May 30th, 2009
04:26 PM ET

The magic of the FA Cup lives on

WEMBLEY, England - The expectant walk up Wembley Way. A sea of blue. Goosebumps on the neck as "Abide with Me" rings round the stadium. 

The magic of the FA Cup lives on and in prospect a David v Goliath clash which reflects the new realities of football.

Everton, fifth in the Premier League, take on Chelsea, just two places above them, but worlds apart in terms of resources and expectation.

Everton so short of players mid-season that they play for a while without a recognized striker with the invaluable Tim Cahill filling in admirably.

Chelsea, who could afford to leave Didier Drogba sulking on the sidelines until the arrival of Guus Hiddink re-energized the team.

Both he and Nicolas Anelka set to form a formidable partnership up front as Chelsea bid to shrug off the disappointments of losing out so narrowly to Barcelona in the Champions League, no disgrace there on reflection.

Everton chasing a first trophy under David Moyes and so deservedly in the final having beaten Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester United on the way to the Wembley showpiece.

It's not quite second-flight Sunderland upsetting all-conquering but unloved Leeds in 1973, or Wimbledon's Crazy Gang coming out on top against Liverpool, but an Everton victory would be still be against the odds.

The club's chiefs could not be more different. Everton's Bill Kenwright a theatrical impressario with a shrewd eye for a hit, in this case Moyes. Chelsea's Roman Abramovich a Russian billionaire with a ruthless streak who has dispatched Mourinho, Grant and Scolari and temporarily settled on Hiddink.

FA Cup victory for Abramovich would represent a morsel of consolation, for Kenwright it would be a full scale banquet.

But the FA Cup is no respecter of reputations and when the underdogs scored after just 25 seconds through Louis Saha's emphatic volley it was clear that Chelsea would have to work for their victory. 

The noise from the Everton fans reached a crescendo, but before long they were silenced as Florent Malouda crossed for Drogba to head home.

Poor Tony Hibbert was suffering from twisted blood syndrome on the left as he tried to cope with Malouda and was unceremoniously hauled off at half time to be replaced by little-known Dane Lars Jacobsen.

But the Chelsea second half substitution spelt out the gulf in quality in the two squads as German captain Michael Ballack replaced Ghana powerhouse Michael Essien.

Saha might have put the Toffees ahead for the second time but his header was over and soon afterwards Frank Lampard drove the winner past Tim Howard.

Malouda, who I thought should have been man of the match ahead of Ashley Cole, could have finished the game off with two more close efforts, the second possibly crossing the line off the underside of the crossbar (further proof if any needed for TV cameras to decide these close calls).

It was impossible not to feel sympathy for Everton and their fanatical fans, but Hiddink has worked his magic again, inspiring an underperforming big-name squad to step up to the plate.

It was no surprise that the biggest cheer of the afternoon was reserved for the Dutchman as he lifted the trophy.

What price Abramovich making him an offer he can't refuse to stay on at Stamford Bridge next season ?

While for teams like Everton, the FA Cup offers the best hope of silverware, aka Portsmouth in 2008, and that's why it's such a favorite with supporters and the players too, who for all their mega salaries and inflated egos just want to get their hands on a piece of history.

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May 28th, 2009
10:44 AM ET

Move over Mourinho: We have found a new 'special one'

ROME, Italy — CNN — It was billed as a battle between the world’s top two clubs. One lived up to expectations, another did not.

Pedro Pinto rated Xavi as Barcelona's best player in the Champions League final.
Pedro Pinto rated Xavi as Barcelona's best player in the Champions League final.

Barcelona taught Manchester United a lesson at the Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday and were deservedly crowned Kings of Europe. It was an historic victory for the Catalans who became the first Spanish club to win the league, cup and Champions League.

The atmosphere at the Olimpico was electric with both sets of fans singing and cheering throughout the match. It was United who were quickest off the blocks as Cristiano Ronaldo had three shots on target in the opening 10 minutes of play. However, Barcelona were not shaken and they scored with their first opportunity. Great runs from Andres Iniesta and Samuel Eto’o easily beat Patrice Evra and then Edwin Van der Sar to spark wild celebrations at the Barcelona end of the stands.

The goal inspired the Spanish Giants and they started to assert themselves, passing and moving at ease. The first “Oles” were heard after a move that involved  practically every Barcelona player touching the ball.

Ronaldo seemed to be the only one capable of swimming against the current. Every time the FIFA World Player of the Year had possession, you had the feeling something could happen. United’s midfield was clearly struggling to create goal-scoring opportunities though, and that led Sir Alex Ferguson to withdraw the disappointing Anderson and introduce the energetic Carlos Tevez.

United showed intent, but it was still Barcelona who was oozing skill and class. Thierry Henry could and should have scored and second and Xavi hit the post. Ferguson then put on Dimitar Berbatov in a desperate attempt to get an equalizing goal, but the move backfired as their opponents struck a deadly blow. Midfield maestro Xavi with the cross, and Leo Messi, one of the shortest players on the pitch, rose majestically to head the ball past Van Der Sar.

This time, there was no miraculous comeback like there had been at the Camp Nou in 1999. Barcelona held on to become worthy winners. They had the best attack in the competition, scoring 32 goals in 13 matches and they played the best football. Yes, there was an exception – the second leg of the semi-final against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. But fortune favours the brave and they rode their luck to make the title match.

Last but not least, what can we say about Pep Guardiola? In his first ever season as a professional manager, he wins the treble! He also became only the sixth man to win the European Cup as a player and as a manager. What can he do for an encore?

Move over Jose Mourinho, there is a new special one in town.

Hot and Cold

United’s best – Van der Sar. Made six saves and kept the match close thanks to his quick reactions and safe pair of hands.

United’s worst – Anderson. Looked lost in midfield and was chasing shadows in the first half. Ferguson withdrew him at the break.

Barcelona’s best – Xavi. The ease with which the midfield maestro sets the tempo and pulls the string in midfield is phenomenal. Assisted Messi for his goal and hit the post from a free kick.

Barcelona’s worst – Sylvinho. The veteran never really got in the game and never posed a threat on the wing. Was average on a night everyone around him was a step above.

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May 28th, 2009
10:02 AM ET

United's double defeat

ROME, Italy - CNN - There was a double defeat for Manchester United in the Eternal City. Not only did the players metaphorically fail to show up but their fans were literally out sung by Barcelona's noisy, colorful contingent of fans.

Barcelona fans proudly display their club colors in Rome.
Barcelona fans proudly display their club colors in Rome.

One of the great myths of British football was shattered. English fans do not always travel in greater numbers and chant louder than supporters following other sides in Europe. The red and blue kit of Barcelona was the color of the day around Rome on Wednesday and many Manchester United supporters told me they were surprised to be seemingly in the minority.

It is impossible to collect exact figures but reports that Barca returned 7000 tickets from their official allocation seem hard to believe judging from the view inside the Stadio Olimpico.

English fans pride themselves on their witty (and, lets be honest, plain rude) songs but you can not fail to be impressed by the communal "technique" of Barcelona's support – scarves are twirled in unison above heads, producing a vast, rapidly moving, wall of color. And because they favor shrill whistling to singing or shouting they are louder than many of their rivals.

In fairness to the United faithful, their team did not offer a great deal to cheer about come the time of asking.

The English did claim victory on one front, though. While Barcelona fans wandered around Rome bemoaning the lack of beer, United's cunning supporters defied the alcohol ban and, with the help of some compliant bar owners, became champion drinkers for the day – even if their team gave away their Champions of Europe crown at the end of it.

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May 20th, 2009
05:50 PM ET

Inside Man Utd's training camp

MANCHESTER, England – As Manchester United near the end of another remarkable season, Alex Ferguson is in history-writing mood.

Alex Ferguson has set his sights on consecutive Champions League crowns.
Alex Ferguson has set his sights on consecutive Champions League crowns.

Not content with matching the record set by rivals Liverpool of winning the English league title 18 times, a trophy the Red Devils retained successfully in 2009 for the third season in a row, as well as taking the League Cup and the World Club Cup in the same campaign, United are now on the verge of a successful defense of the big one too - the European Cup.

Not that any weight of legacy was evident from the body language of Fergie's charges, as they trained at the club's plush Carrington training complex a week away from the final clash with Barcelona in Rome.

Despite the presence of at least 100 of the world's press in attendance the atmosphere was positively jovial and carefree, with only anxious cameramen concerned about their shots affecting the mood.

Top clubs are rarely easy to access for journalists but United's welcome embrace smacked of a club confident with its present state and rank of players. Cristiano Ronaldo is an awesome sight even in training, Wayne Rooney tricked and smiled his way around the pitch while Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes exude that thoroughbred class that has proved so valuable down the years.

Only Dimitar Berbatov failed to live up to expectations, or vice versa depending on your opinion of the Bulgarian. Slow, soporific and unable to hit a barn door with a banjo all day long he stuck out from the energetic ensemble as a lone loafer.

After training, with filming half complete, player after player then filed past the never ending row of microphones to patiently answer the same recycled questions for an avid gaggle of media bods eager to get their second hit of the day. For starved hacks used to writing essays from monosyllabic scraps, this was a feeding frenzy of unexpected proportions.

Bobby Charlton says it could be the best ever United squad assembled. This is hard to quantify, but on this showing and as someone who saw the same body language from the same players displayed before the semifinal thrashing of Arsenal in London earlier in the month, Barcelona should beware. Fergie has pen in hand ...

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May 17th, 2009
12:12 PM ET

Ferguson looks to new challenges for Man Utd

MANCHESTER,  England - Old Trafford has never cheered a goalless draw so loudly as Manchester United’s match with Arsenal.

I was waiting outside the stadium to talk to fans and film the celebrations –- but the noise was so great that I had to check the match really had finished nil-nil.

The Manchester United Saturday team celebrate their third successive Premier League title.
The Manchester United Saturday team celebrate their third successive Premier League title.

It sounded like Manchester United had scored but 70,000 supporters were simply acclaiming the final whistle. They knew a draw with the London club was enough to clinch the Premier League title for the third year in succession.

I had to wait another 20 minutes before more than a handful of disgruntled Arsenal fans came out. United's followers were still inside, milking the trophy presentation. And why not? Of manager Alex Ferguson's 11 Premier League triumphs, this was only the second to be sealed at the stadium known as “The Theatre of Dreams.”

And never has Old Trafford's nickname seemed less appropriate. Title glory isn't a "dream" anymore. It comes around with more frequency than the local bus service.

Making the elusive process of winning major football trophies so mundane is an astonishing achievement by Ferguson, who is now the most successful manager in British football history.

Before the Arsenal game he played down the fact that United would likely equal Liverpool's record of 18 English championships. But many suspect that Ferguson does care about putting the club's local rivals in their place. And it’s the first thing the fans mentioned as I filmed their reaction when they finally streamed out of the ground.

But United's jubilant followers were also concerned. Striker Carlos Tevez seemed to wave goodbye as he was substituted during the match and many took note of how isolated he looked as the trophy was paraded around the pitch. The fans are convinced the Argentine will leave in the summer - and a lot of them would rather he stayed than Cristiano Ronaldo.

There is still a chance that both Tevez and Ronaldo will go. While that may give United's challengers hope for next season, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal know Ferguson has proved adept at replacing key players – think of Paul McGrath, Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Eric Cantona, Jaap Stam, Peter Schmeichel, David Beckham and Roy Keane.

Ferguson is already looking ahead to new challenges and new records. If United beat Barcelona in Rome a week on Wednesday, they will be the first team to defend their Champions League title since the European Cup was renamed. Ferguson will also match Liverpool’s Bob Paisley as the most successful manager in the competition's history. And United will move within one of Liverpool's mark of five European Cups.

There’s still plenty of legend building left for Ferguson and Manchester United – one man and his club.

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May 12th, 2009
05:29 PM ET

Ronaldo rumors could prove true ... this time

The end of the football season is just around the corner and that means the transfer rumor mill will soon start to turn at a frenetic pace. Front and center of most of the market talk will be one of the most protracted on/off transfer-sagas going, namely Cristiano Ronaldo. Will he go to Real Madrid? Will he stay with Manchester United? Well, let me give my opinion on the matter.

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo soon to be Real bound?

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo soon to be Real bound?

I really don't see Cristiano staying another season at Old Trafford. Manchester United is a fantastic club and the Premier League is probably the best in the world right now, but I feel that my compatriot needs a new challenge. He has won everything there is to win with the Red Devils, especially if this season ends with the retention of the European Cup and league title; he has also grown tired of criticism from English fans and the media, and he would also like to move closer to home.

I remember watching Ronaldo's first ever game for United. It was back in 2003, and he came on as a substitute at Old Trafford in the second half of a league game against Bolton. United were leading 1-0 but struggling to impose their superiority on a stubborn defense. And then, with 29 minutes to go, a skinny 18 year-old Ronaldo came on and with a display of verve, pace and audacity changed the game. The Red Devils went on to win the match easily 4-0.

A lot has changed since then and the last five seasons have featured many goals, titles and awards for the Portuguese winger. by the age of 24 he had won every team and individual accolade as well as establishing himself as the world's premier player. Last year was especially prolific with Manchester United winning the Champions League, Premier League and World Club Cup. Ronaldo then picked up the Golden Boot, Balon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year award to add the icing to an already substantial cake. He's done it all.

Ronaldo has fans all over the world, but there are many skeptics in England who still haven't forgotten his role in Wayne Rooney's sending off at the 2006 World Cup match. There is also a percentage of supporters who criticize the Portuguese international for his demeanor on the field, claiming he is arrogant and often dives in order to gain free-kicks and penalties. I know for a fact that Ronaldo doesn't let his detractors affect his performances on the field, but I also know that he has grown tired of people not appreciating what he has done for the Premier League and English football as a whole. There are only so many times that you can ignore criticism... it gets tiring after a while, and Ronaldo is only human.

Proximity to Portugal is another reason why Ronaldo would be tempted by a move to Spain. He has promised his family that he would eventually live closer to them, and the time may have come to fulfill this vow. Culturally, Madrid would be a better fit for the winger than the often cold and rainy Manchester. He has a great house and a great life and he loves the club, but the weather is nothing short of miserable and he misses some Latin flair in his everyday life.

So if you ask me if he's leaving, I say yes. My only concern if he becomes a Galactico would be about his ability to deal with all the glitz and glamor that comes as part of the package. At Manchester United he has operated under the paternal protection of Alex Ferguson. In Madrid, the stern Scot won't be around to tame him and those around him.

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May 7th, 2009
08:48 AM ET

Barcelona deserve final spot

For all their huffing and puffing, for all their flicks and fakes, it seemed Barcelona were going to leave London as beaten semifinalists. The so-called super team of Europe had apparently met their kryptonite...

And then, in an unexpected twist of fate, the tables suddenly turned. Barca's first shot on target whistled by Petr Cech and into the Chelsea net. It was a knock-out blow just as the final bell was about to ring. The Catalan giants were heading to the final.

Now I can sympathize with Chelsea's players and supporters, since the way in which they were denied a place in Rome was traumatic. I can also sympathize with the fact the Blues should have been awarded at least one penalty on Wednesday night. However, in my mind, the best team won.

There was only one team trying to win this tie. Only one team taking risks. Chelsea were more worried about becoming "the anti-Barca" rather than developing an identity of their own. In the first leg, the way in which they systematically placed 10 and 11 men behind the ball was shocking to me. They were bigger and better than that.

In the second leg the Londoners were slightly more audacious. But still, they spent most of the time sitting back and waiting for a Barcelona mistake rather than going for the killer blow. Even after Eric Abidal was sent off, Chelsea failed to capitalize, failed to rattle their opposition. Didier Drogba could and should have done better with a chance in the second half, however, overall Chelsea were always second best.

A couple of final notes about this tie. Michael Ballack was once again disappointing in midfield. I have no idea why Guus Hiddink has persisted with playing the German international instead of picking Jon Obi Mikel. On the Barcelona side, I was confused by Daniel Alves' attitude in both legs. Childish, aggressive, undisciplined. I think Pep Guardiola needs to find a way to control this fiery Brazilian.

He won't make the final, neither will Abidal as they are both suspended. For now, Barcelona won't worry about that. They are probably still celebrating Wednesday night's dramatic win.

Hey chicos, have a glass of Cava for me. You deserve it.

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May 4th, 2009
04:23 PM ET

Barca's midfield maestros

Barcelona's 6-2 rout of their great rivals Real Madrid in front of their own fans at the Santiago Bernabeu was the crowning act in a season of fantastic attacking football; the perfect riposte to last campaign's capitulation of the title by playing, and more importantly winning, the game in a beautiful way.

 Xavi of Barcelona celebrates after Gerard Pique scored Barcelona's sixth goal against Real Madrid.
Xavi of Barcelona celebrates after Gerard Pique scored Barcelona's sixth goal against Real Madrid.

Key to the outcome of the match were superb performances from the Spanish duo Andres Iniesta and Xavi who confounded and dominated their centre-of-the-park couterparts of Lassana Diarra and Fernando Gago. The supply to the potent attacking triumvarate of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o meant that Real's deficit could have been even heavier. They were lucky.

Messi particularly was given far too much room to operate and it was no surprise that his killer instinct led to him contributing with a brace.  It was a mistake for Ramos to play the sluggish Gabriel Heinze, who struggled with the pace of the Argentine.

The remarkable thing about the Catalan side this season is not just the games they have won this season but the manner in which the victories have been secured.  One hundred goals have been scored in 34 games, a phenomenal return in such a competitive league.  It is also a mark of their goal threat that against Real, despite the league's top goalscorer Samuel Eto'o being quiet, six goals were still scored.

Pep Guardiola too has stepped up to the plate, from his previous role as reserve team manager, fantastically well in his debut season.  The transformation has been unbelievable and the players really seem to respect their former teammate. The goal-fest and awesome form in La Liga all points to a mouth-watering tie against Chelsea in the second-leg of the European Champions League semifinal on Wednesday.

Don't be surprised, however, if Barcelona ease their foot from the pedal against the English Premier League side.  Guus Hiddink's Blues are physically more robust and defensively stronger than Real Madrid and Barca will leave themselves vulnerable to the counter if they attack with such vigour.

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