Match Of The (Mid)Week: Gamba Osaka 3-5 Manchester United
This site is a champion of the FIFA World Club Cup, but it’s important to make a differentiation at this point. This site is emphatically not in favour of its current format, which is hopelessly lop-sided and, in their over-enthusiasm to not be too inconvenient to the big European clubs, FIFA have created a competition which is neither flesh nor fowl. The difference between the European and, say, African champions is still so great that only the Europeans and South American champions have a serious chance of winning it, yet there is something vaguely farcical about the fact that Manchester United only have to play two matches in order to be crowned world champions (compared to the thirteen required to win the Champions League) in a competition that their supporters don’t really care that much about.
For all of that, though, one can’t help but suspect that, if a club deserves the title of “World Champions”, it’s the current Manchester United team. They play with a swaggering brilliance when attacking that they can comfortably mask their occasional defensive shortcomings. This morning, in front of a crowd of over 67,000 in Yokohama, Gamba Osaka, the champions of Asia, were held up as sacrificial lambs as United made light of their 10,000 mile journey to brush them aside. Having said that, however, the opening twenty-five minutes were much closer than the neutral might have expected. Gamba, who presumably based their evaluation of United upon videos of them playing away from home in the Premier League, opted for a shoot on sight policy in the opening stages which left Edwin Van Der Saar shouting at his defenders like a junior school coach telling his players to “STOP BUNCHING”. Ryuji Bando got through and saw his shot blocked by the goalkeeper and United played their final get out of jail free card when Akira Kaji’s cross clearly struck Gary Neville’s arm with no penalty being awarded.
For their encouraging opening, Gamba’s obvious achilles heel was their lack of physical edge, and it was hardly surprising that Manchester United seized the crucial initiative from set pieces. After twenty-seven minutes, a corner from the right sees Nemanja Vidic out-jump his marker and head past the Gamba goalkeeper Fujigaya, who had started to come for the cross before stalling. With the lead established, United visibly relaxed. Ronaldo’s cross from the right was headed wide by Sonny Anderson, who should have scored. The second goal came from another corner from the right-hand side. This time the lucky beneficiary was Cristiano Ronaldo, who was (perhaps curiously, considering that he is the best player in the world) completely unmarked to head the ball in. Again, Fujigaya is at fault, this time allowing the ball to squirm past him. The half-time whistle blew a couple of minutes later, and United were flattered by their two goal lead.
To their immense credit, Gamba weren’t shaken by conceding a goal so early in the second half, and they limited United to half chances in the early stages in the second half. At the other end, Alex Ferguson continues to have good cause to celebrate the seeming agelessness of Edwin Van Der Saar, who saved well from a free kick from Endo, whose goal had decided Gamba’s quarter-final match. Wayne Rooney was introduced with seventeen minutes to play, but his first involvement in the match was as a bystander as Gamba scored a goal that sounded like it might lift the roof off the Yokohama Stadium. A smart through ball down the right hand side and a tap into the path of Masata Yamazaki, who rolled the ball comfortably past Van Der Saar to pull the score back to 2-1. It was a thoroughly deserved goal and, had the game ended there, we might have talked of United having ridden their luck to get through to the final. What followed, however, was an explosive demonstration of the firepower that is the difference between them and sides of the calibre of Gamba Osaka.
Barely a minute had passed since Gamba scored before United punished them for their impudence. Straight from the kick-off, Darren Fletcher fed Rooney, who poked the ball in to restore the lead back to two goals. Another three minutes passed before Fletcher headed Evra’s cross past a static Fujigaya to make the score 4-1 and, three minutes later, the rout seemed complete as Ryan Giggs played Rooney through to add a fifth. The Gamba Osaka defence was completely shell-shocked, and the rout seemed complete. And yet… there was still time for a minor sting in the tail. With seven minutes left to play, Bando’s cross struck Neville on the arm, and Endo converted the penalty for a consolation for Gamba, and in injury time, another break on the right set up Hideo Hashimoto to pull the score back to a respectable 5-3.
Manchester United, then, will face LDU de Quito on Sunday morning. Ultimately, teams without absolutely top class defenders are going to have an enormous struggle to be able to contain the myriad of attacking options that they have at their disposal. Their defence continues to give cause for concern. Shipping three goals (even if two of them were after they had raced into a 5-1 lead) aganst a team that had looked somewhat laboured against a team as limited as Adelaide United. Despite whatever misgivings that one might have about their defence, however, the feeling remains that this year’s Manchester United team have genuinely got the look of “The Best Team In The World”. Now that I’ve said that, watch with wonder as they lose to LDU de Quito on Sunday morning.
Here are the goals from this morning’s match. The final will be shown live on Channel Five in the UK on Sunday morning, with kick-off at 10.30am.