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.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/28/barca.fans.gi.jpg caption="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.
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.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/17/art.football.manchester.united.celebrate.afp.gi.jpg caption="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.
LONDON, England - People ask me about Cristiano Ronaldo, who this week won European Footballer of the year, all the time. He's Portugese, I'm Portugese, and I have had the pleasure of interviewing him on several occasions.
caption="Cristiano Ronaldo has been named European Footballer of the Year."]
Unfortunately, in England Ronaldo's image has become tainted because the media magnifies his odd rant or dive on the pitch. But, in my book, he is still a decent young man who has kept his feet on the ground, despite all the fame and fortune he has experienced.
I can tell you, every time I have met the 23-year-old star he has been extremely polite and considerate. Of course he has expensive tastes and splurges unnecessarily on luxury items at times - but then when you earn an estimated $150,000 per week, you are entitled.
Furthermore, he is a young man who prizes his family and has helped them in more ways than one ever since becoming wealthy. He has bought houses for his mother and siblings and has tried to help his sister's singing career.
Ronaldo has also given funds to various charities - so it would be fair to say that however much he earns, he has never forgotten the people closest to him or those less fortunate.
It's probably because he was born into a poor family in the island of Madeira in 1985. From a young age, Cristiano soon exhibited phenomenal talent and moved to Lisbon to play for Sporting's famed academy at the age of 12.
He was teased and often ostracized in the Portugese capital because of his strange accent and skinny frame, but we all know he overcame those insecurities to become the best player on the planet.
Ronaldo was unquestionably the best player in the world during the 2007/08 season and deserved the Ballon d'Or award, much like he deserves the FIFA World Player of the Year award, to be decided later this year. Forty-two goals scored plus many more assists to his colleagues made him the most dangerous player on the planet.
The only blip in his season was Portugal's poor Euro 2008 campaign, where he failed to impress, but it was later revealed that he was playing with an ankle injury.
Of course he does have challengers to his crown: sooner or later Lionel Messi will win football's highest accolades. The young Argentine also has aboundless talent and is reaching his peak.
But for now, Ronaldo is king.
Love him or hate him, no-one has ever been able to ignore him, and you won't be able to do it now as Diego Armando Maradona is back. Few would have ever predicted that he would one day become Argentina's national team manager. After all, this is a man who is not exactly the ideal role model – a self-confessed cocaine addict whose self-destructive behaviour nearly killed him back in 2004. But he bounced back. Somehow, he managed to get back on his feet and return to the forefront in the world of football.
"How do you feel? Have you overcome your demons, your mental and physical troubles?" I asked him at a press conference in Glasgow before his managerial debut against Scotland last week. His reply was indicative of someone who has stared death in the face but who is now trying to do his best. "I get up every morning. Thank God, I get up every morning."
It was a calm and collected Maradona I saw before, during and after Argentina's 1-0 win over the Scots at Hampden Park. There were no controversial remarks, no inflamatory comments made about the "hand of God" goal he was asked about by local reporters. I was pleased to see a more mature man, one who probably realizes this is his last big shot at making a mark in world football. As a player, his biggest pride and passion was wearing the blue and white stripes of Argentina, and now he will do everything in his power to serve his beloved nation.
During his first ever game as Argentina manager, there were no signs of the exhuberant and inappropriate behaviour displayed when supporting his favourite club, Boca Juniors, at La Bombonera in Buenos aires. There was no kicking and no shouting. Diego simply followed the match calmly on the bench, getting up only a handful of times to communicate a few instructions to his players.
So is this a new man with a new attitude? For now, it seems so, and I am ready to give him another chance. Even though it's probably the 100th chance he has been given in a turbulent life.
If there is one story that fascinates me in the early season, it's how many unheralded and unfancied clubs are holding their own with some of Europe's big boys, not only in their respective leagues, but also in the Champions League.
When Rubin Kazan clinched the Russian Premier League title, it really made me sit up and take notice, because to be honest, even though I have followed football all my life, I knew nothing about this club.
Rubin secured the Russian crown with three matches to play, finishing ahead of all of the traditional title contenders like Spartak, Dinamo and CSKA Moscow, as well as UEFA Cup champions Zenit St.Petersburg.
The side from Kazan has been built around veterans Sergei Rebrov and Sergei Semak with the well-travelled Savo Milosevic contributing a few key goals. Colombian midfielder Christian Noboa adds some South American flair and some of these names will be lighting up the Champions League next season.
1899 Hoffenheim is hoping to duplicate Rubin's historic feat in Germany.
Who could have predicted that this club, who just three years ago was playing in a regional league, would be topping the Bundesliga ahead of powerhouses such as Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen? With a squad which has no star names, Hoffenheim have defied all the odds by winning eight of their first 11 games.
In Portugal, it's Leixoes grabbing the headlines. The northern club, that was out of Portugal's top flight for over 20 seasons, is now leading the way in front of FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting. Being a native of Portugal and having followed the league all my life, it's a huge surprise to see such a power shift.
Over in the Netherlands, NAC Breda is one of the teams at the top of the Eredivisie. This is a club that has not won a single trophy in its history, yet is battling for the top positions in the league with Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord.
Even in the Premier League, where clubs with small budgets can rarely challenge the traditional fat cats, we can find a cinderella story as Hull City has been able to stay close to the top of the table. Their challenge will surely wane, but manager Phil Brown has masterminded some impressive victories, especially against Arsenal and Tottenham.
Success by the so called "small teams" has also been registered in the top club competition in the world - the Champions League.
Anorthosis Famagusta is the best example of this as the Cypriot side, making its debut this season, has beaten Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, plus, it has even managed to draw against Inter Milan and Werder Bremen.
So what does this all mean? Personally, I would like to believe that it means that although the rich clubs will always have more chances of winning titles, smaller sides with old fashioned qualities like hard work and a team philosophy can also challenge for honors. It makes me believe that money is not all you need to succeed.
What a breath of fresh air! Luiz Felipe Scolari has reinvigorated Premier League coverage for journalists, giving us plenty of material to analyze and the discuss.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/09/25/art.scolari.jpg caption="Scolari's unique sense of humor is making Chelsea's news conferences entertaining once again."]
After the lack of charisma and personality of the previous Chelsea manager Avram Grant, this is a blessing! It would be fair to say there has not been a love affair so intense between the media and a manager since the arrival of Jose Mourinho.
When the Portuguese coach hit the English shore and proclaimed he was "The Special One", he gave the English press plenty of meat to sink their teeth into. Scolari may not see himself as being special, but he certainly is a joy to watch and hear.
I have had the pleasure of attending several Scolari press conferences this season, and they have all featured at least one or two comments that have made me smile or chuckle - the so called "gold nuggets".
There was the first press conference, back in August, when he was asked whether he was going to sign Kaka. His reply? "This is the time for speculation. As well as Kaka, I can sign Joao, Pedro, Ambrosio and also, how about these friends of mine from the Portuguese press? I can sign them too....."
When he addressed the media before his first Champions League game against Bordeaux, Felipao was at his best. The Brazilian manager was asked if he was planning to rest some players, considering Chelsea had a match against Manchester United four days later. No-one could have predicted his reaction: "I am not resting any players because the match against Bordeaux is the only match I am thinking about. You know why? Because I may die before Sunday. So this match now is the most important!" Classic...
His sense of humor has impressed the traditionally tough English journalists, and if the positive results continue to roll in, then we will surely continue to see the lighthearted and joking nature of Big Phil.
What will happen if Chelsea loses? That'll be interesting to see... From my time following him in Portugal, I can tell you that he does have quite a temper! Whatever his reaction, one thing is for sure - there should be plenty of material for us journalists to feast on!