The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Manchester United play Inter in the official live match report of the twilight of the gods. The last time The Run of Play ran a live blog, it caused a riot in the Russian underworld and had to be completed by the state-appointed embalmer of Vladimir Lenin’s corpse. I do not toy with these forces often or lightly. But Liverpool’s cosmic win over Real Madrid, and then Bayern’s rusty-hook disembowelling of Sporting, showed that there are currents raging through the world this week that cannot be ignored. And Man Utd-Inter was set to be terrifying already. Follow the mayhem as it happens…after the jump.
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The Festival Is Announced: Manchester United-Inter: we’re live-blogging it. Glowing hot lava-like action begins around 7:15 GMT, 3:15 US Eastern time.
This is real. Unimaginable waves of heat will punish the shuddering earth. Drop by and bathe in the incandescence.
How This Live Blog Is Different: If this were the Guardian, I would declare that this was the Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony of live match reports, then you would all send in emails using Flaubert’s other minor works to quibble with that assessment, and I would run your emails and pretend to be alarmed by your obsessive erudition. It would be wonderful. We would all have some laughs. But you and I will never have those laughs, because this is actually the Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony of live match reports. Grim, terrible vistas await us. Cosmic visions are coming; demons are howling through the rent seam of the world. By the end of this game, being an anchorite will feel like an understatement.
Manchester United: Van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Berbatov, Rooney.
Subs: Evans, Fletcher, Foster, Gibson, Tevez, Park, Anderson
Inter: Julio Cesar; Maicon, Cordoba, Samuel, Santon; Cambiasso, Vieira, Zanetti, Stankovic; Ibrahimovic, Balotelli.
Subs: Toldo, Maxwell, Figo, Adriano, Cruz, Rivas, Muntari.
Reading the Shapes in the Spumes of Molten Rock: It would be madness to pretend that Inter’s injury problems won’t play a role. The Italian champions arrive at Old Trafford with their defense laid utterly to waste, while for Man Utd, both Ferdinand and Vidic are healthy and ready to play. United’s lineup looks fluid and aggressive—though it’s strange to see Park missing from a big European match—while Inter look dense and restrained. I’m not sure whether they’re planning to collapse on the middle of the pitch and play for penalties or simply attack with patience, but either way, if Ibrahimovic is ever going to find his core of murder and burn his name into a Champions League game, this would be a good night to do it.
Let’s Set the Table:
Inter Aren’t Scared: I’m absolutely horrified at this point, but Inter are snarling with defiance. Derek Rae has just told the audience huddled around ESPN that something like 28 of Inter’s league goals have come away from the San Siro. An astonishing factoid, apparently.
The Clouds Gather, the Seraphim Sing: We’re through the Champions League anthem. It’s a strange anthem. Possessing a certain spectral grandeur that’s undeniably appropriate for an occasion on which the world might atomize into an intersteller thread of smoke, it’s nevertheless about sixteen seconds long. Constructed for the demands of the Heineken commercial, I guess.
1: We are underway. Inter give the ball up to Ronaldo, who commits vicious stepovers instantly, as if to issue the proverbial statement of intent.
3: Three minutes into the match, Manchester United have just won their second corner. Giggs floats in a cloudy ball…
GOAL – Man Utd!! Already! Man Utd 1 – 0 Inter (Vidic 4) …and a flying, tipsy-topsy, unmarked Vidic heads it easily into the net!
4: The defending from Inter was disturbed and lonely, like a child hiding in the lunchroom after school. No surprise given the holes ripped out of their team sheet at the moment, but as A. points out in the comments, you would have expected better from Vieira.
7: Inter briefly win the ball in the Man Utd box, but the defense caves on Ibrahimovic and the attack is smothered. In other words, this game is playing like a contest between a team with a defense and a team with a disturbed, lonely child hiding in the lunchroom after school.
10: Choruses of “sit down Mourinho” pour down like boiling oil from the stands at Old Trafford. In a rare show of restraint, ESPN eschews the obvious reaction shot.
11: Inter win a free kick in a semi-dangerous position, but Balotelli hits the ball well ahead of the nervous attackers. A routine catch for van der Sar.
13: United are controlling the ball in midfield. Carrick, Evra, and Scholes exchange simple passes as a literally defenseless Inter experience medieval visions of torment.
14: Another Balotelli free kick sails past Patrick Vieira. Another easy catch for van der Sar. This is how you accumulate clean-sheet records, you know.
16: Rooney pings a ball to Berbatov on the edge of the box, but Berbatov fails to connect and sends the ball right to Julio Cesar. Almost immediately, Cambiasso loses the ball back into the box, but Ronaldo swings wildly on the volley and sends it a thousand feet in the air. Like a volcanic eruption, almost.
18: Without Park to harry him, Maicon is showing some signs of being in this match. He knocks a medium-length ball for Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box, but the striker goes down in a heap.
20: Giggs breaks through the Inter non-defense and tries to set something up with Evra, but a scramble ensues with Stankovic and all clarity flees from the moment. The Man Utd players are screaming for handball, and the replays show that they may have had a case.
21: Maicon once again flies down the right and tries to play in Stankovic, who loses control, goes skidding along the pitch, and forcibly enters the advertising hoardings. He cradles his elbow for a moment, but seems to be all right.
24: Inter win a corner. Balotelli curls a crazy helix into the box, but the whistle blows before the Inter players can even fail to reach it. We’re going the other way.
25: This isn’t a beautiful match so far, but there’s a flailing tension in the play that’s not making it any less demonic. Yet another Inter attack goes screaming down the right, this time through Stankovic, but Man Utd’s defensive wall prevents the pass from reaching the box.
27: The play is being conducted in the spirit of a desolate, panicky comedy, like strong gallows humor on the edge of eternal doom.
29: INTER GO CLOSE! They win a free kick, which Maicon takes (and about time, after all Balotelli’s mis-hits). It falls for Ibrahimovic, who smacks the header squarely into the ground, from where it rebounds to dent the woodwork. It has to be said that Inter, who will be in a winning position if they can level the match, are showing some signs of life. Man Utd are starting to look a bit listless, and apart from the first ten minutes of the second half at the San Siro, this is Inter’s best sustained spell in this tie.
33: Inter, who are now decidedly in control of the match, win another free kick, about 40 yards out on the left. Balotelli takes it, and fails to diverge from precedent, alas. O’Shea heads it away.
34: Ryan Giggs, so rampant that he looks like a heraldic device, goes absolutely tearing down the middle the pitch, right through the congregation of vapors currently serving as Inter’s back line. He fires a ball to Rooney on the right, but Santon vaguely and barely manages to knock it out of play.
37: United thread a scrumptious sequence of passes through the thirty horizontal yards of oxygen lined up in place of Inter’s centerbacks. O’Shea wins the ball directly in front of the goal, but misses the open maw and somehow finds the arms of the fallen Julio Cesar.
40: On the other end, Inter throw together two decent counterattacks and waste them both. Balotelli finally controls the ball well enough to complete an eager pass for Ibrahimovic, but the big Swede gets flustered and whaps it left of the post.
41: Incidentally, has there ever been a less appropriate description than “the big Swede” for Ibrahimovic? Especially given that he is, you know, actually a big Swede?
42: Not much in the way of attractive football from either side, Man Utd’s one O’Shea-bungled piece of delectation excepted. But there’s certainly a sense that anything could happen here.
44: Maicon thuds a humongous thirty-yard shot directly at van der Sar, who coolly handles it. He doesn’t even look concussed. Crash test dummies all across Europe are wincing in sympathy regardless.
Halftime: We pause for the break and what I can only assume will be an agitated pair of team talks. Manchester United have the lead and have dominated the match for short stretches, but looked increasingly vulnerable as the half wore on. Inter are just one goal from staring into the eyes of a victory, but the whole team seems existentially frightened by the prospect, to the point that they may have gone to join the defense in the lunchroom. Where they’re hiding, incidentally, because the debate teacher is a tyrant and the A/V closet is locked, except on Thursdays, when the janitor has to leave it open for Miss Kracinski’s film class, but this is Wednesday, after all, and if you go into the lunch lady’s office the bullies won’t even think to look.
Halftime II: One name that’s barely flitted across the consciousness of this match: Cristiano Ronaldo. He had one largely flukey attempt at goal, which he stuffed, and otherwise he’s been so thoroughly contained that I haven’t even ceremonially stopped to wonder about him. Is that to Santon’s credit, or are their higher forms of walking death in play?
Thought for Halftime: A football match is made of innumerable interrelated incidents, thousands of tiny particles bound together by mysterious forces and creating unfathomable structures within one localized gravity orb. It’s kind of like this, I’m saying:
46: And we’re off. Muntari replaces Vieira, who let in Vidic for the goal and then continued to falter, almost as if the collective Man Utd-fan belief that he was afraid of Roy Keane all those years ago managed to seep into his brain and actually frighten him. That, or, you know, he’s just really, really old.
47: Inter are pushing forward. Stankovic goes down in the box, and dutifully waves his arm to request the penalty, but the act has an air of reciting multiplication tables and fails to convince the referee.
49: Goal – Man Utd! Man Utd 2 – 0 Inter (Ronaldo 49) …and there’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who apparently read my dismissive description on his Blackberry in the changing room and came out determined to prove me wrong. Giggs controls the ball beatifully as he slides along the edge of the box, then finds Rooney on the left. Rooney sends in a mid-tempo, mid-height cross, to which Ronaldo applies his forehead, unhindered by the spirit forms of the dead Jedis currently filling in for the Internazionale defense.
51: Ronaldo is felled on the sideline, and as he sits on his knees collecting himself, Balloteli just starts furiously speaking to him. Ronaldo speaks back incredulously, then a little angrily, and Balloteli’s speaking gets even more scolding and intense. That was some take-no-prisoners speaking. Two seconds later, Samuel is booked for a hard foul on Ronaldo.
54: Tommy Smyth is rattling off the names of ten thousand Northern Ireland players who once did time with Manchester United. I wish I understood why. The players are shooting long balls back and forth and intermittenly chest-bumping each other, giving the match the feel of a late-1970s video Pong game troubled by an improbable threat of violence.
55: I’m not saying the match is over, but Samuel’s one-man vengeance march through the entire United team (first Ronaldo, then Scholes) is the most persuasively menacing thing going on for Inter at the moment. Ibrahimovic wins the ball by the goal line, but his glassy cross is plucked down by van der Sar before Muntari can reach it. Everyone looks a little relieved.
57: NEVERTHELESS, THERE ARE UNHOLY FORCES AT WORK TONIGHT. I will not back down from this. Otherwise the entire premise of this live blog starts to look a little… In the meantime, Stankovic is withdrawn for Adriano.
59: Who instantly gets on the meaningful end of a wicked ball from Cambiasso, and, the entire Man Utd defense beaten, knocks the ball off the post. It’s 2-2, now, if wood were a scoring substance.
60: At the other end, Rooney challenges Julio Cesar, who beats the ball down but fails to control it. A crab-walking Rooney, or possibly just physics, scrambles it to Berbatov, who flicks it at the empty net…only to be stopped by Julio Cesar, whose reflexes don’t seem to be in any way impaired by his being flat on his back. 3-0 was very near, however.
64: Nothing in particular is happening, but I have the idea that if I go five minutes between updates, no one will believe that horrid chambers in the center of the Earth are emptying their unspeakable contents into the atmos… There! Rooney kicks at long shot at Julio Cesar, who politely bothers to save it.
65: Balotelli is still taking Inter’s corners. And still misplacing them.
66: Sepp Blatter is in the stands tonight! Apparently the presence of his elfin face is meant to telegraph the reassuring idea that he doesn’t hate English football all the way down to the bottoms of the souls of his shoes. I can only see him from the sternum up, of course, but he looks like a cross between an acorn and somebody’s uncle.
67: And by “somebody’s,” I of course mean, “Harry Potter’s.”
69: The 36-year-old Luis Figo replaces the 18-year-old Balotelli for Inter. For Man Utd, the 20-year-old Anderson replaces the 34-year-old Paul Scholes. All kinds of mathematical averages just went all fluttery and different.
70: Rooney, who’s increasingly taking it upon himself to play in his preferred position of left back, hews down the surging Maicon and is booked for his trouble. Figo takes the free kick on the right side of the box. It actually looks momentarily dangerous as van der Sar fails to catch it, but eight or nine extremely tall Man Utd defenders leap simultaneously to head it away.
73: Muntari finds Ibrahimovic about one centimeter away from the goal, but he’s in a crowd and is forced to shoot with his chin. No, his chin does not score.
75: Ibrahimovic lines in a shot from a cruelly acute angle, but Derek Rae’s quick cascade of words—“shiver,” “trepidation,” “wayward”—roughly tells the story of its fate.
77: The game feels intense but insubstantial at the moment, like a war of paper dinosaurs.
79: Man Utd are patient and resolute without, apart from Giggs, looking particularly committed, while Inter look psychologically incapable of finding the frenzied gear they need to score two goals in the last 10 minutes. Ibrahimovic hasn’t been quite as bad as everyone will say he was tomorrow, but he certainly hasn’t looked like the god rising from the rock, either.
81: The lesson may just be that winning at Old Trafford with a defense made out of holograms is never going to be easy.
84: Rooney is taken off for Park, as if Ferguson is hoping to leave Mourinho with a few ankle injuries as a parting gift.
85: A driving Ronaldo free kick is saved by Julio Cesar, who again seems to have been the product of an experiment designed to fuse the identities of a rubber band and a fortress. The cumulative score here would look Bayern/Sporting-esque if it weren’t for him.
88: Ibrahimovic tries something again, it doesn’t go anywhere, I don’t know. I’m starting to get depressed thinking about the media reaction to all this. In the meantime, the Man Utd midfield are quietly hoarding possession against an Inter team that apparently doesn’t think closing down aggressively is the strategy to deploy when losing 2-0 with two minutes left in a knockout game.
89: “He can’t handle the physical English game!” “He wilts on big occasions!” Etc. Etc. I wish I had a more substantive rebuttal, but for the moment, try: “So what! Shut up!”
FULL TIME: A manful hug between Ferguson and Mourinho, who proceed separately in the direction of weird traditions involving wine. Ronaldo wastes no time peeling down to a state of sculpted seminudity, then moves in the direction of photographers without looking like he’s moving in the direction of photographers. (“I don’t know…fly casual.”) Ibrahimovic swaps jerseys with someone or other, but the big Swede looks recessive and shell-shocked. I do not see one damn demon anywhere on that pitch.
FULL TIME II: This to tide you over till the quaterfinals:
FULL TIME III: In the end, really, it wasn’t a match that called for just acute reams of analysis. Everyone knew that Manchester United were better than Inter, Manchester United were better than Inter, Manchester United were playing at home, and Manchester United had many fewer injury problems than Inter. It would be a mistake to read this game as a categorical assessment of the relative strengths of the Premier League and Serie A (though see if that stops anyone), but it’s past time to ask some questions about the meaning of this United team’s dominance. (How many games does this make without a loss?) They make every 2-0 look so rote, as if they’re just calmly conjugating verbs while the other team is trying to repair the hull of a spaceship. You never think, “My God, they look unbeatable” the way you sometimes do with Barcelona, but they always win 2-0 and never seem to be in any particular danger. Have they gotten mechanical and boring, or have I just not found the right way to appreciate them?
FULL TIME IV: I’ll try to say something more about that soon. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and sorry I wasn’t able to respond to more of your comments. By which I mean, obviously, that echoing waves of doom are crashing against the cliffs and dropping the eagles from the skies. See you at the next supernova.
by Brian Phillips · March 11, 2009