Chelsea vs Manchester United: the long-running grudge which has defined English football’s Premiership for most of the winter (and last) could yet be extended to a fevered and passionate play-off decider in Athens on 23 May in the European Cup final itself. Travel agents are rubbing their hands and, doubtless, Greek policemen are anxiously fondling their truncheons and assessing the overtime rates. Mind you, the swish, steamy Athenian arena that night could just as edgily be staging a less insular feud, but one which could well have a sharper, more international focus: Liverpool vs Milan. Whatever, we shall see what we shall see: avert your eyes now or, at least, hang on to your hats. It is the first time three English clubs have, together, arrived this far, and the eventual outcome will be clearer after the dust has settled on the semi-final first-leg matches: on Tuesday, United play AC Milan at Old Trafford; on Wednesday, Chelsea brace themselves for Liverpool’s assault on Stamford Bridge. The second-leg ties a week later cue in the bonny brace for the thunderous Athens finale.
The cast list is intriguing, and each semi promises to be lip-smackingly relishable because all four sides seem to me to have very different collective character and organisation, a separate ethos even. (Mind you, so have their travelling supporters, although I doubt the local police will discriminate over contrasting nuances.) On the field, for all the cynicism about the exorbitant roubles thrown at Chelsea’s zillionaires, week after week the team has shown not so much a too-precious pampered swank as an engaging grit and tenacity; there is a surprising, almost noble, English public school or Ealing Film ‘togetherness’ about Chelsea’s to-the-last-man teamwork. On the other hand, no surprises about Milan, the embodiment of any Italian club of lore and legend: mark tight and hurtful, soak up pressure like a sponge, then, in a single bewildering starburst blink, cruelly and mortally punish an opponent’s single error; then soak up any pressure left, but now with a knowing, contented grin. Liverpool look mighty dangerous to me: all season (and last) they have played their Premiership games as though pragmatically practising merely for these bigtime Eurostar matches and their sole destiny. Don’t forget, to get the opportunity to fashion their astonishing triumph in this same European Cup (against AC Milan, by the way) on that heady Istanbul night two years ago, Liverpool had first to overcame Chelsea in a torrid couple of semis.
Manchester United, I suppose, are the neutrals’ favourites; the purists’ too. Lights! Action! Spontaneity! The lethal counterattack has always been one of the game’s joys. Rio, Ronaldo, Rooney, Ryan Giggs — the rat-a-tat lightfooted pinball passes have been sheer delight. Last week’s almost fantastical 7-1 defeat of Roma in the quarter-final was a breathtaking show-stopper. At half-time it was 4-0 and next day La Stampa wailed like a diva, saying the Romans should have left for home there and then after such a 45-minute ‘apocalypse in which we were first stunned, then swept away, then destroyed, then humiliated’. As you might expect, such a tragic opera was phrased somewhat more pithily by Manchester’s own one-time local rag, the Guardian, in which, for mercy’s sake, the splendid Martin Kelner asked: ‘Was there any need for the three second-half goals? Scoring more points than is necessary in American sport is called “running up the score”. In Chorlton-cum-Hardy they call it taking the piss.’