Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Cancel the Cup final

"Was it something I said?"

Its certainly been a busy couple of days with Gareth Southgate taking flak from all angles as Cristiano Ronaldo, a man fast becoming our nemesis, ended any FA Cup dreams with another highly dubious penalty. The abject defeat against Manchester City on Saturday also earned the scorn of Sheffield United's much loved Neil Warnock. Colin's bizarre rant suggested that Southgate lost the game as a 'favour' to his friend Stuart Pearce. Warnock clearly has few friends among his Premiership counterparts, as they all seem to beating his side on a regular basis.

There was little about Saturday's turgid match that hinted at the flurry of controversy to follow two days later. Southgate did field a weaker team than in recent weeks with Mark Viduka benched and Jonathan Woodgate left out of the 16. Julio Arca was also missing, although the growing army of critics of the team selection should note that Arca needed a fitness test before yesterday's game and only lasted 70 minutes. Abel Xavier slotted into Woodgate's central defensive role and acquitted himself reasonably well. Emmanuel Pogatetz lasted just 9 minutes before departing in some pain - fortunately the injury has proved nowhere near as serious as it immediately seemed. The other changes were somewhat less successful. Lee Dong-Gook struggles on his full debut, constantly being outmuscled by Distin and Dunne. He did not emerge after half-time. Inexplicably, Jason Euell lasted over an hour. The ex-Charlton midfielder, a bizarre £350,000 signing on deadline day, has done little to raise fans' expectations since. He still managed to underwhelm with a dismal display. It was telling that his one significant contribution - solidly blocking a well-hit Dietmar Hamann shot - was followed by cheers as he collapsed to the floor. By the time Viduka replaced the lumbering Euell, it was almost too late.

Stewart Downing had threatened to rouse the soporific Riverside at points in the first half. Isaksson had to stretch to save a smart right-footed effort and three superb crosses were wasted with awful headers by Lee, Euell and Xavier. Fortunately, City's Belgain forward Emile Mpenza appeared equally hapless, heading yards wide with the goal at his mercy. That fortune was not to last. With Downing's frustration growing and any attacking momentum evaporating, City took the lead after the break. Pitiful efforts at clearing a corner were punished as Sylvain Distin demonstrated the class that led to him demanding £50,000 a week from Boro in the summer, proving lethal at belting the ball past the keeper from an unmarked position five yards out. The goal failed to rouse the home team, whose performance declined to the point that the abysmal Mpenza managed to score. Cattermole was dispossessed and Mpenza poked the ball in off a post as Schwarzer and Xavier closed in.

The remaining home fans mustered a half-hearted boo and everyone filed home, hoping to forget one of the worst games of football I have personally ever had the misfortune to endure. The game did manage to make an impact on the Sheffield United management however. On Monday, Colin proved the anagram correct with a bizarre rant, which can be perused in full here. Warnock is generally a rich source of entertainment, opening his mouth without applying the merest filter to the nonsense swirling in his mind. There is neither the time or space to fully consider every single point of Warnock's whining here. I was particularly puzzled by a few comments though. What could he possibly mean by being "disgusted" by disrespect from a "club like Middlesbrough"? Presumably he is not bothered at disrespect from more established clubs - explaining his tepid response to his side being bent over, so to speak, by rotated Liverpool and Chelsea teams in recent weeks. The other especially odd statement was "They play West Ham on Saturday, that's another pal of his, so they'll probably not bother there". What happens if we win at Upton Park now? Does that mean he has fooled Southgate with cunning mind games into winning a game he didn't want to? Utter, utter bollocks.

Not that Warnock was alone in taking an unlikely interest in such a tedious game. Alex Ferguson, who incomprehensible slurring and bizarre facial colour suggests bottles in brown paper bags hidden all over Old Trafford, also took the opportunity to have a cheap shot at Southgate. For someome who is widely depicted as mild-mannered and even "naive" according to Ferguson, our dear leader seems to be remarkably unpopular amongst his fellow managers. Quite why they are so offended at their competition being managed by a completely unqualified rookie has never been clear. It is typical of the bad blood that has grown between the two clubs all year, stemming from United's highly controversial 2-1 win at the Riverside before Christmas. Two blatant dives from Ronaldo were rewarded with a penalty and a free kick rather than the two yellows they deserved. The feud was hardly ended by a 2-2 draw in the original, when another unfortuante penalty denied Boro a semi-final place.

With Woodgate, Arca and Viduka restored, we were a much more resilient outfit last night. Mark Schwarzer made two outstanding saves to thwart Wayne Rooney and one superb Jonathan Woodgate tackle denied Alan Smith a certain goal after Ronaldo evaded Andrew Taylor. Defensively, Boro had to work very hard at the start and end of the first half. However, there were signs for optimism. Mark Viduka arrowed a shot just wide and more chances came as we gave as good as we got in the second half. Viduka twisted and turned and set up the lively Stewart Downing but the Boro winger sliced the opportunity wide. Yakubu failed to control a incisive Xavier pass with sufficient deftness to test Tomasz Kuszczak. The home side appeared to be growing frustrated before Ronaldo did what he does best.

A long-ball caught the Boro defence out and Woodgate had to scamper to close on the Portuguese. Befitting a man who seems to believe football matches are decided by tallies of free-kicks and penalties won as opposed to goals scored, Ronaldo charged towards the touchline, waited for the defender to get within a few yards of him and then went down with minimum encouragement. Once again, the referee was conned. Predictably, Ronaldo's media apologists excused him. It is depressing to see such unjust decisions defended with lazy comments such as "there's contact so he has the right to go down" or any sentence prefaced by "in the modern game". Ronaldo is the worst but far from the only example of those players who treat going down as a "right" rather than a natural consequence of a contact sport. That he has decided two games against Boro this season with such simulation is hugely frustrating - Gareth Southgate was not wrong when he suggested that many more people would have loved to have hacked down the No.7 as substitute James Morrison did (about 2 minutes into above clip). Morrison's frustration was no doubt heightened by a referee who was suckered by Ronaldo's diving and Rooney's time-wasting antics in injury time. Quite how the petulant Scouse brothel frequenter evaded a red card while George Boateng was booked for being pushed is hard to comprehend.

Until such diving is widely condemned, it will continue. At the moment, the rewards make the risks worthwhile, particularly when so many seem keen to excuse diving on the player's behalf. The previous clip demonstrates the nauseating sycophancy and apologising for the self-proclaimed 'Big 4' that is prevalent in modern football coverage, as well as the fact Ferguson claps like a retarded child (5:47). Jamie Redknapp is paid an extortionate amount of money to spout bland cliches and did little to disappoint last night. His comment that Ronaldo is a "credit to the Premiership" makes relegation seem appealing. His partner Ray Wilkins is little better. Wilkins was known as 'The Crab' during his playign days, probably due to his fondness for passing sideways, although it may be because he hung around seasides scaring children. Richard Keys appears to be a strategically shaved and particularly unintelligent chimp. At least Paul Merson wasn't there.

The United management responded to the night's events with customary reserve and good grace. Carlos Queiroz reacted angrily to Ronaldo being labelled a cheat by the Boro bench - I wonder how much angrier he would be on the end of similar tactics as those displayed by his player. Boro are far from the only victims of Ronaldo's play-acting and Southgate's comment that Ronaldo was "good at what he does" was commendably reserved. None the less, Ferguson launched another crude rant at Southgate and Boro, blaming a "guilt complex" for "putting a stigma against the boy that he doesn't deserve". This represents remarkable if unsurprising hypocrisy from a man who, before a clash with Inter in 1999, stated that "When an Italian says its pasta, I check under the sauce", warning of "scheming, diving, referee-baiting - the full repertoire". Ambiguous comments about a cheat are a "shame" in Ferguson's mind, yet slandering an entire nation is acceptable. This is the flexibility of an extraordinary manager - to make Mourinho and Chelsea seem almost an appealing alternative is some achievement.

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