"It was a great game for the neutral watching," said Sir Alex Ferguson, in what might have been a knowing nod to the many Americans — new or newish to the English game — who had just casually watched Manchester United play out a six-goal draw with Chelsea on Sunday. Had United come up short in their comeback, or had they never mounted one at all, Fergie would probably not be feeling so concerned about the experience of the neutral, American or otherwise. He would have been too busy turning purple, inventing new Scottish profanities, and finalizing plans to sell Jonny Evans to a third-division club in Kazakhstan. But as it happened, all was full of love.
And who am I to disagree with one of the greatest managers to ever point at his watch in an exasperated manner? It might not have been the most elegantly played match, looking like, as Jacob Steinberg astutely pointed out in the Guardian, something of a throwback to the tactics-free early '90s of English football, but it was easily one of the more entertaining and compelling games of the season. Here are some takeaways:
• One of the wonderful things about football is how important a role narrative plays. Manchester United only took a point from Stamford Bridge, but what the draw might have done for them as a team is incalculable. Sir Alex Ferguson, like Jose Mourinho or Kenny Dalglish, or any great manager, is also a great storyteller; an expert in shaping the way people perceive his club. When he wants you to focus on his players, he puts the spotlight on them. When he wants people to overlook their performances, he sheds light on, well, other things:
This draw with Chelsea provides Ferguson, as well as professional and amateur United watchers, with a chance to sing an old, favorite hymn: "You Can Never Count United Out." No matter that the comeback was aided greatly by two debatable penalty calls, Ferguson will use this match as a mythmaking, motivating text from which to inspire his team during the final few months of the season.
• For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Which is to say: That match might have cost Andre Villas-Boas his job. Throwing away a three-goal lead at home could be almost as hazardous to the Chelsea manager's continued employment as any of the other embarrassments he's suffered through in his tough first year at The Bridge (I'm thinking, specifically, of losing, 3-5, to Arsenal and the rumor that he demanded his players celebrate goals with him — which turned out to be false, but was still funny). With Roman Abramovich making impromptu stops at training and rumors of Jose Mourinho returning, the young Portuguese manager has had a tough beat. The only thing that could have made this all worse for Villas-Boas is if Javier Hernandez had run over to him, after heading in United's 84th-minute equalizer, and said, "Don't be mad, UPS is hiring."
• Speaking of "Chicharito," he could, to borrow one of Arsene Wenger's old chestnuts, be "like a new signing" for United. After suffering from various knocks (ankle, head), Hernandez has grabbed two goals in two games. It's hard to relegate a player of his quality to the role of supersub, but he certainly gives Ferguson an incredible option coming off the bench. According to Opta Sports, Hernandez comes alive in the closing minutes of matches, scoring 10 of his 21 Premier League goals in the final 16 minutes of matches.
• Scoring is something Fernando Torres used to do, by the way. Remember that? The Spanish striker has been so bad since arriving at Chelsea that my memories of his 2008-09 Liverpool season feel like they were filmed by Michael Bay. That was a pinpoint cross he sent in for Juan Mata's volley, and it shows that he can be useful doing other things besides scoring goals. But if I were a Chelsea fan, I'd be worried about his body language more than anything. Watch Torres whenever a free kick was about to be taken near the United goal; his head was dropped, like he was almost dreading the possibility of the ball being kicked toward him.
• As entertaining as the football was, as brilliant an advertisement for the game as it was, this match also had a lot of the more annoying and flat-out embarrassing elements of English football. First off: the refereeing. I feel for Howard Webb, who has to deal with what looks like a steady stream of abuse from the first whistle to the last one 90 minutes later. No one man should have to be sworn at that violently by Paul Scholes. And no one man should have all that power. Willingly or not, he became a central character in the action, rather than just a third-party observer/supervisor. United's two second-half penalties definitely had the whiff of "payback for earlier mistakes" from Webb (the Bosingwa-on-Young tackle and the Cahill-on-Welbeck).
And then there were the managers. I can understand Villas-Boas grasping at straws in light of the mounting pressure on his job. But even in a draw (which felt like a victory), Ferguson managed to sound like a sore loser, moaning about linesman Darren Cann and decisions he had made against United in completely separate games.
• The other embarrassment was far more shameful than any referee decision or postmatch griping. Whatever soft spots in my heart I may have for Torres, Villas-Boas, Michael Essien, or Mata, it was hard to stomach the prospect of Chelsea winning, much less drawing with United yesterday, given the behavior of some of their fans. I try to stay away from judging or even really getting too mixed up in the hyperpartisan behavior that goes on inside football grounds, because you just get into a whole who-did-it-first/who-was-more-stomach-churningly offensive back and forth. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Rio Ferdinand was booed and abused throughout the match. Why? Because Rio Ferdinand is the brother (and vocal defender) of Anton Ferdinand, the Queens Park Rangers center back who was, allegedly, racially abused by Chelsea and England national team captain John Terry. Chelsea "fans" let Ferdinand have it every time he was involved with the game, ridiculing his short-lived England captaincy and much worse. To his credit, Ferdinand, who has not shied away from speaking his mind about the Terry case, gave it back to the Chelsea fans, letting them know they spurred him on during the game: "I got booed by the CFC fans today — well done guys. Thanks for inspiring me and the lads! That's like fuel to me!"
• Ah, England's bravest, John Terry. The media-savvy defender, who was out with an injury, could not have been ignorant to the fact that television cameras would no doubt capture him passionately embracing his teammate Ramires following the Daniel Sturridge/Jonny Evans goal. So he can't possibly be racist then, right?
Boring, Boring Arsenal
Only children and sore losers and only children who are sore losers (bingo!) know this trick well: You're playing FIFA and you get smoked by the computer, and to take out your revenge on the universe you switch the setting back to "Amateur" to give your ego and stats a boost. That's basically what Arsenal got to do against Blackburn on Saturday.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was brilliant, Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie were executing cutbacks like they were Pires and Henry (OK, not quite that good), and having Bacary Sagna back in the side clearly gave the Gunners some horizontal balance and defensive structure that they had been sorely lacking. But come on, playing Blackburn was pretty much like setting the computer on "Amateur." Even before Gael Givet went off with a red card, this match had "demolition site" written all over it. You could tell that when Scott Dann practically gave Francis Coquelin a mulligan on his cross, which led to the pass to Walcott, which led to van Persie's first goal.
One interesting note, personnel-wise and tactically, for the Gunners was the use of Tomas Rosicky as part of Arsenal's midfield three. He was assuming the role usually handled by Aaron Ramsey, who has looked rather gassed as of late. Rosicky worked very well with Mikel Arteta and Alex Song, and his long, low pass to Theo Walcott to set up Oxlade-Chamberlain's second was the kind of safe cracker that we used to see semiregularly from Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. The club has a few key cup games (Champions League and FA Cup) coming up. It will be interesting to see if Ramsey returns to the starting lineup or if Wenger sticks with the squad that brought him seven goals.
Last thing on this match: I know the Gunners have been bad, it was mighty cold in London over the weekend, and watching Blackburn play football is a bit like watching drivers in Los Angeles negotiate a bit of rain, but really, the Emirates looked disturbingly Middlesbrough-esque in its attendance. Are you not entertained? No, I guess if I had watched Arsenal-Bolton, I wouldn't be either.
A Tale of Two Cisses
Two January signings, one a new arrival to the Premier League, one a veteran making his return to the English game, both with very different weeks. Am I writing about them because I thought of this subheadline? You bet your signing bonus I am.
Djibril Cisse, a collector of horrifying leg breaks and equally horrifying facial hair, made his first start for QPR Saturday against Wolves, after scoring last week in his first appearance for the club. Cisse is part of a midseason makeover for the relegation-threatened West London team, joining the club in the January window along with Bobby Zamora and Taye Taiwo.
There are plenty of exceptions, but usually it takes some time for new players to get used to the pace of the league or the patterns of play in their new teammates. But Taiwo, Cisse, and Zamora were involved in a "WHAT WAS THAT" moment in the early second half that suggested they had been playing together since childhood.
Taiwo passed to Adel Taarabt, who took a break from talking up his inevitable move to PSG in the British tabloids long enough to make an outside-of-the-foot pass outside the boot pass to Cisse that would be worth any transfer fee Paris wanted to pay for him. Cisse hit a wedge shot into the box for Shaun Wright-Phillips, who, in turn, backheeled a pass to Zamora, who slammed a chance past the Wolves keeper.
Unfortunately for Djibril, the game would end on a sour note when he went after Roger Johnson after being dangerously tackled by the Wolves defender. If you want to know why he reacted so badly, go to YouTube and search "Djibril Cisse leg break." You'll be sad you did!
Up in the Northeast of England, another Cisse, Papiss Demba Cisse (no relation, in case it needs to be said), was making his own debut for Newcastle. Cisse, who was brought over to England from Germany in the January window, is partnering with his Senegal national teammate Demba Ba. Ba has been one of the success stories of the season, and whatever magic recipe he has for scoring, he's passed it along to his countryman.
Cisse's winner (Goal of the Week, below) was a hero-making shot in front of a Newcastle crowd that loves to create and celebrate heroes. Everbody's got their own preferences and prejudices when it comes to supporting a football team, but despite my own, I'm pulling for Newcastle in a big way. No matter what adversity they've faced, be it in their front office or with injuries crippling their defense, they've been entertaining as hell this year. Seeing the club qualify for Champions League play would restore my faith in football, if not humanity.
Goal of the Week: Papiss Demba Cisse, Newcastle
Here's Newcastle boss Alan Pardew on his new striker: "If you are going to wear that jersey [Alan Shearer's no. 9] at Newcastle, you need a good start, and he [Cisse] has had that. It was boys' annual stuff, that goal, but his all-round performance, any Newcastle fan would have been nudging their mates and saying, 'We have got a good 'un here, he looks all right.'"
Quote of the Week: Emmanuel Frimpong, Arsenal
The Arsenal player, on loan to Wolves, will miss the rest of the season with another knee injury. We've lost a fine player, incredible hothead, and great character for the next few months. Anyone who has read this column knows Frimpong is basically my spirit animal. At least he hasn't lost his sense of humor:
"I also wanna ask you to pray for my cruciate injury as I will be taking all the punishment it deserves as he or she have been very naughty."