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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Mistakes are made from England to Spain

Manchester United is knocked out of the F.A. Cup by Manchester City, while Barcelona and Real Madrid battle to a 1-1 tie.

April 16, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer

As the crow flies, about 787 miles separate London's Wembley from Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu.

The crows aren't flying in either direction, however. They were eaten Saturday at both stadiums.

Those in England with black feathers around their mouths are easy to spot. They include Alex Ferguson, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand, all four from no-longer-treble-chasing Manchester United.

In Spain, they include Jose Mourinho and Raul Albiol from Real Madrid and Dani Alves from Barcelona.

Plenty of crow to go around, then.

It was a Saturday in which only two games really mattered to neutral fans and they provided three hours of don't-take-your-eye-off-it soccer. The outcome of both matches was in doubt until the final whistle.

First, Manchester City upset Manchester United, 1-0, in an English F.A. Cup semifinal that saw the delirious blue half of Manchester finally pay back the red half for decades of arrogant disdain.

Then, in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona played to a 1-1 tie in a pulsating match that hardly gave the players time to draw a breath. The result means that Barcelona retains its eight-point lead over Real with six games remaining and almost certainly will win its third Spanish league title in a row.

Just to get the relevant statistics out of the way, Yaya Toure scored Manchester City's vital goal, while Lionel Messi — who else? — scored for Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo — who else? — scored for Real Madrid, the latter two on penalty kicks.

But back to the crow-eaters, those whose mistakes of judgment or action brought about the results.

Ferguson, Manchester United's coach, has to take the blame for his team selection. He chose to leave his finest player, Ryan Giggs, off the roster altogether and also opted to leave Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez on the bench until it was way too late.

Rooney has to take the blame for picking up a needless suspension, courtesy of his obscene rant at a television camera a couple of weeks ago. He was confined to his seat and powerless to influence the outcome.

Scholes has to take the blame for being United's resident thug, a player of considerable skill and very little sense. His "filthy" foul — the English media's description — on City midfielder Pablo Zabaleta brought a deserved red card and left United with 10 men. This has been an all-too-frequent scenario for Scholes.

"We've seen it over his career," Ferguson admitted. "He has these red-mist moments and this was another one."

Ferdinand has to take the blame for his postgame histrionics, when he reacted like a sore loser, trying to physically attack Manchester City's resident dim bulb, Mario Balotelli, for some unnecessary goading of United fans by the Italian player with a history of stupid actions.

Manchester City Coach Roberto Mancini, not a huge fan of Balotelli, did come to his defense with a tongue-in-cheek comment.

"Every time something happens it seems to be Mario's fault," Mancini said. "If he did celebrate in front of the Manchester United supporters, I don't know, we can put him in jail if you like."

All in all, it was not Manchester United's finest hour, but a missed early goal chance by Dimitar Berbatov, a poor clearance kick by veteran goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, and a bad pass by Michael Carrick that was intercepted by Toure, who subsequently scored, were the least of its problems.

Now, the trophy chase is down to two bits of silverware — the English Premier League title, which is virtually in the bag, and the European Champions League, where United, like Barcelona and Real Madrid, is one of the semifinalists.

Two out of three would make for a fine season. But had Giggs or Rooney been on the field Saturday, Manchester United probably would still be in the hunt for the treble, just like the one Giggs helped the club win in 1999.

As for Real Madrid, its questionable moments came before and during the match.

Mourinho, who erred in not starting playmaker Memut Ozil, started things off on the wrong foot when he appeared at a Friday news conference but refused to speak. "Every time the coach talks, everything is blown out of proportion," said Mourinho's fill-in, assistant coach Aitor Karanka.

Not to worry, Ronaldo had a better pregame quote than Mourinho could have delivered. "They are a great team, but they are not from another planet," he said of Barcelona. "They are human beings just like us."

In other words, brilliant at times, and flawed as well.

Albiol's flaw came when he grabbed David Villa around the neck and shoulders, getting himself red-carded, leaving Real with only 10 players, and allowing Messi to score on a penalty kick.

Alves, a relatively weak link in the Barcelona team because of his frequently poor crossing of the ball and his lapses on defense, fouled fellow Brazilian Marcelo to yield the penalty kick from which Ronaldo scored.

That gave the Real Madrid fans crowd something to crow about, but the tie did not go down too well.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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