Underestimating your adversary is a poor strategy in any competition.
Last night in Yokohama, where they were contesting the final of the World Club Cup, Manchester United came dangerously close to doing that. Their opponent, Copa Libertadores champion Liga de Quito of Ecuador, put up a courageous fight. Proving themselves a far more formidable opponent than expected, at the end a talented and experienced Liga side had mighty United on the back foot. When in the 90th minute a fully extended Edwin Van der Sar managed to tip Damián Manso's blazing strike from distance just over the bar, the quiet sigh of relief in the United camp was almost audible. Manso had terrorized Van der Sar earlier, coming wickedly close with a 25-yard bolt in the 62nd minute; that had been Liga's first shot on goal, but it marked a turning point in this match--the last third of which saw United on the defensive, all its holding skills required to deal with the surprising threat on the wings from Liga's speedy and mercurial Luis Bolanos and from--above all--the aggressive, confident Argentine veteran Manso, whose sure touch, excellent delivery and rampaging forward motion appeared to catch the European champions entirely off guard.
But perhaps United should be forgiven for failing to anticipate the threat represented by Manso and Bolanos. The very useful Goal.Com rating system for world players ranks Manso third and Bolanos fifteenth among all midfielders. (To put this in perspective, Xavi ranks fifth, Cesc Fabregas sixth, Kaka ninth--and the highest ranked Englishman, Frank Lampard, no higher than 18th.)
Certainly the English media were caught unawares. Both Barry Glendenning of the Guardian and Chris Bevan of the BBC, in their match reports, referred repeatedly to Damián Manso as Alejandro Manso. (Andy Hunter, in his followup piece in the Guardian, repeated his colleague's mistake.) No doubt their error was the result of limited research--but again, they too might be forgiven, since the sponsoring wisdom of FIFA, as evidenced in their website and publicity releases (which Barry and Chris must have been following, how else explain their common laziness), equally failed to include the correct first name for this wonderful player, who is renowned throughout South America but obviously unknown to the xenophobic sages of European football.
Certainly the twenty-nine-year-old veteran Damián "Piojo" Manso is well known in Argentina, where he played brilliantly for Newell's Old Boys of Rosario in 1996-2001 and 2002-2005. His teammates at Newell's in those years included the likes of Maxi Rodriguez, Gabriel Heinze and Gabriel Batistuta; among those behind him in the side was a Newell's youth team player and local Rosario lad named Lionel Messi.
And indeed Damián Manso did finally earn the attention--and respect--not only of the twice-challenged Van der Sar but of United captain Rio Ferdinand, arguably the finest central defender in what is generally considered the most powerful football league on the planet. Not that Rio had gone so far as to be able to put a name on the number of the man who had been such an irritant all night. "That little left footed front man, number 21, is a fantastic footballer," Ferdinand fairly conceded to a Japanese interviewer after the match.
At least Rio Ferdinand had sorted out the numbers. The Guardian's Glendenning, whose strongest assertion all night had been his stated wish that the match would end in 90 minutes so that he could get back to London to complete his holiday preparations ("I've got lots to do to clear the decks before heading home to my mammy in Ireland for Christmas"), computed Manso's laserlike stroke-of-90-minutes near-miss as coming three minutes before that--and, most curiously, credited the shot not to the man who had taken it but to another Liga player, Claudio Bieler.
Ah well, why bother to get things right in a game everyone in the English media had treated all along as the culmination of a ridiculous folly of a tournament?
United took the match--1-0 on a splendid 73rd minute Wayne Rooney goal--and won the Cup. Without much celebration, as it had been a somewhat harrowing contest. And there was that long flight home. And the prospect of Stoke City to contend with on Boxing Day.
But then United know what to expect from a hapless Stoke side, having punished them without much mercy in an easy 5-0 win last month at Old Trafford.
Stoke unlike Liga have proven themselves worthy of no more than limited respect. Of course we've heard endlessly of the threat posed by the epic throw-ins of Stoke's Rory Delap. Delap is by now a name everyone in the wide world of football knows. Still, it seems that not even after he scared United half to death last night is anyone in the charmed kingdom of Premier League triumphalism able to get Damián Manso's name right.
Why is this? Is xenophobia an English virtue?
Coming into this final, contributors on English websites, eager to demonstrate their cultural provincialism, consistently disparaged the Ecuadoran side. Liga de Quito would provide--it was thought--no more than a straw foe for might United to easily bowl over. One particularly confident blogging dummy referred to them as "LDU Quinto". Why bother to know who you're playing when you don't even expect a serious game?
The odd thing is, there are parts of the world where Liga de Quito is taken very seriously indeed. Brazil, for example, where, rumour has it, people know a bit about football. In order to qualify for the World Club Cup, Liga had to come out on top in the grueling Copa Libertadores competitition, the highest club-level prize available to sides from South America and Mexico.
Getting to the July final of the Libertadores--the decisive second leg was an unforgettably intense, emotional match played before 90,000 highly-involved Brazilian fans in the mammoth Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro--took six months of hard labor on Liga's part. There was no fluke in their victory. Up 4-2 over Fluminense after the first leg at home in Ecuador, they found themselves brought level at 5-5 aggregate after two spectacular goals from Flu's marvelous Thiago Nieves (another brilliant South American player as yet virtually unknown in Europe). Amidst the rocking euphoria of the Maracana, however, Liga held on. In a penalty shootout their great 37-year-old keeper Jose Francisco Cevallos, the final's most valuable player, saved three kicks--and perhaps also the life of Liga manager Edgardo Bauza, whose isolated agony during the fraught shootout, caught by television images, provides one of the more interesting emotional dramas in recent football history.
You can see the riveting highlights of that memorable final here:
first leg (ida)
return leg (vuelta)
After the Libertadores victory Liga returned to their own league, where, like United, they have had their own struggles. In the recently concluded Ecuadoran Apertura, they finished second to local rivals Deportivo Quito. Their title-deciding end-of-November clasico against Deportivo was a magnificent affair, closely-contested, every ball fought for with great feeling; it was a match that will be remembered in Ecuador for many years. But don't take my word for it, look for yourself.
As of course will many in South America--if not in Europe-- remember this 2008 World Club Club final, a match that was regarded, in the run-up, with little more than ridicule and annoyance by the fans and press corps of the English champions. But just ask Rio Ferdinand if this was an easy night for United. Defeating the second-best side in Ecuador required every bit of energy left in United's tank. You can bet that Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo had not anticipated being on the pitch a full 90 minutes, as in the event they were.
Liga stood brave and tall in defeat, though at the end the desolated keeper Cevallos sat gutted between his posts, watching the big screen at the other end of the stadium as though it might miraculously show a different outcome on a night when the unbelievable had nearly happened.