Why Maradona is Elvis to Messi’s Beatles and United’s defeat is Peter Drury’s fault

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There are three obvious conclusions to be drawn from the remarkable denouement to the UEFA Champions League quarter finals.

1. Lionel Messi is now as great as Maradona.
2. The thrilling, globally renowned, debt-ridden, Premier League has passed its sell by date.
3. Manchester United’s ageing side needs completely rebuilding.

These are the obvious conclusions. But they are all, to varying degrees, wrong.

Lionel Messi is not as great as Diego because he has not yet won the World Cup almost single-handed, although he has an opportunity to make up for that this summer.

Nor has he powered a side as mediocre as Napoli in the 1980s to the league title.

You can argue about whether Messi has Maradona’s talent or not but their track records, so far, suggest Diego is the greater player. His feats should be a challenge and an inspiration to Messi, much as Elvis’s were for the Beatles.

The Beatles, Elvis and Shane MacGowan pose for a nice snap together

The Premier League is not spent as a European force. If Arsene Wenger, instead of his old disciple Claude Puel, had been drawn against Bordeaux, the Gunners may well have reached the semi-final.

Chelsea had the misfortune to be eaten up by Jose Mourinho’s charisma machine but would probably have beaten CSKA. And United, down to ten men and with their greatest player marginalised, came within 16 minutes of the last four.

There are a lot of ifs, buts and probablys in that last paragraph, but that is the nature of football – especially in the UEFA Champions League. The margin between victory and defeat – unless you’re playing Barcelona – are thinner than a slice of Ryvita.

And it’s quite conceivable that one, two or three Premiership teams might reach the last four in 2010/11. This season should be regarded as a useful corrective, a salutary lesson, rather than, as FIFA president Sepp Blatter might like to think, a crucial tipping point in the evolution of football.

And so to United. They did field an ageing team against Chelsea but as Mark Ogden concedes in the Daily Telegraph, Ferguson has successors to Neville, Giggs and Scholes in place.

As a thoughtful constructor of teams, Sir Alex Ferguson started taking bets on young players years ago. Some – Nani, Darren Gibson, Rafael (despite his dismissal), Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-Sung – look like paying off. Others – Anderson – look more dubious. 

Valencia, Rooney and Nani - the next holy trinity?

Ferguson obviously found defeat an embittering experience judging from his post-match remarks about “typical Germans” but the morning after the game he was probably at Carrington training ground before the first sparrows had passed wind plotting his next moves.

If he compares his side to Pep Guardiola’s, he may feel that he is short of another assured passer in midfield to vary the attack (reducing the reliance on the flanks), a top class holding midfielder (in the prolonged absence of Owen Hargreaves) and an Ibrahimovic-type striker to partner Rooney.

Dimitar Berbatov has the talent to be the latter, but his rapport with Rooney seems poor and he doesn’t, as Alan Hansen pointed out on Match of the Day after the Chelsea game, always make the runs you would expect from a player with his innate gifts.

Yet it is hard now to flourish at the very top if you rely so heavily on one genius. Even if that genius is as gifted, committed and competitive as Rooney.

It’s easy to blame Berbatov, Rooney’s ankle, or Rafael’s youthful rashness for United’s exit. But anyone who watched the game live in England will know that Peter Drury is the real culprit.

The clue - if you’re reading this Peter – is in the name of your job. You are a commentator, not forecaster, or Biblical prophet. So declaring that United are through to the semi-finals, as you did in the first half, was sheer folly, inviting the curse of the commentator to fall.

"I've said I'm sorry, please stop ringing me, Sir Alex..."

As indeed it did. Courtesy of Arjen Robben. The Dutchman had been as menacing as a tea cosy for 74 minutes until that sublime strike.

One final question Peter, did you really, as my scrawled notes indicate, introduce the game saying, “sepia-tinged, history’s bunk, Rooney plays”? If so, does this indicate that the Joycean stream of consciousness has replaced ersatz Churchill as your literary style?

Probably not as later, after Bayern scored, you remarked that “a new sense of unease has enveloped the expectation” at Old Trafford which is just bad press release prose.

Robben’s goal was wondrous and cruel because United’s ten men had created more clear-cut chances than Bayern’s eleven. And the Germans spent a lot of the second half passing in front of United, passes that spoke not of thoughtful probing but of quiet desperation.

Louis van Gaal’s triumph means that three of the four coaches in the semi-finals have honed their craft at Barcelona.

Van Gaal was hurried out of Camp Nou to the usual salute of white handkerchiefs, Mourinho was Bobby Robson’s interpreter at Barca and Pep Guardiola is the living embodiment of the club’s footballing creed.

We wonder if Sir Bob get Jose confused with Carl Cort

That creed was, of course, forged in Amsterdam at the Ajax of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff. Their arrival at Camp Nou in the 1970s transformed Barcelona and the club bears their imprint still.

The semi-final line-up, as Simon Kuper will surely point out if he hasn’t already, is a quiet vindication of the Ajax school of football.

Guardiola’s Barcelona owe a philosophical debt to Ajax, an influence symbolically represented on the pitch by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibra’s old club Inter have been transformed since Mourinho signed up another Ajax graduate Wesley Sneijder. And Bayern coach Van Gaal won this competition with Ajax in 1995.

Mind you, if you’re Italian, none of this matters. In Italy, history isn’t, as Drury suggests, bunk, it’s argued over, scrutinised and constantly invoked as journalists, politicians, footballers and club presidents look for encouraging omens.

In an odd piece, Gazzetta Dello Sport has noted that Inter have now won five Champions League games in a row which they have only done twice before: under Roberto Mancini in 2007/08 (when they lost to Liverpool in the last 16) and Helenio Herrera in 1963/64.

Guess which season Gazzetta is invoking as an omen for the semi-finals? More to read...
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