Manchester United vs Chelsea, Tottenham v Real Madrid and the Vitality of English Football

In less than two weeks’ time, two battle-weary formations will stare at one another across a field, the contrasting burdens of history and recent slip-ups pressing upon their shoulders. Clinging to the comforting idea that their faults are no worse than those of their enemy, they are plunged together in a battle to avoid being turned over by the wheels of history.

I romanticise the prospect of Manchester United’s tie with Chelsea because it needs romanticising. When Didier Deschamps told the press that the current Manchester United ‘lacks fantasy’, he uttered a truism which he might have applied across the top of the English game (it has often been argued that even Arsenal lack the sheer variety of attacking options that the greatest attacking teams have).

It’s a truism because the fact that United, and the best English teams in general, lack creative spark, is a self-evident case which masks a more fundamental truth: English football is more exciting now than it has been for years.

It wasn’t so long ago that Chelsea and United formed a duopoly to rival that of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Since the Champions’ League Final of 2008, however, the tide has turned. The recent league match between the two sides illustrated how both teams have been drained of flair and ingenuity almost as quickly as Barca and Real have grown.

United, without the drive and goal threat of Ronaldo, have failed to develop a midfield partnership capable of dominating matches with the swagger of teams gone by; Chelsea, for their part, appear to have downgraded from the irresistible crushing device fashioned by Jose Mourinho to a troublesome, malfunctioning machine under Carlo Ancelotti. Each has the ability to pulverise anything it comes up against; neither seems to be able to click into place.

So why is this a good thing? In Spain, they have the perfect dichotomy: glorious, imperious Barcelona, and the constantly evolving menace of Mourinho’s Real Madrid. In England, we have a ragtag bunch of sides, all thrilling to observe in their perfect fallibility. The ingenuity of Messi and Ronaldo has ironically produced an elegance, a finesse so stifling in its orderliness one can’t help but be moved by the sheer unpredictability of England’s comparatively workmanlike outfits.

We need to be reminded that the competitiveness of English football is what makes it unique to the world game. If Manchester United and Chelsea grinding against each other for 180 minutes (probably even longer, given how closely matched these all-English ties usually are) doesn’t reinforce that point, Tottenham taking on Real Madrid will surely ram it home. No tie can better demonstrate the depth of the English game than a team with no Champions’ League experience before this season taking on Mourinho’s latest project.

Real Madrid versus Tottenham is perhaps the embodiment of this whole argument; like a classical sculpture, Madrid represent an idealised, orderly vision of the game which seems to preserve a structured, unified purpose. Their passing, their movement off the ball, Mourinho’s meticulous tactical preparations, all reflect the kind of tranquil beauty so strongly contrasted in England.

If Madrid are a classical sculpture, Tottenham’s canvas is covered in some sort of wild Futurist experiment; aggressive, speedy, powerful, coherent in its extravagant fearlessness. While Spurs proved against AC Milan that a methodical defensive approach is well within their capabilities, it is the prospect of Bale and Lennon charging head-on at Mourinho’s sophisticated sculpture which will thrill the neutrals. It is a very English incoherence, and one which equally applies to the other English sides remaining in the Champions’ League.

And if that doesn’t make the case for a Manchester United – Chelsea tie packed full of fantasy, then nothing will.

Also See: Champions League QuarterFinals Draw.

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