Monday, April 23, 2007

Le Grande Vittoria

It came only four days later, but for Inter Milan fans, Sunday’s Serie A title triumph with a 2-1 win away to Siena and Roma’s 2-1 away loss to Atalanta felt like an eternity in the making. After Inter blew a chance to wrap up the title with a 3-1 loss on Wednesday at home to second-place Roma, Sunday’s title victory looked more uncertain. The Nerazzurri hadn’t won since the beginning of the month with a 2-0 win at home to Parma, conceding seven points in the standings to a Roma team that refused to give up. In the end, Roma’s deficit was too much to make up, as on April 1 they stood 20 points behind and although they narrowed the gap to 13, the mountain proved too hard to climb.

Watching the game, no one would have guessed that Inter would have come out on top. Siena were done in more by their own atrocious passing and finishing abilities, as for most of the game Inter failed to find much rhythm. Both of their goals were scored by Marco Materazzi, the flamboyant defender better known as the head-butt victim from Zinedine Zidane at last year’s World Cup, one from a scrambled corner kick and the other from the penalty spot. There may be those who would say that Siena goalkeeper Alex Manninger’s foul on Julio Ricardo Cruz- a body-check, really- might not have been really a foul, but from the referee’s viewpoint it certainly looked like a hit Don Cherry would be proud of. However, unlike Materazzi’s first-half strike on eighteen minutes that Siena (and ex-Lazio) defender Paolo Negro cancelled out three minutes later, Siena could not find a reply despite creating ample chances. The Inter defence were not at their best and neither was their midfield, but the talent gulf was too much for Siena to overcome, as many of their final balls were late or scuffed. It was a nervous ending, but in the end, Inter got the win.

Inter would have to wait five minutes before Roma’s game against Atalanta finished. Two first-half goals by Cristiano Doni and Riccardo Zampagna put Roma down 2-0, and Luca Ariatti let a tap in squeak by his feet early in the second half that would have made it 3-0. Roma’s Simone Perrotta finished off a rebound some fourteen minutes later at 64 minutes that reduced the gap to 2-1, but Atalanta’s defence would hold its own and Roma would create few chances towards the end. The final score would be 2-1, confirming Inter’s fifteenth title in their history and the first on the field since 1989.

To be fair, this won’t be a season many except Inter Milan fans will want to remember. Already scarred coming off the heels of Calciopoli that saw Juventus dropped to Serie B, Milan handed an eight-point deficit, Reggina 11, Fiorentina 15 and Lazio three, Serie A was rocked by another unfortunate incident as rioting cost the life of Filippo Raciti in early February following Palermo’s 2-1 win over Sicilian rivals Catania. Raciti’s death forced the Italian government to pass harsh new measures aimed at curbing soccer violence, including tighter security at games, preventative arrests for suspected hooligans, and bans on block sales to away supporters. While the rest of the season has so far been problem-free, Raciti’s death cast a grey shadow onto a season many Italians had hoped would be remembered for its football. Thus, one might have hoped for a genuine title race- like what is happening in England between Manchester United and Chelsea- to create a little bit of excitement in the season, but Inter had wrapped up the title effectively months ago, as they moved to 14 points clear of Roma with a 1-0 win at home to Cagliari and a 1-0 Roma loss at Empoli on February 17.

Of course, those snarling that Inter had won it too easily just might have missed some fabulous soccer. When Inter were on their game, they moved the ball with precision and defended with confidence, being a joy to watch whenever they took the field. This may be a team stocked with talent- from defenders such as Materazzi and Fabio Grosso, the composed play of wingback captain Javier Zanetti, midfield dynamos such as Patrick Vieira and Estaban Cambiasso and winger Luis Figo to the deft striking of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Hernan Crespo- but they may be the only team- aside from Lazio- that plays the most as a collective unit, being a team of players that knows their roles and sticks to them. Any holes the team may have- particularly in midfield and on defence- got covered up in Inter’s great on-field co-ordination. This wasn’t a team that was simply lucky- they were a team that definitely played as the class of Italy, and thus their scudetto was well deserved. There are those who say that the title doesn’t count because Juventus was in Serie B and Milan started with an eight-point penalty, but Milan didn’t reach zero until their fifth game, getting dubious draws against Sampdoria and Siena and even dropping another early encounter with Atalanta (although they may be stronger than many might have predicted). Inter, let us also not forget, was once second behind Palermo and hit only 10 points after five games- an on-form Milan could have had a three point deficit at that stage. Finally, taking away the point deductions still doesn’t give anyone enough points to have prevented Inter’s title-clinching performance this weekend. Thus, while Inter may have had “a head start”, their opponents were the ones who didn’t take advantage of their opportunities, allowing Inter to finish them off one by one.

The only thing that is left is the Coppa Italia against Roma in May, but for Inter fans, that prize will just be a bonus. The real prize was won this weekend, capping off a season that may never be repeated in Italy. Will this be another period of Inter domination not seen since Le Grande Inter? Time may tell, but this year’s team certainly played like it.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Brad May solves the fighting debate

My initial reaction to the news of Anaheim Duck forward Brad May’s sucker punch to Minnesota Wild rearguard Kim Johnsson was like every other hockey fan’s- disgust, it being a graceless act made even more gutless by the fact Johnsson isn’t known for committing dirty acts himself. As a result of his actions- occurring late in Anaheim’s 4-1 loss to Minnesota that averted a Duck sweep of the Wild- May was suspended by the National Hockey League for three games- the equivalent of nine in the regular season- although Wild fans may feel like it’s not enough considering an important part of their defence may be shelved for what is their most important game of the season in Game 5. May’s hit also called to mind when Tie Domi elbowed Scott Niedermayer in the 2001 Eastern Conference Semi-finals, and that hit cost Domi the rest of the playoffs, and although Domi’s hit was far more serious, the resulting injury is not- both Johnsson and Niedermayer were concussed as a result of their actions, so one feels that May might have gotten off lucky.

Then, after a minute, the thought occurred to me- “wait a minute, wasn’t Derek Boogaard playing?” Not only that, it’s not like Boogaard wasn’t noticed, as the Duck commentators couldn’t stop talking about how he was getting away with murder. Never mind their biases- if the Duck commentators dislike what Boogaard is doing, you can be certain so too is Duck coach Randy Carlyle. Boogaard, you may recall, is the Wild’s enforcer, meant to “protect” his team’s star players by acting as a deterrent to any would-be cheap-shot artists; and, at 6’7”, 270lbs., Boogaard is as threatening as they come. However, not even his presence was enough to deter May from taking a shot at Johnsson, one of the Wild’s star players, meaning that either Boogaard didn’t do his job correctly or May couldn’t care less.

Why is this important? Well, this season NHL vice-president Colin Campbell ignited a maelstrom when he posited the question about whether or not fighting belonged in the NHL. He asked this after Colton Orr knocked Todd Fedoruk unconscious in a fight, but the debate had been raging for weeks prior to that. The league had just witnessed Cam Janssen’s hit on Tomas Kaberle that prompted Toronto Star writer Damien Cox to write a piece denigrating fighting, because Janssen and his ilk are the main culprits of dirty hits, as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins acquire George Laraque and Gary Roberts to provide “protection” for Sidney Crosby weeks after he was assaulted in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. However, up to this point, none of those aforementioned incidents occurred when any of those players had a “tough guy” to “answer to” because, as the claim goes, when there’s an enforcer to answer to, players wouldn’t run around taking cheap shots at opponents because then they’d have “someone to answer to” in a fight.

However, after May did what he did, it became clearly obvious that this line of argument became nonsensical rather quickly. Here was a situation where fighting proponents could finally show their adversaries that enforcers do, in fact, protect the star players, and the experiment failed tremendously. Since Boogaard was dressed- and playing- in theory, May wouldn’t have taken a shot at Johnsson, because Boogaard was supposed to protect him. As stated before, it’s not like no one noticed Boogaard on the ice, and Boogaard did play following May’s hit- so despite the policeman being on patrol, a criminal act still occurred.

Now, I had always believed that the idea of the enforcer was a ludicrous idea anyway- intimidation is only as strong as the intimidator, so as long as there’s an even playing field in terms of enforcers, then the system works. However, have just one guy who’s over and above the other enforcers- or simply doesn’t care that enforcers are there- and the system fails. The latter is precisely what happened in Game 4- May knew Boogaard was present, but he didn’t care. Perhaps he thought he could also take Boogaard in a fight- although considering that Boogaard is half a foot and 50 pounds heavier May probably didn’t stand a chance. Regardless, the fact still remains that Boogaard simply wasn’t intimidating enough.

Of course, no doubt May’s actions are going to be forgotten in the coming weeks, stowed away as yet another ugly incident in a sport that’s full of them- from Eddie Shore’s hit on Ace Bailey to Rick Jodzio’s hit on Marc Tardif to Todd Bertuzzi’s hit on Steve Moore (which, by the way, was a retaliatory hit for Moore’s hit on Markus Naslund). Yet there may be the faint hope that hockey might see what May does and view it as the last straw and finally clean up the sport, which receives way too much negative attention when it receives any attention in the first place. However that would require a change in hockey thinking, which is not likely to happen with hockey people believing that “fighting draws fans” (never mind that gymnastics outdraws the NHL); but then again, how much lower do ratings have to fall and how much higher do negative feelings have to rise before hockey people come to their senses? Hopefully it will come soon- because hockey can’t afford to fall any further.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Nightmare At San Siro

Inter Milan picked the wrong time to have a bad month.

After securing a 20-point cushion atop the Serie A standings with a decisive 2-0 win over reeling Parma on April 1, Inter has seen their lead cut to 13 after a shocking 3-1 loss to Roma that saw two goals by Francesco Totti and Marco Cassetti conceded in the dying minutes after Marco Materazzi cancelled out Simone Perrotta’s opener after a dubious penalty award. The loss means that Inter now need six points in their last six games to secure their first scudetto on the field since 1989, which can come with a victory at Siena and a Roma loss at Atalanta on Sunday (widening the gap six more points and out of Roma’s reach) or two straight wins at Siena and at home to Empoli. With both teams comfortably where they are- Empoli are in seventh and seven points up on Udinese, while Siena are five points out of the relegation zone- it may sound like the tonic Inter need to get back on track, but the team hasn’t won since beating Parma, and after seeing two very winnable games against Reggina and Palermo slip through their fingers, no result seems assured anymore.

Now, it may still be well too early for Inter manager Roberto Mancini to press the panic button, but if I were him, I’d be close to pressing it. It is true that Inter were still close to the top of their game against Roma and have been through the last three games, but the fact that Inter failed to put away any of those opponents after putting away everyone else has to be disconcerting. This was the year where finally Inter were able to perform to their expectations after years of coming up short, but with the prize firmly in sight, Inter have let their gaze slip a little.

Perhaps Inter’s loss was a blessing in disguise for the team. With the team winning, its own flaws were well-hidden, as no one would have dared to tinker with a successful formula. However, it’s now plainly evident that the team is thin on defence and in midfield, with Olivier Dacourt and Ivan Cordoba having lost a lot of their steps since their primes, Nicholas Burdisso being largely ineffective in the back and Luis Figo being wildly inconsistent. The team has an incredible amount of selection up front, boasting four world-class strikers in Julio Cruz, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hernan Crespo and Adriano, but after their first-choice midfielders and defence, Inter’s lineup is thin. It’s also aging- the youngest of the bunch are Ibrahimovic and Adriano at 26, and while the experience has paid off earlier in the year, one wonders if the team is starting to run out of gas. It’s time now for the older teammates to show their leadership and display the determination that’s been lacking in recent games, because if Inter are to win their championship, they need to rediscover that- and soon.

Of course, this isn’t to say that Roma were lucky- well, they probably were given how late their winning goals were scored. This is a team that defied the odds all season long, boasting a lineup that’s probably no better than mid-table in Serie A and staying in the title chase despite having the odds stacked heavily against them. The result against Inter may have been lucky, but it’s a result that is indicative of how well they have played this season (the Champions’ League result notwithstanding). They really are a team to root for; a team that shows giants like Inter, Milan and Juventus that money alone won’t win a championship. They may be short on talent, but they’re not short on determination, and if Inter are not careful, that could allow them to sneak for the title. The odds are still heavily stacked against them, but at least they’re showing that they won’t quit.

Now it’s time for Inter to do the same- otherwise, the spectre of 2002, when Inter led Serie A until a second-half collapse against Lazio lost them the game and the title will loom very, very large. The clock is ticking.


Monday, April 16, 2007

DG's Quick Hits- April 16, 2007


One day it’ll all make sense. Earlier today, 33 students were killed in a murderous rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. It is the single-highest shooting spree in U.S. history.

The story goes something like this: an Asian man broke into a dormitory and shot two people, a man and a woman, then proceeded to shoot others in the dorm. Then he moved to classrooms and essentially shot anyone he could find. Then he turned the gun on himself, committing suicide. The motives of the man remain unclear, but the most widely held theory is that he was looking for his girlfriend.

Usually in times like this it’s always asked how this incident could happen, but while it’s shocking, it’s always worth noting that these incidents are rare. Pardon The Interruption’s Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon were both in agreement that the easy access to guns in the U.S. is the culprit, and while that may be the case (I certainly don’t doubt it), I’m sure there are other factors. Perhaps it would be time to install metal detectors inside entrances to buildings as well, and step up security measures as well (cameras are one idea, at least inside hallways, although there are privacy issues inside dorms), but no matter how I much I wrap around something like this, I can’t help but think it’ll happen again. This was a crazy man with a twisted ambition, and there probably will be nothing that can stop other crazy people from doing the same. The only thing we can hope for is to make it harder the next time around, and changing the gun laws would be one good step. Right now, though, my thoughts are with Virgina Tech and the hopes that their school rebounds better than anyone could have hoped.


Well, the question entering yesterday’s match at the Stadio Olimpico between Roma and Sampdoria was how Roma would respond after being crushed 7-1 by Manchester United five days before. The question was answered after an emphatic second half saw I Lupi cruise to a 4-0 laugher over a Sampdoria side still clinging to UEFA Cup hopes. Roma were led by two goals from captain Franceso Totti, who called the loss to United was “the most embarrassing of my career” and made up for a relative disappearing act in that game. Coupled with Lazio’s surprise 2-2 draw at bottom-feeders Ascoli, Roma are now nine points clear for second place in Serie A with seven games remaining.

At the top is still Inter Milan, and despite a 2-2 draw with Palermo at home, Inter- at 16 points clear- can still wrap up the title with a victory over Roma on Wednesday, leaving Inter 19 points ahead with six games remaining. The draw looked in doubt after Palermo went up 2-0 before halftime with goals on either side of the half from Andrea Caracciolo and Cristiano Zaccardo at three and 45 minutes respectively, but Inter battled back with two goals in the space of eight minutes off crosses from veteran winger Luis Figo. Julio Cruz got the first at 66 minutes, then Adriano connected at 74 to quell the worried Inter faithful, who have yet to see Inter defeated in Italian play. However, while Inter manager Roberto Mancini will be pleased with his team’s determined comeback, Mancini won’t be pleased with the fact that this is Inter’s second consecutive draw, with a worrying lack of urgency creeping into Inter’s game. This shouldn’t take anything away from the performances of Palermo or Reggina- Palermo showed that they have the work ethic and talent level to be competitive at the top, and Reggina may be an attacker away from being a contender themselves- but in both games, Inter didn’t get going until the second half. Mancini had said that Inter’s greatest enemy is complacency, and that just may have happened in the past two weeks. However, both times Inter came away with positive results, showing that while the foot may be off the accelerator a little, Inter still have a sense of what needs to be done to secure their first Scudetto on the field since 1989. Also, their next game couldn’t have come at a better time- Inter are at their best when faced against an “inspired” opponent, like Milan in March, and with the players knowing that the title is on the line Wednesday against a plucky Roma outfit they would be determined to put away (not to mention with the game at home), Inter are primed for their best result of the season. Of course, they still need to win first.


In 2006, out of the opening four days of the National Hockey League playoffs, six games went to overtime out of the first 20 games. Out of the four opening days of this year’s playoffs, three overtime games have occurred out of 19 games, with two in the same series (Vancouver-Dallas). Also, out of the first 20 games last year, the games featured 135 goals, a 6.75 goals-per-game clip. Out of the first 19 games of this year, the games featured 104 goals for a 5.47 GPG clip. In the 2006 playoffs, GPG went up from the season after 20 games, as the season featured a 6.17 mark. In the 2007 playoffs, GPG has gone down, with the season seeing 5.91 GPG.

The statistics are consistent with how the NHL season has fared this year- after a high following the lockout, the league is back in the doldrums, with attendances down, TV ratings still abysmal, excitement still lacking in the game, clueless NHL executives who propose rule changes like they’re going out of style and impatient criticism from “hockey people” about the rule enforcement, continuing their own complaints from their playing careers. It should, therefore, be no surprise that the playoffs are proceeding the same way.

Perhaps the biggest problem in this year’s playoffs is the overall lack of drama. Wednesday’s overtime marathon between the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars produced one of the most memorable games in NHL history, but since then the playoffs have meandered. The Anaheim Ducks-Minnesota Wild series is now 3-0 to Anaheim in three dreadful contests that the Ducks are coasting through with the Wild simply lacking any kind of urgency. The Detroit Red Wings-Calgary Flames series is going precisely the same way. The San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators are showing a disinterest in actually playing hockey and the Atlanta Thrashers are clearly outmatched against the inspired New York Rangers. It is true that the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning are unexpectedly tied in their series with the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils, but both teams have a history of winning Game 2 and no other game, so it’s anyone’s guess how those ties will play out.

Then there’s the Ottawa Senators/Pittsburgh Penguins and Canucks/Stars tilts, the only two series worth watching. The Senators and Penguins are living up to their billing as a high-flying series, and while Vancouver-Dallas is low-scoring, the series at least has a level of urgency, the Canucks looking to prove last year’s playoff miss was a fluke and the Stars looking to show last year’s early ouster was a fluke. However, even there, the drama level isn’t close to what happened last year- only one game in the Ottawa-Pittsburgh series was a one-goal contest, and while the Vancouver/Dallas series has featured two overtime contests, no one’s going to confuse it with a classic playoff battle. Granted, it is still just the beginning- but things are not looking good so far.


The uproar over the four overtime thriller in Vancouver is just ridiculous. Yes, the game went until 3:30AM in the East, but the game finished at 12:30AM local time; and besides, how often are these games anyway? If there’s one thing the NHL shouldn’t meddle with, it’s playoff overtime…Staying with hockey: if fighting “attracts fans”, why is gymnastics outdrawing the NHL? Also, if players can “police themselves”, why was Steve Moore and Donald Brashear assaulted? Both were victims of players “getting back at them” for things they did earlier…If it were up to me, the top soccer leagues in Europe would consist of just 10 teams. Why? It’s plainly obvious that year in, year out, there are only four teams that consistently vie for the title, leaving 16 schmucks to serve as victims. Where’s the fun in that? Besides, maybe the reduced amount of teams would give the top teams more of a run for their money than they’re currently getting with all that talent pooled together…I think I’ll paraphrase David Letterman: how many more Canadian troops have to die before we all realize that the Afghanistan mission is pointless? Also, before you start telling me I’m “not supporting the troops”, understand there’s a difference between supporting the military and supporting the mission. I support the Army, just not what it’s doing now…Tim Duncan gets ejected from a game for laughing. Okay, so maybe the referee doesn’t like Duncan laughing at what he perceives to be the referee’s ineptitude, but I think that’s going too far. It’s not like Duncan is a recalcitrant whiner who has issues with the referees like Rasheed Wallace…Thumbs up to the National Football League for its policy of harshly suspending players caught breaking the law. In any other profession, those people would be fired. Good job…A story out of the Associated Press says that more parents today are using “rewards” to entice their kids to behave well instead of punishing them when they misbehave. The question is whether or not this is a positive development- will the kids do what they’re told or will they refuse to do something because “the reward is not good enough”? I think, as with everything, moderation is key- kids do need rewards sometimes because then they’ll have a sense of achievement, but they also need to be made aware sometimes that what they did in that situation is wrong and there are consequences. Hey, no one said parenting would be easy…To continue that thought, I do wonder if we as a society work too hard to have kids. Parenting is a difficult job and is very time-consuming, but with both parents working full-time arriving home “just to relax”, it could take away from their parenting role. You want to know where mouthy kids come from? Having their parents think “T.V. is a babysitter”. It’s not…Greg Maddux said that players should take 5% pay cut and have the season reduced to 150 games so that the season can start in mid-April and end in mid-October to avoid the snow and the cold that gets associated with those months. It’s a sensible argument, but try convincing the owners to reduce their home games. It won’t fly…Well, except maybe in Cleveland. The local Indians were required to play a “home” series in Milwaukee after Cleveland’s series with the Seattle Mariners got snowed in. The four-game set with the Anaheim Angels (I don’t care that they’re the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim”, they’re the Anaheim Angels to me) cost all of $10 for Milwaukeeans to attend drawing reasonable crowds. Then the Indians shifted their series with the Chicago White Sox back to Cleveland not because of good weather but because they were worried that White Sox fans would make the trek to Milwaukee and turn it into a “home” series for their team. If this scenario won’t knock sense into baseball owners, I don’t know what will…Hot on the dating block: David DeAngelo, the man who claims he can “double your dating”; and hey, what he says does make sense- because it’s plainly obvious. Essentially what he’s preaching is to be comfortable around someone, because then they’d be more likely to date you. Isn’t that just common sense? No one’s going to date someone they’re not comfortable being around. It just makes sense- and you don’t need to buy his book to see that…I will make one complaint about his strategies- his newsletters (yes I signed up- I was curious) repeatedly tell curious readers having problems come up with their own “Cocky & Funny” routine to “practice lines” so they can become funny themselves. I think he’s blurring the line between being able to joke around with someone and being a comic. Being a comic isn’t something that everyone can do, and while yes practice may make perfect, comedy just comes easier for some and not so easier for others, and straining yourself “just to be funny” won’t work. Being able to joke around with someone, though, won’t take half as much work- once you hit a comfort zone with someone (and we all have with our friends), being able to poke fun at things they’ve done or are just comes naturally; and you don’t need to be a comic to do it…I also read in one of his newsletters that men shouldn’t be affectionate and readily give out hugs. That’s not something I can agree with. It is true that most people- male or female- would want someone to be strong, but I don’t think they want someone who can’t be empathetic or comforting. No one’s interested in dating a brick wall…Raise your hand if you’re paying attention to Toronto FC so far this season. No one? Yeah, thought so…Speaking of which, David Beckham’s going to do nothing for Major League Soccer and may even hinder it. A player with his abilities will probably dominate the league using maybe even half of his energy and will show the world just how much of a talent gulf there is in the MLS between them and the major European leagues. *This* is the main reason why soccer in the U.S. isn’t successful- as long as casual fans know that the best players don’t play in the U.S. (further to the point- not even the best Americans play in the U.S.) and as long as they know that those games are on when they’re sleeping or working (because of the time zone difference between Europe and the U.S.), no one’s going to pay attention. Until the U.S. produces a team that can beat a European team in a meaningful game, soccer will continue to be a distant fifth in the U.S.…While we’re at it, why doesn’t FIFA produce a *real* World Championship? You know, one the European teams might actually care about? If it can produce, say, a 12-team tournament that features say two or even four from both UEFA and Latin America, they might do the trick; and hold it in June-July too, like they do for the World Cup. They have a successful national team competition- now it’s time to produce a successful club team competition.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Sea Of Goals

Manchester United 7, AS Roma 1. A game Manchester United and their supporters will remember for ages and one AS Roma and their fans would like to soon forget. Perhaps the outcome wasn’t unlikely- Manchester United have been one of Europe’s top teams for the past decade, while Roma progressed to the quarterfinal stage for the first time since reaching the Final in 1984- but result certainly wasn’t. No one would be shocked if the Red Devils put seven past the likes of Shaktar Donetsk or Steaua Bucharest, but against a Roma team that had surrendered just six in the tournament, the result was a dream- or a nightmare depending on your perspective.

The story for Roma was dreary almost right from the get-go. Their most prolific striker, Franceso Totti, actually had a chance rattle the post five minutes in, but Michael Carrick’s 11th-minute chip-shot floater that eluded a wandering Roma goalkeeper Alexander Doni seemed indicative of how the night would go for the beleaguered Italian side. Six minutes later rarely-used striker Alan Smith put United ahead 2-0, then Cristiano Ronaldo- again up to his old tricks- set up Wayne Rooney two minutes later for his second goal against Roma in as many days- this after having never scored in the Champions’ League his entire career. Ronaldo himself would get into the action with a 44th-minute strike that put the Red Devils up 4-0 at the break, and, just so Roma didn’t think he decided to take the rest of the game off, Ronaldo grabbed another goal for himself after 49 minutes off a corner kick. Carrick sizzled his second from just outside the box after a cutting pass from Gabriel Heinze, and while Roma’s Daniele De Rossi scored off a rebound to ruin any United hopes for a clean sheet, Patrice Evra- a left back who had scored only six goals his entire career- completed the rout with a seeing-eye shot that found its way through the small hole between Doni and the far left post. It was a night where every chance United had they buried, while for Roma it was one where everything that could go wrong did.

Perhaps what was more shocking about the result was the manner in which it arrived. This was not a Roma team that looked disinterested or tired- this was a Roma team that put in an honest effort, only to be blown away by a United side that was clearly better. Even after going down 3-0, Roma were still going forward and created several chances, moving the ball very dangerously in the United midfield. One could have even thought that United grabbed its three goals too early, because Roma had more than enough time to grab two goals to go through to the next round. The game didn’t even look out of reach until Ronaldo put United up by five, but even there, the most optimistic of supporters still believed Roma could pull it off with 40 minutes left to play. It wasn’t until Carrick’s second where even the most strident optimist had to concede defeat, because it was only then were Roma clearly deflated. De Rossi may have showed United that Roma were capable of beating their defence, but it was too late.

For Manchester United, the result means that the race with Chelsea is very much on for the Premiership and sets up the tantalizing final between the two Premiership giants- with the game being potentially two weeks before the two clubs would effectively clash for the Premiership title itself. It also assures at least one English club in the Final and means that the entire top three- United, Chelsea and Liverpool- are still alive for the trophy. For Roma, it is indicative of their season- they have played well, but they are supremely outclassed. Roma sits an astounding 18 points behind Inter Milan in the Serie A title chase, and while Inter still hasn’t officially clinched the title, with eight games remaining on that kind of deficit, it is only a matter of time. The title may even be potentially clinched on Wednesday, as Inter’s next two games are at home against the free-falling Palermo and this very Roma club on Wednesday, both teams’ seventh-last game. Inter wins in both contests- or at the very least the status quo after Sunday and a victory against Roma on Wednesday- assures them the title.

However, while Roma were outclassed, it is important to remember that it is just one game. I Lupi got to where they are through determination and work ethic, and while the team isn’t as deep talent-wise as they had been in years past (due to financial difficulties), they showed that teams don’t necessarily need to have deep pockets to have relative success in Europe. It is even possible that had the draw not worked against them- slotting Bayern Munich or AC Milan against them instead of Manchester United- Roma may be a semi-final team. Sceptics may point out that Roma’s 2-1 first-leg win was due to the fact that United were down to ten men, but even then, you don’t go up on United without at least having some talent. Roma may have hung their heads low after the final whistle on Tuesday, but when they look back at their achievements- getting to the Champions’ League quarterfinals for the first time since 1984- they will realize they far exceeded their own expectations.

The Britons may have sacked Rome, but they won’t crush their spirit.


Friday, April 06, 2007

When a loss isn't a loss

It’s come down to this: April 7, 2007: the Montreal Canadiens at the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs trail Montreal by one point for the eighth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference, with a chance to leapfrog Montreal with a victory in both teams’ final game of the season. The New York Islanders still have an outside shot at the playoffs with a Leaf victory and two Islander wins, but Saturday’s game should determine who gets into the post-season. Saturday’s contest should provide one of- if not the- most thrilling Canadiens/Leafs match since the Original Six era, but the game carries a bit of a stench.

The catch is that for Toronto to still have a potential playoff date, it needs to beat Montreal in regulation time. If the Canadiens force overtime, Toronto is eliminated because, with both teams assured of a point, the Leafs could only gain one more point with a win and just tie Montreal, but since the Canadiens have three more wins than Toronto, Montreal would finish ahead of Toronto regardless. At this stage, the only reason for Toronto to finish that overtime session would be for the sake of the Islanders, who could still catch Montreal despite that gained point- provided New York beats the Philadelphia Flyers that evening. While the Leafs would probably cherish the ability to eliminate Montreal from playoff contention, it may be small solace for a club that would go for a 41st year without a Stanley Cup championship.

This is precisely the situation the National Hockey League should dread. When the “overtime point rule” came into effect in 2001, the NHL intended it to ensure that more ties are broken, thinking that if teams wanted to preserve their point gained by going to overtime, they would be able to do so and then gain a “bonus point” for winning. In 2005-06, the NHL decided that this wasn’t enough because there were too many ties, so it decided to add a shootout to resolve the ties. It’s an understandable move, but what wasn’t understandable was the decision to preserve the overtime point. TSN’s Gord Miller stated back in 2001 that the situation could mean that someone would “get into the playoffs by losing (i.e., gaining a point from an overtime loss)”, and sure enough, the very first season it was brought in, the Los Angeles Kings lost in overtime to the Vancouver Canucks but the point gained there was good enough to propel the Kings into the postseason ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes. Of course, what didn’t happen then was a team possibly playing a team for a playoff position, with the position decided simply by the clubs forcing overtime and rendering the period useless. Such a scenario exists Saturday in Toronto.

This then begs the question- if you’re Toronto coach Paul Maurice, if the game goes to overtime, do you forfeit the game? You would have nothing to play for. Sure, there’s possibility of ending rival Montreal’s hopes, but since the fans care most about the team qualifying for the postseason, ending Montreal’s hopes would be a Pyrrhic victory. If I was Maurice, I wouldn’t play the overtime to make a point of how silly their rule is. I have no complaint about the NHL would wanting to resolve ties- however, it should also do away with the point system. A win should always mean something, no matter what condition it was arrived at, but sadly, Saturday could render a Leaf win meaningless- with the real loser being the NHL.