By Paul Gardner
Exactly what is going on here? Maybe the soccer planets, if there be such things, are in disarray, not in the right alignment or wherever it is they're supposed to be.
Because things are definitely out of whack. I know that, for sure -- and so do you if you were watching any of this weekend’s games. Did you see Arsenal? Or Liverpool? Or Barcelona? Or Real Madrid? Or, above all, Manchester United?
Let’s start with ManU. Or the team they told us was ManU. Because, apart from the uniforms and some familiar faces this lot sure as hell did not playlike ManU. The longer the game against Stoke City went on, the worse it got. For the final 10 minutes or so this could well have been Wycombe Wanderers battling away against Northampton Town at the bottom of the fourth division.
About as far removed from the Premier League version of the sport as it could be while still looking like soccer.
Yet ManU had their superstars out there, super-scorer Robin van Persie was there, alongside Wayne Rooney, the man who’s going to lead England to World Cup victory this summer. Running ManU into the ground, and deservedly beating them 2-1, was Stoke, a remarkably ordinary, middle-of-the-standings team. You almost have to check the record book to remind yourself that ManU is the current EPL champions.
As for Arsenal, for so long the team that has carried the hopes of those of us who want to see the beautiful game, here they were making hard work (work seems the right word, it didn’t look like play, not like anything that anyone was, or possibly could be, enjoying) of beating lowly (16 places below Arsenal) Crystal Palace. And this was Arsenal with its superstar Mesut Ozil, hailed by everyone (well, by every Arsenal fan) as the EPL’s greatest player -- having recently replaced Santi Cazorla, another last-minute Arsene Wenger purchase, in that category. The score was 2-0, but don’t be fooled -- this was another agonizingly ground-out 1-0 win for the Gunners. OK, it’s never going to be easy to play the skillful stuff against a team coached by Tony Pulis, the dean of boring, negative soccer ... but, come on Arsenal, it has to be better than this.
Against West Brom, Liverpool was just plain dreadful. As with the other two games, this was a case of a top team against a struggler, and it was the top team that did all the struggling. No goals from Luis Suarez, but he did provide a good assist for Daniel Sturridge’s goal that put Liverpool ahead. That was about it for the supposed title-challengers Liverpool. They had their guys out there, including the legendary Steve Gerrard, who is also scheduled to lead England to World Cup glory in Brazil. Coach Brendan Rodgers’ version of the beautiful game -- which had actually been working quite well in previous games --disappeared here, as passes repeatedly went astray, often pathetically so. Mostly this was at the attacking end of the field (Liverpool managed only four shots on goal) but the most resounding clanger of the afternoon came from defender Kolo Toure, who crowned a not-particularly-distinguished performance by passing the ball neatly across his own penalty area ... straight to West Brom’s Victor Anichebe who could hardly miss from the edge of the area.
So West Brom got -- and definitely earned -- a point, while Liverpool dropped two points. Liverpool’s superstars, Suarez and Gerrard, picked up a yellow card each. Suarez for a nasty tackle and Gerrard -- well, Gerrard always looks a likely candidate for a caution, given his repertoire of reckless sliding tackles.
But it wasn’t just the EPL that was playing off-key. Things were no more harmonious over in Spain. Barcelona’s run of 31 unbeaten games in their Camp Nou fortress was snapped by a very lively Valencia, which triumphed 3-2. Yes, Messi and Xavi and Iniesta were all there. But, as in England, some mocking, perverse influence was at work here, some soccer spirits determined to upset things. This marked the first time that Messi, having scored in a game at Camp Nou, has ended up on the losing side.
Over in Bilbao, it was Real Madrid that felt the effects of the mischievous soccer vibes. A game against Athletic Bilbao in its San Mames stadium will be tough, but Real seemed to be coping quite well. Scoring chances were rarely to be seen, at either end -- nor was there much quality soccer on display. The world’s best player (really, this time) Cristiano Ronaldo looked to have decided the game in the 65th minute when he rolled the ball across the Athletic goalmouth for Jese to prod home.
That ought to have been that -- after all, Athletic hadn’t come up with a single shot on goal as yet -- so 1-0 to Real would be a fair result. Too fair, evidently. Athletic made a substitution. Off came Iker Muniain -- arguably Athletic’s best player -- on came Ibai Gomez. Maybe it was a genius switch by Coach Ernesto Valverde, but I’m not buying that. This, surely, had to be yet another intervention from those hovering mischief-making vibes.
Ibai immediately took a free kick, got the ball back from a rebound, and whacked a terrific shot on goal. His second touch of the ball was Athletic’s first shot on goal -- and it sailed beautifully into the net.
But the interfering hobgoblin had not yet finished souring the soccer milk. What better climax to his trickery than to ensnare the world’s No. 1 player? That’s what happened -- Ronaldo was duly red-carded in the 75th minute, but this was the least convincing of the weekend’s mysterious maneuvers.
Where all the other anomalies had, one way or another, brought some sort of justice by allowing the unfashionable clubs to show up the rich guys, Ronaldo’s red card seemed simply spiteful. A rather sad way to end a weekend of merry pranks.
But I still have to work out whether all this prankery comes from supernatural spirits, or whether it’s simply a built-in part of the sport itself. Our own fault in other words -- aren’t we the ones who invented the sport?