History travels through stories, epochs which stand out as rites of passage. The history of football is written in the ink of such stories, and punctuated by goals. They are at once the symbol of direct, brutal conclusion, and the beginning of something new.
Goals are fascinating. They come in myriad shapes and context, and there is often a strong link between the both. Carlos Alberto’s drilled finish, Marco van Basten’s volley or Ronaldo’s overhead kicks will be long remembered because they formed hieroglyphs of commanding victories in the toughest of battles. Do you remember the other three goals from Brazil’s victory in the 1970 World Cup finals? Does anyone?
In the crayon box of all its possibilities, headed goals are considered the most anaemic, almost scoffed at by puritans for their grotesque vulgarity. It’s a sign of the goalscorer’s inability to score with his feet. But headers have stood the test of time, and continue to contribute handsomely to football folklore, for they often transcend aesthetics to signify something greater.
Volleys speak of supremacy, flicks show flair, long-rangers are a display of brute strength. But rarely has there been a better image of redemption or the first punch of a fightback than a captain scoring a header. It takes courage to put your skull in contact with the ball at a time when there are other skulls — or sometimes even boots — vying for the same ball, and it takes courage to stage a recovery in a sport this fast-moving. Two of the greatest comebacks in English football history were triggered by captains scoring headers. Steven Gerrard at Istanbul, Roy Keane at Turin.
This week, Manchester United are back in Turin, albeit at a different stadium, and they are in desperate need of a similar redemption. The dark clouds of internal turmoil seem to have subsided, but the performances still lack any semblance of brightness. At Bournemouth over the weekend, they were fortunate to come off with a victory, after a defensive performance neatly summarised by manager Jose Mourinho as “awful”.
Manchester United have been consistently slow starters this season, and a cumulative scoreline of 2-7 in the opening forty five across the 11 Premier League matches this season lays bare the problem out in the open. The most striking aspect of this pattern is how unintuitive it feels given United’s forward line. In Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku, the team is spoilt for pace in the attacking third. Paul Pogba and Juan Mata are experts at spotting runs and can usually thread a pass through a needle. It is absolutely bizarre that a team with this attacking talent continues to play staid, colourless football and often finds itself in deficit when the referee calls for the break.
Against Newcastle United and Bournemouth, they were able to stage comebacks, but like with Juventus at Old Trafford earlier this season, stronger defences have invariably found a way to shut United down. What the team has in pace, it lacks in decision making and an ability to run through walls to get their job done. At the end of that night at the Trafford, Mourinho had remarked, “Mr Chiellini and Mr Bonucci are so good, they could give lectures in Harvard on defending.”
They stonewalled away everything United threw at them without breaking sweat. Defenders as experienced as Chiellini and Bonucci know how to deal with pace. It was the absence of a Roy Keane arriving in the box and glancing a header into goal that kept them stress free.
Juventus, however, have brought in exactly that kind of a figure in Manchester United old-boy Cristiano Ronaldo. Often chastised as a fair-weather bunny and a tap-in merchant in his later years at Real Madrid, his departure seems to have cost the triple-Champions League defending champions heavily and his presence at Turin will evoke hope in Juventini that they finally possess the cannonball which can help them breach the elusive European barrier.
Last season’s Serie A was fiercely competitive at the top, and Juventus had to almost snatch the title from Maurizio Sarri’s high-flying and sophisticated Napoli, but like in the previous six seasons, they managed to rack in a stupendous points tally, pointing to an increasing gulf between them and the middle to lower table clubs in the league. Their defeat at the hands of a Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the Champions’ League underlined yet another season in their continuous rise under Max Allegri, when they were peerless in the league but ran up just short in Europe. Most clubs would bite your hand off if you offered them two finals and a semi-final in four years, but seven consecutive Scudetto titles have altered Juventus’ aspirations.
This season too, they are unbeaten in the league so far, with 10 wins and one draw already handing them a six-point lead at the top of the table. In the Champions’ League, nine points from their first three games has almost secured Juventus’ qualification for the knockout rounds, given that Valencia at third place are already seven points adrift.
For Manchester United, the situation is a little murkier. A defeat at Turin on Wednesday would mean third spot and a point behind Valencia if the Spanish side manage to get past BSC Young Boys, which they should. That would make their next match against Young Boys a near must-win.
United would take comfort from their two recent victories in the league, and Martial’s best scoring form since he moved to England. Whether that would be enough to pose a challenge to a strong, steely and now-lethal Juventus is anybody’s guess. If Mourinho’s men can come out of Turin with their pride and knockout round spot intact, the clouds will move farther away.
While warm, radiant sunshine might still be some distance away for Manchester United, they can do with some respite from the dreary air hanging around the club these days. Their disjointed-looking outfit will get one more chance to go out against a big team and test themselves for mettle. If they can channel a fraction of Roy Keane’s spirit from that night, they’ll be on their way.