premiership quality. So much so that with Euro 2012 round the corner, DJ Campbell has announced highly questionable international aspirations that are unlikely to survive in the Championship, especially with Grant Holt set to storm England’s top tier. The Premiership will certainly mourn the loss of Holloway more than the dour Ancelotti who after less than two seasons with Chelsea will pout and shrug all the way down the Fulham road, and if Abramovich is in the market for a constantly jilted and entertaining West-country bumpkin prone to bouts of inspired fiction, the league would be better for it.
Along with Blackpool and West Ham, Birmingham City, suffering from one of the longest cup hangovers in history, failed to secure a third consecutive season in the Premiership. Their final day meeting with Tottenham could have been very different had fifth place not still been in the balance with Spurs overcoming Liverpool on the road in their penultimate game; as it was a brace from Pavlyuchenko, who in different circumstances would probably have spent the afternoon ambling lazily round the centre circle, secured European football for Tottenham and doomed the Blues to a summer of uncertainty. A side that have been over-reliant on the left foot of Craig Gardener looks set for a torrid time in the Championship with a bloated wage bill and few marketable assets; although Ben Foster and Roger Johnson could attract big money moves. Birmingham must be careful to avoid the path treaded by Leeds and Southampton in previous years, but whilst the future remains uncertain this season will not be remembered for relegation but for one glorious day under the Wembley arch, an inspired performance full of a desire that was conspicuously absent from their relegation battle.
For the newly departed, there appears to be no salvation from the hell that looms in front of them… the Championship. Ultimately, after surviving eternal damnation on Saturday the Championship cannot appear quite so timeless or painful to Alex McLeish, Ian Holloway and co., who would do well to appreciate that at the end of the day, relegation is not the end of the world.