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Despite a somewhat sluggish start to the season, new manager Andre Villas-Boas already appears to have made his mark on the Chelsea side. After stumbling to narrow victories at home to Norwich and West Brom, as well as a single point away at Stoke, Chelsea put it in what was their best performance of the season at Old Trafford on Sunday, contrary to the story the score line tells, more than matching their in-form opponents for the 90 minutes. It can even be argued that Chelsea were the better side, just undone by a combination a bad luck and poor finishing. The performance was unlike any other in recent Manchester United-Chelsea fixtures, and has drawn [largely undeserved] criticism from certain quarters, but has left the majority of Chelsea supporters enthusiastic about what is to come.

One of the most notable features of Chelsea’s play this season has the been the speed at which the side gets the ball back into play in nearly every opportunity, whether it be through quickly taken throw-ins or by Petr Cech releasing the ball early. Chelsea’s goalkeepers – both Henrique Hilario and Cech have featured in the league this season – have averaged 16.8 successful distributions per game over the course of the start of the season, compared with 9.4 last year, illustrating a tendency to roll the ball out early and simply, rather than hitting the ball long in the hope of forwards winning the ball in the air. This number (16.8) is comfortably the highest in the league.

Another significant change from seasons past is the introduction of an extremely high defensive line, a tactic that Villas-Boas used successfully at Porto. While in the early season games Norwich and West Brom exploited this significantly, the same cannot be said about Sunday’s game at Old Trafford, despite the extraordinary pace United are blessed with across their attacking line. With neither captain John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic being the quickest of centre backs, it was to be expected that the tactic would take some getting used to, and David Luiz appears to be key to Chelsea’s prospects for the season. Villas Boas was quick to praise Luiz after his match winning contribution against Bayer Leverkusen, describing his an ‘amazing talent’, as well as rubbishing any suggestion that he is at all susceptible defensively.

Two of the major criticisms of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign as Chelsea manager were his inability to affect games with telling substitutions, as well as reluctance to veer from his preferred starting 11, even during periods of poor form, refusing to drop underperforming ‘stars’. In yesterday’s game against United, Villas Boas showed he was more capable than doing each of these, by substituting Frank Lampard at half time [for Nicolas Anelka] and switching from a 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 formation. Chelsea scored within a minute of the change, with Anelka providing a wonderful through-ball for Fernando Torres.  Whilst Chelsea didn’t actually play particularly poorly in the first half, Villas Boas’ willingness to change formation and personnel with immediate affect was very encouraging.

What to do about Frank Lampard is a notable conundrum that Villas Boas faces over the course of the season. One criticism that could be actually levelled against Villas Boas from the United match is actually starting Lampard in the first place (especially as not doing so would have allowed Raul Meireles to play further forward, with John Obi Mikel – much more competent defensively than Meireles – tracking Rooney) given the midfielder’s lack of form and the inevitable high intensity of the game. In the first half Lampard was nothing more than a passenger, unable to match the energy of Ramires, Fletcher and Anderson in the middle of the park. A quick look at Lampard’s distribution from the first half highlights a clear tendency for sideways and backwards passes, despite him supposedly meant to be the ‘creative’ player in the middle of the Chelsea midfield.

Fernando Torres’ now infamous interview detailing Chelsea’s “slow” players, as a reason for his poor form, appear to be a direct criticism of the likes of Lampard, who unquestionably haven’t been able to provide Torres with the sort of the creativity from midfield he thrived on at Liverpool. A problem identified by Miguel Delaney back in April, long before Torres’ comments.

While Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were (and still are in the case of the former) able to contribute significantly to the success of United in recent years, despite being well into their thirties, is Lampard capable of doing the same? As a player who’s built his career on his phenomenal levels of natural fitness, rather outright footballing ability, it seems unlikely, at least certainly not to the same extent as Giggs and Scholes.

Recently dropped by Capello, will Villas Boas follow suit?

Lampard’s future could also be affected by Villas Boas’ apparent willingness to incorporate younger players into the side. While he is still far from the finished article, Daniel Sturridge’s involvement in the Chelsea starting XI, even at Old Trafford, highlights this focus on youth, much unlike his predecessor. It’s a refreshing change from watching the hapless Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou struggle away on the wings. Even 18-year-old Romelu Lukaku was preferred to Malouda and Kalou as Chelsea strived for further goals at Old Trafford. Villas Boas’ confidence in Sturridge bodes well for the likes of Josh McEachran, an immensely talented young playmaker, who certainly seems more Villas Boas’ style of football than Lampard.

Chelsea’s two major summer signings, ignoring the many younger players signed in the summer, have both made an immediate impact. Since the introduction of Juan Mata and Raul Meireles into the starting line-up, Chelsea have progressed from a side struggling to beat Norwich and West Brom at Stamford Bridge, to a side who’ve cruised past Sunderland – the scoreline, again, didn’t reflect the dominance – and Bayer Leverkusen in the past week, as well as more than matching the much hyped Manchester United at their home ground. Both players have added a different dimension to Chelsea’s play, allowing the ball to move much faster through the midfield – with the help of the extraordinary energetic Ramires, a far cry from the ponderous football played under Ancelotti, and many of his predecessors, with the midfield trio of Mikel-Lampard-Essien.

So long as Villas Boas continues to get things right both on and off the pitch, Chelsea fans have every right to be optimistic about the season(s) to come under their new Portugese manager.

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Saturday night. We shall all be forgoing the trudge into a Wetherspoons at a tragically early hour and pounding our blood stream with alcohol, to sit on our arses and watch 22 men in Harrow try to kick a ball in a goal.

But which team should we objectively be rooting for? Of course, if you have tribalist connections to either of FC Barcelona or Manchester United, your mind is already made up. You may alternatively be a supporter of one of the teams’ rivals, and so you need no direction. But what about us neutrals? I have had different answers from various neutrals I have spoken to this week, and so I shall attempt to consider objectively, who we should cheer on.

The Case For Manchester United

Admiration for the football of Manchester United. This would be a much stronger argument if they weren’t playing the best, most philosophically pure footballing side for years. This United side have been at times seen as weak champions, but their efficiency and ruthlessness, especially in the last few months, has been genuinely impressive. From the immoveable force of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand at the back to the machine-like athleticism of Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia and the ruthless excitement of Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney, United have rolled over team after team at Old Trafford.

You’re not allowed to dislike Barcelona or criticise them. Criticising the FCB is prohibited. If you do not swoon at your complete unworthiness and inferiority to the FCB you shall be vaporised in a big pot of logical fallacy. They are, as Barney Ronay once wrote, the iPod team, the self-righteous, intrinsically good, mes que un club, club. They are the ultimate moral absolute by which we are all measured. The Alpha and the Omega. They are Plato’s Form of the Good personified. They are, through their courageous unity with Unicef, the answer to all of the world’s problems.

Put an end to the Catalan domination. Eight of Barcelona’s starting XI in the semi-final against Real Madrid were part of the Spain World Cup winning squad, and most of them won Euro 2008 too. Can we have a change, please?

Dani Alves. He has his own name tattooed across his chest.

Barcelona are a bunch of cheaters. Apparently. They dive, they harrass the officials to influence their decisions, they roll around on the ground like a bunch of little girls. Manchester United of course never crowd the referee, or dive, do they? Barcelona on the other hand, are a disgrace to the game! A disgrace I tell you!

Barcelona tap up players and get away with it. This is the reason given by Arsenal fans that I know. Barcelona’s relentless tapping up of players such as Cesc Fabregas shows complete disregard for inter-club etiquette, and their disrespect shown towards the clubs of potential targets makes me sick. They think they are exception to the rules and it’s DISGUSTING.

UEFA are on Barcelona’s side. The non-charge of racism on Sergio Busquets towards Marcelo in the semi-final is the latest in a long line of incidents in which UEFA has managed to turn things in Barcelona’s favour. Just look at the semi-final in 2009 – all those blatant penalties for Chelsea turned down by referee Tom Ovrebo. UEFA must have been behind it. This also means that UEFA were the cause of Didier Drogba missing a series of very good chances for Chelsea over the two legs of that semi-final. That pesky organisation.

“I support English teams in Europe”. Some argue that we should all get behind a club from the same very specific geographical vacinity as us because they come under the same national bracket. How ‘English’ are Manchester United though? More English than some English clubs, but less so than others. Three Englishman will probably start the game for United (Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand), with a further two possibly on the bench (Paul Scholes…and Chris Smalling). Perhaps they have an English kitman or physio, and some English suits prancing around the boardroom collecting their paycheck. Do the passports of these people really mean we should support them?

Why should I want someone to do well just because they were born and they grew up vaguely near me, and they speak the same language as me?  Wayne Rooney grew up on the streets of Croxteth and recently tweeted to an idiot that  “I will put u asleep within 10 seconds”. Do I really have to be patriotic and support that?

A proponent of the ‘support English sides’ view is Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel, who yesterday argued that ‘it would just be better for the soul of the sport if we could recapture that distant sense of unity’. Quite what Martin means by the ‘soul of the sport’ I’m not sure, but suddenly siding with United would strike me as quite hypocritical. I hated them the other week when my club played them. Am I suppose to like them now? I’m confused. Has anyone got an instruction manual for who I’m supposed to hate and love, and when?

And also, you don’t support the ‘most English’ side in Premier League matches do you? Only when a club with vague English connections come up against those pesky Jonny Foreigners do I support ‘the English’, because heaven forbid the brave, passionate English get beaten by…..by….

I’m sorry, I can’t remember the point I was making as I have been overcome with a sudden urge to stand up and sing “RULE BRITTANIA!”.

The argument for Barcelona

Martin Samuel said “there is a single  English club at Wembley, against one from Spain. Why would anyone want United to lose?”. Well, here are 11 reasons, Martin.

Barcelona are the best team in the world. It would therefore be a great shame, perhaps even an injustice, were they not to win the biggest club competition in the world™. It would be the ultimate fulfilment and gratification for the tikki-takka, for Xavi and Iniesta, for Messi, and for Pep Guardiola, the child of Cruyff.

Wayne Rooney. A money-grabbing, brutish, mindless thug. To some people. (To other people, a dreamy hero).

Javier Hernandez. The way he does his kneeling-down, hey-everybody-look-at-me-I’m-so-spiritual prayer to God at the start of every game on the pitch. Why can’t he do it in the dressing room? And Javier, would it be fair of God to favour you in a particular game over everyone else? After all God loves everyone equally, apparently.

Rio Ferdinand. ‘Tweeps’. ‘Twitfam’. ‘Nuff said’. ‘End of’. ‘Fact’. ‘Stay on your feet’.

Sir Alex Ferguson. Best British manager of last blah blah blah – hypocritical and a bully. Ferguson commented ‘Typical Germans’ after last year’s Champions League exit to Bayern Munich, aimed at Frenchman Frank Ribery and Croatian Ivica Olic who pressured the referee to show United defender Rafael a second yellow card. While the comment was in truth comedy glold, it was said in all seriousness. I can’t be bothered to document all SAF’s good points and bad points – suffice to say, there is reasonable evidence to dislike him.

“We’re Man United, we’ll do what we want”. Ok, well, you won’t. The British judicial system doesn’t favour fans of any particular sports team, club or organization.

I support Spanish sides in Europe. If you try to use the argument that ‘we should support English sides in Europe’, why not turn it round and argue for supporting Spanish sides in Europe? They generally have better technical ability and are more enjoyable to watch. Spain is a glorious country of sangria, sunshine, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, Picasso and Goya. Catalonia itself is home to Dali, and, er, Tommy Robredo. You won’t get approached by a pissed-up, middle class, flannel t-shirt-wearing, foul-mouthed Wetherspoonian in a Spanish plaza at 1a.m., looking for a fight. There is no ‘Only Way is Zaragoza’ or ‘Murcia Shore’ TV show.

Marca and the Madrid press would be right royally pissed off. Next.

Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets. Some people don’t like diving. I think it’s really useful, clever, and funny, when used correctly. These players are two of the great Krasicologists who make the tumble an art form. I admire them greatly.

That semi-final. Barcelona played their part in one of the most hilarious, wonderful European semi-finals in history at the Bernabeu in April. The wonderful imaginary card-waving and finger-pointing, the glorious diving, better than we’ve ever seen, and the exquisite rolling around on the floor, all became part of something truly special – an intriguing to and fro of ‘Who would win first, and what even is winning?, finally settled by Dani Alves getting Pepe a red card. Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy that game. Football as comedy – glorious, glorious comedy.

A United win would fuel the idiocy of the media. Just imagine the headlines – “Premier League proven to be the best as Barcelona fall scared of the brave English lions” and “The compelling evidence that being English is scientifically better than being anything else”.

Conclusion

You’ll all have (arrogantly) made your own minds up, depending on how much weight you give to each category. Giving the aforementioned arguments, I recommend supporting Barcelona. Of course, it doesn’t really matter who wins this year. There will always be a next year.

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