Manchester United - Season Review - Part II

The Champions League again kick-started with the 2nd round in which United beat Lille under controversial circumstances. Giggs scored the only goal of the match from a free kick on 84 minutes but the Lille players were not ready and they threatened to walk off the pitch if the goal was allowed which it was and Lille were heavily fined for their antics as United claimed a crucial victory. Two weekends of Premiership football proved to me that the title was United’s this season. On 24th Feb, United were drawing 1-1 with Fulham after Brian McBride had cancelled out Giggs’ first half volley. But, Ronaldo, who has undoubtedly been United’s player of the season, broke Fulham – and Chelsea – hearts as he scored a brilliant individual goal on 88 minutes to give United the victory. On 3rd March, in another game in which United were expected to slip up (and should have) United beat Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield. Liverpool dominated the entire game and should have had the match done and dusted if not for United’s brilliant goal-keeper Edwin Van Der Sar who blocked efforts from both Bellamy and Crouch. United should have been awarded a penalty after it clearly looked like Saha had been caught by Daniel Agger in the box on 76 minutes but referee Martin Atkinson dismissed the claims. 3 minutes from time United were a man down as Scholes was sent off for flinging his arm against Xabi Alonso. Just as it looked like United were about to drop points, John O’Shea scored in the 92nd minute after a Ronaldo free kick had been fumbled by Liverpool keeper Jose Reina to give United the most unlikely of victories.

In between those two late victories United also progressed to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup after a 3-2 victory at Reading and United deservedly qualified also for the quarterfinals of the Champions League after beating Lille 1-0 on 7th March. After a 2-2 draw away to Middlesborough left United facing a replay at Old Trafford for the FA Cup QF, United routed Bolton 4-1 at home to maintain their lead. Cristiano Ronaldo again proved to be the hero as United beat Middlesborough through his penalty at Old Trafford in the replay to set up a semifinal date with Watford at Villa Park. United ended the month of March with both bad and good news, with both influential captain Neville and Vidic, who had been the best defender in the team out with long-term injuries, it seemed as if United’s injury worries were beginning to show but it was Chelsea who still looked like faltering as United routed Blackburn 4-1 only for Chelsea to maintain the gap at 6-points with a late, later winner at Watford.

Manchester United began the month of April badly as they lost away to Roma 2-1 in the quarter-finals of the CL in a match where they played a major portion with 10-men after Scholes was sent off for two bad tackles. The following weekend came United’s major slip up as they lost at Portsmouth 2-1 after two calamitous mistakes from keep Van Der Sar and Chelsea who had beaten Spurs 1-0 at home previously in the day closed the gap to 3 points and the critics again murmured that United will eventually lose it because of their injuries. But United bounced back in style in an European night which will be remembered by everyone for a long time and in which Roma wished they had never played. Roma, who finished second in the Italian League, were demolished, humiliated and left in shambles by a Manchester United team with a point to prove. The match started with Roma in control of the tie, 2-1 ahead on aggregate but within 20 minutes, that situation changed as a Carrick lob, a delightful finish from Alan Smith (who proved crucial after Larsson’s departure and Saha’s injury) and a Rooney goal left United 3-0 ahead but United were not finished as Ronaldo’s first CL goal of the season helped United to end the first half 4-0 up and almost into the semis of the CL. 3 goals in the second half from Carrick, Rooney and Evra and a solitary goal for Roma from De Rossi saw the match end 7-1 for United which sent United through to the semis of the CL for a date with AC Milan and also sent shockwaves through Europe.

United made little of Watford in the FA Cup semifinal as they beat them 4-1 in Villa park to set up a final clash with Chelsea, who beat Blackburn 2-1 in extra time at Old Trafford (ironically) the following day, in the newly renovated Wembley stadium on 19th May. In a weekend where Chelsea should have closed the gap within 1 point, United drew at home 1-1 with Boro on 21st April because of a rare lackluster attacking display after Ferdinand was injured with a recurring groin injury but Chelsea failed to capitalize again as they drew 0-0 away at Newcastle in a match where they just seemed like they did not want to win. The Champions League semis began on 24th April with United fielding a weakened defense against AC Milan at Old Trafford. The match began well for United with a header from Ronaldo tipped over the ball by Milan goalie Dida to give United the lead. But the chinks in United’s armour were spotted by Milan’s wonderful Brazilian Kaka as he scored within the space of 15 minutes to give Milan two crucial away goals. United went into half time 2-1 down. But a double from Rooney with the winner coming in injury time helped United to a 3-2 victory in the second half and United holding a minor advantage for the return leg at the San Siro.

The following weekend both the title contenders kicked off at the same time against Bolton at home for Chelsea and Everton away for (United on Saturday, 28th April and the title race fluctuated over the course of 90 minutes finally ending with United having one hand on the trophy. Alan Stubbs’ free kick left United trailing at half time whereas Chelsea had come back after going a goal down to Bolton to lead 2-1 at half time and it seemed both teams would be level at the end of 90. Everton went 2-0 ahead through a wonderful strike by Manuel Fernandez and Bolton equalized through Kevin Davies in a wonderful seesaw of events. But United decided that this was their season and in a remarkable comeback won the match 4-2 helped along the way by Everton goalie Ian Turner whose howler led to the first United goal and former Red Phil Neville whose own goal was United’s equalizer. As Chelsea ended their game with only a point to show for it, they fell 5-points behind United and in doing so almost conceded the league to Manchester United.

The following mid-week that should have been sweet turned bitter as United were out-classed and out-played by AC Milan in every department when we lost 3-0 away from home which destroyed our hopes of a repeat of the 1999 treble in a match I don’t want to elaborate. The only good news out of that was Chelsea lost in their semi against Liverpool on penalties which ended their quadruple hopes and also the fact that the title could be clinched the following weekend. As it happened, in the following weekend a very tired United team scraped a 1-0 victory away at Manchester City in the Manchester Derby which meant they were 8-points ahead of Chelsea and which also meant Chelsea had to win away at Arsenal to keep the title alive. In a wonderful match at the Emirates Stadium, Chelsea went a goal and a man behind at the end of the first half when Boulahrouz was sent off for fowling Baptista in the box and Gilberto converted the following penalty to give Arsenal the lead. Chelsea played a brilliant second half with 10-men and scored through Michael Essien on 75 minutes to level and should have won it through a fierce Kalou shot which was tipped over by Arsenal goal-keeper Jens Lehmann. But the 1-1 draw meant that Manchester United FC had been crowned English Premier League Champions for the 9th time and had won their 16th English top-flight title.

The last two matches against Chelsea which they drew 0-0 after fielding a reserve team and West Ham which they lost 1-0 at home helping the Hammers stay up were a mere formality as United lifted their 9th English Premier League title, all under Sir Alex Ferguson on 13th May. And Sir Alex Ferguson deserves it more than anybody as in the past three years where the fans and even some of the players lost their belief that we could win the title again, he was the only person who insisted that this team would go places after they mature and that they have done. I could not have asked for a better season when we went to the semis of the CL and put up a good fight with a depleted squad, have finished as Champions of England and are hoping to complete the Double (which incidentally would be our 4th) of the League and FA Cup the coming Saturday against Chelsea in the New Wembley.

As a British newspaper put it,
Sir Alex and his Manchester United have proved that footballing beauty can conquer the relentless beast”, the ‘relentless beast’ meaning Chelsea’s style of boring football.

Thanks Sir Alex and the Team for a truly wonderful season for Manchester United fans. Go win the Champions League next time around.

TinTin Movie Trilogy - Bring it On!

The announcement of a TinTin trilogy in the works has left me drooling with anticipation. The announcement came a few months back from head of Herge Studios head, Nick Rodwell but the news that filtered in yesterday that two of the best directors in Hollywood in Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson will be co-producing the trilogy and will be at the helm for two of the three has left me elated and to be honest, a bit confused (for lack of a better word).

The first time I heard the announcement, I was worried really because the faces of TinTin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and especially the Simpson brothers are so well etched my mind that it will be difficult for me (and most TinTin fans) to digest any actor, however good he may be, performing these roles. But those fears were washed away with news that TinTin will be a computer animated movie and one of the best at that. And Spielberg rightly said that shooting the movie in live-action format would not honour the look of the characters that Herge created. And Jackson has gone one better and said that the characters will look photo-realistic rather than cartoonish which makes it all the more better as had they made it cartoonish it would have been like watching a cartoon rather than an animated movie.

The news about animation is what left me a bit confused, though I am sure it will go away once a few trailers and videos start to come about. The confusion arises from the fact that even though both Jackson and Spielberg are the best at what they do and have given us classics like LOTR, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and so on, neither of them to my knowledge has ever directed an animated movie and I don't want that fact to stick out like a sore thumb once the movie eventually does hit the screens.

I remember seeing a bunch of TinTin cartoons on Cartoon Network a long time back and though they were just moving images from the book, they worked really well for me. And the major reason for that was the selection of the voice actors. I don’t remember – nor do I know – any of the actors from those roles but I do remember appreciating how much they fit the roles of the main characters, especially TinTin and Captain Haddock. I have no idea who they are going to call for the trilogy but I feel it would be great if they could rope in the actors from these cartoons.

I cannot wait for these movies to hit the theaters although the initial work has not even begun. The truth is I began my foray into the world of reading with TinTin. I had read a few Enid Blyton books but TinTin (thanks to my mom who introduced me to him) is what captured my imagination when I was about 8 to 10. I read the whole series and re-read and read them again and again and it never got boring. Even today, sometimes I find myself going to the library, picking one of my favourites and sifting through them bringing back some old memories. It was one of my favourite comic books and still remains to this day. The writing is wonderfully witty and the book tends to be funny even in some real tension scenes. Captain Haddock who is one of my favourite characters has all the best lines as his wonderfully written character is brought to life through some witty dialogue and swearing that not only show his aggressive nature but also his kind and caring heart. Some of my personal favourites include Destination Moon and its sequel Explorers of the Moon (a book which led me to take up the career path of an astronaut which I need not say died out quickly) and The Seven Crystal Balls and its sequel Prisoners of the Sun, though the whole lot of them are still some of the best comics out there.

So is anybody else excited at this announcement and when the movie does hit the theaters it is going to be “Blistering Barnacles” and “Thundering Typhoons”.

Manchester United - Season Review - Part I

The noise from the 76000 and odd crowd is deafening, you would not hear an all mighty loudspeaker amidst this clamor. This is the last day of the English Premier League season at Old Trafford, home to Manchester United FC. The players on the grass all have medals around their necks which is their personal trophy for a season of hard work. Two legends of the club hold aloft the piece of silverware with the crown, the English Premier League trophy. And the fireworks begin in Manchester. Yet few would have predicted these events unfolding on 13th May, 2007 when the season (at least from a Manchester United point of view) began in controversy on 20th August, 2006.

I certainly did not believe it possible that United would be crowned champions at the end of the season. The problems surrounding two of the best young players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are well documented. Ronaldo was seen winking to his team-mates after Rooney was sent off in England’s WC exit against Portugal and was almost destined to end up with the ‘Galacticos’ of Real Madrid after that incident. Yet again – as has always been the case with Manchester United – Sir Alex Ferguson came to the rescue. He sent his right-hand man, United’s assistant coach, Carlos Queiroz to Portugal to have a friendly chat with Ronaldo and his family and Ronaldo decided to stay, still the cloud surrounding him did not move and he was public enemy No.1 wherever he went in England for the entire season. That, coupled with the off-loading of the prolific Dutchman Ruud Van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid and I personally laboured many doubts about United’s goal scoring abilities as well as our ability to pip a dominant Chelsea – who had further strengthened their already strong squad with German mid-fielder Michael Ballack and AC Milan’s goal poacher Andiry Shevchenko – to the EPL crown. Yet, pip they did with one of the best seasons I have personally had as a Manchester United fan scoring an amazing 83 goals (in the EPL alone) in the process.

The opening match of the season pushed out any lingering doubts on Ronaldo and Rooney’s friendship and of the United fans’ suspicious eye on Ronaldo, as Rooney and Ronaldo set each other up for goals in a 5-1 rout of Fulham, and the 76000 strong crowd cheered Ronaldo’s every touch. The Wednesday following that, United were handed a gift as Chelsea (then Champions) lost to Middlesborough away and United beat Charlton 3-0 away from home. And the winning run continued as United beat Watford, Tottenham and Celtic (Champions League) and then came the first blow. United were expected to beat an Arsenal side minus their star Theirry Henry at Old Trafford but Emmanuel Adebayor’s 76th minute strike sunk United hearts and with Chelsea beating Liverpool 1-0, both the teams were level and United fell further behind when they failed to beat newcomers Reading away from home as they were only able to salvage a 1-1 draw with Ronaldo’s leveler on 73 minutes. In the past 2 seasons, United’s lack of consistency has been shown as Chelsea whose form never seemed to dip were able to comfortably outclass United. A defeat and a draw back-to-back left United 2 points behind Chelsea and these old thoughts began to creep in.

A magnificent European night at Benfica and United bounced back with a gritty display and were able to beat the opponents 1-0. Wins against Newcastle – in the same weekend where Chelsea drew at Aston Villa 1-1 – Wigan, Copenhagen (CL), a brilliant performance in a 2-0 victory against an out of form Liverpool and a 4-0 rout at Bolton with a special Rooney hat-trick meant United were level on points but ahead on goal difference at the end of October. With Chelsea’s primary goal-keeper, Petr Cech, in doubt for the rest of the season, Chelsea’s defenses began to fall apart.

At the beginning of November, United were dumped out the Carling Cup by no lesser a team than Southend United, who play first division football, after they lost 1-0 away from home but that also meant one less diversion for United as a team. A win against Portsmouth, a gritty performance at Blackburn for a 1-0 victory and another victory away at Sheffield coupled with Chelsea’s loss at Tottenham on 5th November meant United went into their game with Chelsea 3 points ahead of their rivals. While the match at Old Trafford was a brilliant spectacle to watch with both teams trading attacks and counter-attacks, the result itself did nothing the show which way the title was headed as the match ended 1-1 and United blew a chance to open a 6-point lead at the top.

Losses away to Celtic and Copenhagen in the Champions League meant United had to win their home match against Benfica on 6th December to qualify, which they duly did to qualify in the enviable position on top of their group. Everything seemed well in the league as United beat Everton, Middlesborough and Manchester City (in the Manchester Derby) to open up a 8-point lead over Chelsea who still had a game in hand but had failed to beat fellow Londoners Arsenal on a controversial night at Stamford Bridge. Then came the big surprise as West Ham under the newly appointed Alan Curbishly (who took over from Alan Pardew) beat United 1-0 at Upton Park but a comfortable 3-0 victory away to Aston Villa meant that, with half the season gone United were leading Chelsea by 2 points. Still, with half the season remaining and having had an injury-free season so far, I had my own doubts as to whether United could keep that position till the end of the season. And with Chelsea scoring several last gasp victories against Wigan and Everton in spite of injuries to captain John Terry and goalie Petr Cech, I did wonder whether this could yet be Chelsea’s season.

Chelsea’s defensive frailties began to show and their late-goal luck began to wear out as a draw against Reading on Boxing day at home coupled with United’s victory against Wigan left the former trailing the latter by 4. And Chelsea fell further behind as they were again held at home to a 2-2 draw by Fulham as United defeated Reading 3-2 and opened up a 6-point gap at the top. On New Year’s day Manchester United drew 2-2 away to Newcastle at St. James’ Park and gave Chelsea a sniff at closing the gap. Though a Scholes double had given United the lead, a deflected shot from David Edgar off Scholes leveled it for Newcastle and United dropped two points in a match which they should have won. Chelsea (again without goalie Cech and influential captain Terry) failed to capitalize on United’s slip-up as they drew at home to Aston Villa in a lackluster attacking display.

The FA cup began in full swing on 7th January as on-loan striker Henrik Larsson got his first start against Aston Villa in the 3rd round at home in which United proved they could come up with late winners of their own as Solskjaer scored in injury time in the second half to help United progress to the 4th round. In a weekend that should have had a major say in the title race, United and Chelsea traveled to Arsenal and Liverpool, both of whom had fallen far behind the top two due to inconsistency in the opening months. After Chelsea, devoid of Terry, had been outclassed by Liverpool 2-0 in the early kick-off on Saturday, 20th Jan, it was up to United to beat Arsenal to put the destiny of the league in little doubt. An United victory looked on course as Rooney scored a fantastic header on 53 minutes to give United the lead. But a costly give-away of possession of the ball by Scholes near the edge of his own box led to Arsenal leveling on 83 minutes. Yet, it seemed United would end the weekend with a 7-point lead but some horrendous defending on their part left Henry free in the centre of the penalty box in injury time and the French striker duly converted Eboue’s cross to leave the EPL race at the end of the “crunch weekend” as it was before, with United having a 6-point lead.

A Rooney double helped United secure a 5th round place in the FA Cup as they beat Portsmouth 2-1 at home and a victory against Watford the next weekend saw United maintaining their form. As United prepared for an away match to Spurs at White Hart Lane, murmurs were about that this could be the match where United drop crucial points as Chelsea had. But United silenced any critics with a stunning display of attacking football as they routed Spurs 4-0 and left them in tatters. Reading blocked United’s progress in the 5th round of the FA Cup as they were able to salvage a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford which left United facing an extra trip to Reading.

And more follows in part 2 where I continue to take a look at this fantastic season for Manchester United.

Spiderman 3 (2007)

Superhero movies always have a certain flair to them, there is something about seeing our superhero soar the air and defeat the villain using his superpowers that never gets boring how much ever we see it. Taken at face value, Spiderman 3 keeps all these essential ingredients for a superhero movie intact and certainly has enough action sequences to satisfy purists. However, there is quite a big emotional web woven around the central characters that – even though confusing as it seems – adds a bit extra to keep the Spiderman franchise on top of its other superhero counterparts as far as the silver screen is concerned.

If Spiderman 1 was about a nerdy little high school boy (Peter Parker) gaining superpowers and mastering them to save his city and Spiderman 2 was about the same boy not being able to cope with his double act and then realizing how much his other role means to the city and also succeeding in the little matter of love, Spiderman 3 is about him getting a little over his head and enjoying all the publicity he gets as Spiderman.

Spiderman 3 begins where the last one left, as our hero meets success both as Spiderman who defeats his foes with relative ease and as Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) who finally gains the love of his life in Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the story continues in much of the same vein. Peter’s friendship with his first foe, the Green Goblin’s son lies in tatters after the latter realizes (at the end of the second movie) that his best friend is actually the invincible Spiderman. This third movie also introduces an angle of revenge after Peter realizes that the man who killed his uncle has just escaped from jail and is out on the loose. As all these emotions begin to play in Spiderman’s mind, more deadly evils await in the form of an alien symbiote which has chosen Spidy as its host and increases these dangerous emotions to perilous levels. Peter also gets competition in the form Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) who joins the Daily Bugle as a freelance photographer challenging Peter in capturing Spidy for the Bugle.

As Peter Parker/Spiderman 3 battles his inner demons, his enemies grow in number as his uncle’s killer (Thomas Haden Church) is fused moleculary with sand and becomes the Sandman. And, understandably enough, he chooses to kill Spiderman since he thinks the latter is the only person stopping him from stealing the money required for his daughter’s operation.

The action sequences are as exhilarating as is to be expected from a Spiderman movie. With death-defying stunts that will get even the most weakest of pulses racing, the movie has enough action in it to satisfy even the most hardened of action purists. Some of the sequences, however, are captured in close-up that it is difficult to tell who is hitting who. However, the complexity of the emotions overshadows the action and at times it gets really confusing. The romance of the lead pair is quite good especially because the onscreen chemistry shared by Maguire and Dunst is spot on. On the contrary the movie loses some of its class in scenes which are particularly loaded with heavy emotions reaching dramatic proportions like the sequences of sandman visiting his home in quest to restore his daughter to full health.

I have always adhered to the fact that Tobey Maguire is one lucky boy. His face suits the role of Peter Parker to a T and since he is under the mask as Spiderman and the graphics does most of the work in action set-pieces, he can escape without particularly emoting which is not the same for other superhero stars like, say, Christian Bale in Batman Begins or Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. He also goes slightly over the top in scenes where he is playing host to the symbiote. Kirsten Dunst plays her usual role but she is especially good in scenes where she tries to hide her envy at Peter hogging all the limelight as Spiderman. James Franco plays the role of Harry Osborn who is fighting Peter/Spiderman for killing his father and who is caught in between contrasting emotions of friendship and revenge particularly well and he does full justice to quite a complex role. The rest of the supporting cast does what is expected of them. J. K. Simmons in particular deserves credit for his role as the Director of the Daily Bugle and he is responsible for all the laughs in this otherwise pretty quiet superhero movie.

Spiderman 3 will surely satisfy fans of the previous 2 movies and they will certainly understand the necessity of the emotions underneath the white-knuckle action. And while purists mights argue at the backseat that the action seemingly takes to the emotions, the undeniable fact is that the Spiderman franchise is still the benchmark as far as superhero movies are concerned.