The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.
It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.
And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.
United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.
Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.
For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.
Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.
With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.
Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.
It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.
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If you’re not fed up with the circus yet, you soon will be. Every clowning performer, every newsreader, commentator and gushing crowd member, will be salt rubbed into your severely wounded mood. Gossiping and gawping at two rich strangers is irritating for half an hour, annoying for an evening and soul destroying after days and weeks. Wedding talk is a stressful and pointless nuisance. At the end of this week the womenfolk will be in an unstoppably riotous mood. It will be terrifying.
Your masculinity will be torturously chipped away. The usual refuge, the pub, will be hideously transformed into a paradise of bunting and delicate decoration. When the confetti and the cupcakes and the tiaras get too much, new escape routes will be needed. After the horrors of the day itself, you’ll need to rediscover your true self and chill out as a bloke again.
For the alternatives to the madness, the cures to wedding fever and feral femininity, keep it glued to Flickering Myth. We’ll remind you that there’s good honest entertainment worth living for after a monstrous marriage marathon.
Your first anti-wedding tip then is Kenneth Branagh’s (that’s right the thespian and national treasure, directing a comic book adaptation) eagerly anticipated Marvel epic Thor, in three dimensions courtesy of the now standard issue Elton John specs. After all what could be more manly than a hero with impossibly mahoosive muscles and a badass cape, whose principal superpower is a giant hammer for bashing stuff to bits? He’s a God-like handyman irresistible to women and the envy of lesser men.
I promised myself I wouldn’t resort to atrocious puns to describe the merits and failures of Branagh’s creation, as other reviews have done. But then I thorght, by Odin’s beard there’s no harm in saying that whilst this isn’t quite a thor star film, its plot hammers along with such thunderous gusto that it at least cracks the norse code of decent superhero movies for the most part. The critics are right to muck about with words and have fun with their reviews though; because Thor, whatever its faults, is a fun watch.
Despite the drawbacks of spending much of the running time in the CGI kingdom of Asgard, I found such a different setting mostly refreshing. Gleaming golden palaces, elaborate armour and impossible landscapes are ingredients unavailable to the likes of Batman and Iron Man, no matter how artificial the environment might sometimes seem. Undeniably at times the 3D CGI is visually dazzling and striking. There are even a number of good, thumping action scenes in the eternal realm. As some reviewers have pointed out, setting much of the film in Asgard ensures the audience becomes attached to it, whether they appreciate its over the top beauty or not.
There’s no doubt that the fun factor only truly kicks in when things literally crash down to earth though. There are a good number of gags, nearly all of which are LOL worthy. Thor amusingly thrashes about at the humans he interacts with, struggling to accept he is at the mercy of the mortals. He only really bonds with one of us human plebs, the beautiful and gorgeous (I do not have a crush!) Natalie Portman. She plays a scientist on the verge of some vague but momentous discovery to do with particles and space or something. Thor sees she is clever. And that she’s a woman too. Portman is by no means mesmerising as she is in Black Swan here, but she does the job asked of her by the story, as do Anthony Hopkins and even Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who looked so wooden in the trailer. No I don’t just think she did a good job because she’s hot.
You might like to know the basic thrust of Thor’s plot: Thor heir to throne, Thor seeks revenge on Frost Giants, Thor banished for breaking peace, Thor seeks to find lost hammer, Thor inadvertently falls for hot human scientist, Thor tries to return to save kingdom. I like to think he may have grunted it out bluntly like that. And yes you read that rightly, the bad guys in this are called Frost Giants. They are perhaps Thor’s weakest ingredient; childishly simple foes that are difficult to take seriously. But again they are at least different to standard superhero fare.
The best bits, besides the laughs, following Thor’s fall to earth are two stunning action scenes. The first sees Thor roaring like King Kong as he bashes a bunch of S.H.I.E.L.D agents. He’s trying to get to his beloved magical hammer, which is sealed off by awesome looking white tubes by the guys in suits that will link all Marvel’s superheroes together for the forthcoming Avengers film. The second climatic action scene sees Thor and his warrior friends fleeing from a fire breathing robot despatched by the traitor in Asgard’s camp to kill Thor.
This scene gets the best out of a small and dusty New Mexico town location; by smashing it to pieces with fantastic fiery explosions. The really impressive and surprising thing, especially given all the talk about Thor’s visual style, is the sound the killer robot makes every time it unleashes a fireball; it’s so piercing and deafening that you feel the impact of each blast. My friend violently flinched in surprise at one moment when the thing shaped up to slap something. Then in the aftermath of the destruction the soundtrack and the visuals reach suitably epic proportions for Thor’s big race against time comeback moment.
Thor is of course the God of Thunder, which is fitting given that most superheroes grapple with the stormy consequences of their own God complexes. Needless to say Thor predictably learns his lesson, to put others before yourself is truly heroic blah blah, but in engrossingly epic style. There is just something fun about this film, which makes you reluctant to dwell on its various faults and flaws. Thor ended leaving me wanting more from the character and more from his world, despite the silliness of some of the mythological squabbles. Branagh has not crafted the meaningful art he is accustomed to, but a fun and refreshing thorker of a blockbuster. He may be a prince, but Thor will easily sail your mind away from all things Royal.
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