Sunday, October 17, 2010



By Wayne Robins

Or, to put it another way, West Bromwich Albion defeated Manchester United Saturday afternoon, 2-2.

This is one of those results that makes some Americans soccer phobic: Americans find unbearable: How can you play for 90 minutes and enjoy a tie? Manchester United, the mighty mights of the English Premier League and on some level the world's premier sports franchise, was well favored playing at home in front of more than 75,000 of its loyalists against the surprising West Bromwich Albion (WBA). And game adhered to the script almost from the beginning: After five minutes, WBA goalkeeper Carson blocked a Man U shot, but made the mistake of deflecting the ball, which bounced in front of the waiting foot of Man U's Hernandez for an easy goal and a 1-0 lead.

WBA's defense was porous, Man U poured on the pressure, and when Nari scored a too easy goal as the 24th minute ticked to 25, the 2-0 lead for Manchester seemed so insurmountable that I switched from ESPN2 to Fox Sports Channel, where Birmingham City's Nikola Zigic, a 6' 8" Serbian, popped a header past the Arsenal keeper for a goal that seemed inevitable: As the announcer put it, "From the moment it left his head, that ball was destined for the far corner" of the net.

Arsenal has been underachieving so far this season: the Birm City goal ended any chance of Arsenal achieving a "clean sheet" or shut out, as we Americans call it. One nil Birm City.

But some reprehensible refereeing changed the course of the match. The ref, Martin Atkinson, called a penalty on Birmingham defender Scott Dann near the goal as Arsenal's Chamakh fell to the ground despite what the replays showed was no contact. "I have to say Martin Atkinson made a mistake; he (Chamakh) simulated the situation," was the polite way the Fox announcer described it. But the damage had been done: Arsenal's Nasri easily beat the goalie on a free penalty kick, and it was 1-1. A few minutes later, Chamakh, the Moroccan striker, hit the ground again, and the announcers began to mock him outright. "Let's call it a low pain threshold," they said. At this point, their accusation was literal: "Birmingham is disgusted. Every player to a man knows Chamakh was guilty of diving." It ended 2-1 Arsenal.
At halftime, I went upstairs to play Snood.

This always takes longer than planned, and so when I came downstairs, it was around the 60 minute mark, and Arsenal had scored another goal. Birmingham did not seem able to overcome the sense of futility Atkinson's call had instilled in them, so I switched back to the Manchester United - West Bromwich Albion match. And it was 2-2!

Late in that game, around the 80th minute, another extremely dubious call favoring Man U, the home team, gave them a penalty kick. The kick was taken by one-time Mr. English football Wayne Rooney, who reportedly will be sold by Man U in January. He's not getting along with team manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Something about Rooney cavorting with two prostitutes while his wife was five months pregnant. And not playing well at all. Rooney's kick was way wide and his effort, like much of his play this season, seemed subpar. Ian Darke, the soccer announcer whose articulation and knowledge is to Man U matches what the great Vin Scully is to Dodgers baseball games, described the home team mood in one word: "Consternation."

Hardly any visiting team ever comes back from 2-nil down at Manchester United's turf. But uncharacteristic bad bounces and misplays around the goal had allowed WBA to tie it up, freaking out Man U and its supporters, who feel quite the sense of entitlement when they have a lead at home.

When it was over, the Man U fans throatily booed, while West Bromwich Albion rooters were overjoyed. In Premier League football, a team gets three points for a win, no points for a loss, and one point for a tie: League standings are based on such point accumulations. So West Bromwich got a point it did not expect to receive; Man U did not get the three points it expected, settling for the one point tie.

Psychologically, Man U felt like it lost two points, WBA felt like it gained one. As Ian Darke said post-match: "A great point for Bromwich, a worry for Manchester United."

Which is why it is easy to see that in the game ending 2-2, West Bromwich won—and Manchester lost. Just do the math.

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