Friday, May 8, 2009

Gang of Four: Great Solo Performances in Vain

For all the individual skill and class on display in soccer, we are frequently reminded that ultimately, it's still a team game, requiring maximum effort from the full XI in order to achieve the desired result. Single players will rise above the white noise to turn in a remarkable day's work, as is their wont, and yet, not all of them get to enjoy the win or lift the trophy.

Today, a firm salute to a quartet who did everything they possibly could to win, only to fall short.

1. Kaka - AC Milan, Champions League Final 2004/05
For 45 minutes, the Brazilian libero reigned supreme, casting a spell over the crowd at Istanbul and perplexing the eleven Reds selected to halt his charge. Leading up to the game, the seemingly lop-sided nature of the fixture was analyzed ad nauseam, and nine pundits out of ten singled out Kaka as being the man to watch and the man to beat.

In the first half, he was untouchable, running rings around the Liverpool midfield. Steven Gerrard, the man chosen to smother him for 90 minutes, was left for dead.

Months after the game, Gerrard recalled his experience:

"Kaka was a great player, I knew that. Anyone who starts for Brazil must be special. But not until I spent that half, running around after him, chasing his shadow, did I appreciate how quick he was in possession. Never in my career had I encountered anyone as fast with the ball at their feet. Kaka was lightning."
Anyone with a pair of eyes could confirm as much. After Maldini's early strike, Kaka took over, setting up Crespo's brace with a pair of devastating passes; the first, a delicate, cushioned chip to release Shevchenko (who in turn found Crespo with ease on the pullback), while the second was even better. Receiving the ball deep in his half, Kaka shrugged off Gerrard's advance and spun clear, threading the ball through two Liverpool defenders for Crespo to tap in.

The margin of error was minuscule; on second view, Carragher's despairing lunge comes within millimeters of deflecting the pass off-course. Kaka's passing accuracy was unparalleled.

Even after Liverpool's legendary comeback midway through the second half, Kaka wasn't done. It took another Carragher lunge to pick the ball off his feet when a goal appeared likely with 10 minutes to go. In the 88th, he came within inches of diverting a Jaap Stam header into the net, but it wasn't to be.

He even coolly converted his penalty during the shoot-out, but the combination of Liverpool magic and Andrei Shevchenko's stunning profligacy in front of goal, even more remarkable for his stature as THE best striker in the world that year, meant that the baby-faced Brazilian would get nothing more than a runners-up medal.

2. Michael Owen - England, 2nd Round v. Argentina, World Cup 1998
In just his 9th game for the national team, Michael Owen was unconcerned with the decades-old rivalry between the two nations. He could barely remember the Hand of God, and on his display over 120 gutbusting minutes, he showed that he didn't much care.

Liverpool fans knew what the youngster was capable of, but it was the world's turn to have a look. Within just the first 16 minutes, he'd made mincemeat of the resolute Argentine backline. In the 10th, Owen earned a dubious penalty having spun Roberto Ayala more times than a pig on a spit. Shearer duly converted, but 6 minutes later, it was all down to the pint-sized striker from Bootle.

Beckham's long, hopeful pass from midfield sprung the greyhound from his trap, and from there, it took 10 seconds to play out: ghosting past Jose Chamot, feinting inside a dumbstruck Ayala (not his best game in blue and white, obviously), before cutting the ball back to his right foot and uncorking a wicked, rasping shot past a helpless Carlos Roa.

With the game locked at 2-2 in the second half, Owen would have several more chances to etch his name in English lore, blazing a shot just over the bar deep into extra time. Inevitably, as all England games in World Cups do, it was settled on penalties, and while all around his teammates were missing theirs, Owen showed no nerves for an 18 year old, blasting it into the roof of the net.

That day, there was little more Owen could have done; as the world remembers, it was Beckham's dismissal for a petulant retaliatory kick on Argie captain Diego Simeone that cost them the game.

Looking at the crocked mess that Michael Owen has become in the decade since, it's so tempting to imagine what could have been.

3. Ian Wright - Crystal Palace v. Manchester United, 1990 FA Cup Final
At the turn of the 90s, United were slowly becoming the juggernaut they are today. It wasn't an easy development; their progress through the FA Cup was a rollercoaster; a trio of 1-0 wins over Hereford United, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United, a 3-2 away win over Newcastle at St. James's Park, and a 6-goal thriller semi-final with Oldham that needed a replay to settle the score.

The final would be no different, thanks to their plucky, tenacious opponents.

Crystal Palace, fresh up from the then-Second Division, had endured a difficult season themselves; an early 9-0 thrashing at Anfield set the tone for their struggles. They finished 15th, but not before becoming the first club to pay a million pounds for a goalkeeper, the soon-to-be chubby legend Nigel Martyn.

In the semis, Palace got revenge against Liverpool on a neutral field, beating them 4-3 at Villa Park, setting the stage for a memorable Wembley day out against the men from Manchester.

The game turned out like both their semi-finals; ex-Spurs defender Gary O'Reilly nodded in a free kick within the first 20 minutes, his effort cancelled out 10 minutes from half-time by a header from Bryan Robson, United's midfield metronome.

Both sides came close to blowing the game open in the second half, but United took the lead on the hour mark with permed Welshman Mark Hughes' low finish from Neil Webb's right-wing cross. Needing some inspiration with 20 minutes left, Palace turned to the bench and summoned Ian Wright, their ace up the sleeve. Wright was sublime for Palace over 5 seasons, scoring 89 in 225 games (he'd score 185 in 279 for his next club, Arsenal), but his 1989/90 season was derailed midway through by a twice-cracked shin bone.

Having barely recovered from the injury to make the subs list for the Final, manager Steve Coppell brought him into the fray and was immediately vindicated; he was on the pitch less than 4 minutes before he found space between Phelan and Bruce to latch onto the ball, turn Bruce inside out and knock him over before finishing low underneath the keeper for a gorgeous solo goal.

Wright's second goal came within seconds of the beginning of extra-time, showcasing his opportunism in and around the 6-yard box. John Salako's deep floated cross from the left froze the keeper, allowing Wright to ghost in at the far post with a sliding volley that nearly broke the net.

United would equalize via their own talisman, Hughes, and in the land before penalty shoot-outs, United won the replay 1-0 five days later.

Wright was still too fragile to start the replay, and Coppell hauled him on midway through the second half hoping for similar heroics right after United's goal. Alas, it was not to be, and Sir Alex Ferguson hoisted a trophy that many say preserved his job at Old Trafford. Imagine what could have been had Wright and Palace turned it around.

It was the closest that Palace had come to an FA Cup win since reaching the semi-finals in 1976; despite Wright's superhuman efforts, they would not end the season "Glad All Over."

4. Gerd Muller - West Germany v. Italy, 1970 World Cup
It's so hard to feel sympathetic for a German player, and not just any German, but their most celebrated, prolific striker of the last 50 years. Muller was a born scorer, his instincts better and sharper than any hoof-footed defender of the era.

In the "Game of the Century", the two defenses showed little regard for fortitude, resulting in a five-goal extra time that left the 100,000+ crowd in Estadio Azteca gasping for air. Never mind the altitude and searing heat; it was the pinball nature of the scoring that knocked the wind from their sails.

Muller, to his credit, did all he was there to do: put the ball in the goal, lather, rinse, repeat. The extra time wouldn't have happened if it weren't for that most German of occurrences, the injury-time equalizer (see: 1966 for more evidence). Up to that point, the Italians had been cruising, but Karl-Heinz Schnellinger's awkward-looking goal (did he mean to head it? did he slip and sidefoot by accident?) gave us the extra half-hour. And, as the cliche goes, what a half-hour it would turn out to be.

They were ugly goals -- the first, a scramble over Enrico Albertosi as he failed to smother a corner, the second a header from 5 yards as the defense froze -- but they kept the Germans and their wounded hero, Franz Beckenbauer (playing with a fractured shoulder in a sling), in the hunt until Gianni Rivera's fine winner in the 111th minute.

Their contributions to this epic contest are forever recorded in history, as is their defeat. Muller's performance should never have been allowed to occur, but that's what makes it so great; given the opportunity, he pounced like he did his entire career (to the tune of 489 goals in 565 club games, 68 in 62 for West Germany).


ü75 said...

You just wanted a reason to show Istanbul highlights.

phil said...

Needs more George Best.

bergkampesdios said...

Brazil 1994. Holland dead in the water. He scores out of nothing, sets up another, and was arguably the best player on the pitch for a team that was very much outclassed. Pretty much exactly what you were looking for.

/I might be biased