Posted by: jowanderer | May 23, 2008

Wanted: one hero to seize occasion. Only fearless need apply

May 22, 2008

Wanted: one hero to seize occasion. Only fearless need apply…

 

Perhaps it is the highest of all sporting talents. Let us call it the seizing of an occasion. Often we ask of a player, can he do it on the big stage? What we mean is not just can he play well when it matters. We mean, can he seize an occasion, can he shape it with his will, can he make it his? The Matthews Final remains, for the English at any rate, the all-time template of such an achievement.

It’s not just about being very brilliant. It’s more about getting it right at exactly the right time. It’s about the ability to see that this is your moment and to reach out and grab it. The greatest sprinters are not those that break the world record; they are those who do so at the Olympic Games. And right from the first, this Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea was an occasion ripe for the seizing.

Sometimes a great occasion is something that crowns a great player’s career; Steven Gerrard in the Champions League final three years ago is just such an example. But sometimes the expected players fail to do any of the seizing, and a more obscure name leaves his mark by scoring the decisive goal.

That was what happened two years ago, also at the Champions League final, when Juliano Belletti scored the winning goal for Barcelona against Arsenal. Belletti began proceedings in the Luzhniki Stadium last night sitting on the bench for Chelsea.

It’s about fear, but all great sporting occasions are about fear, perhaps especially so for those who know that they have the talent for seizing within them. It’s what you do with the fear that counts. Some feel the fear and are reduced by it, but every now and then a great performer alchemises the fear and turns it in an occasion that will forever define him and his sport.

Cristiano Ronaldo has had to face the big-occasion question more often than most this season. It is a natural human instinct to see something very good and want it to be still better. And sometimes it even happens. Ronaldo, as aware as anybody of this debate, began looking a mite flustered, overacting the part of composure as he started on the left. It was Owen Hargreaves, cutting in from the opposite side, who grasped the tempo of the occasion faster.

Chelsea made what chess players call a piano opening, looking for an opening, reluctant to overcommit. Individualities – Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard – were concealed beneath the team ethic, the greater talents in the side displayed only in muted form. In truth, they had little option, with the gung-ho way that Manchester United began. United had players looking for the seizing, Chelsea had players who were biding their time.

You have to score at such times. Fail, and a momentum shift of extreme proportions can take place. These times require great concentration if the defending side are to bring about this momentum shift and it was here that Chelsea failed. Ronaldo had been making his way into the game, once or twice turning Michael Essien, his marker, comprehensively. He was beginning to show signs of relishing the occasion.

So instead of giving him nothing, Chelsea and Essien gave him a free header. Paul Scholes, always a player likely to crop up on a big occasion, and Wes Brown, who is not, worked an opening and Brown’s cross was perfect. Ronaldo, who has shown many times this season that he’d be a pretty useful goalscorer even if he couldn’t kick a ball, found his usual balletic, après midi d’un faun elevation and headed precisely, almost pedantically into the net.

There are players of an occasion-seizing type. We know who they are and perhaps they should have an asterisk by their name on the teamsheet. And the thing about players of this type is that even in a muted performance, they can strike from a clear sky.

So it was as Chelsea pulled level. Lampard had done little to attract the eye until he made a dramatic run into the box and exploited a moment of panic in the Manchester United defence. He finished with the immense certainty that is his speciality and the game was turned topsy-turvy.

Its pattern was destroyed. Players were flummoxed. Disorder ruled: not in terms of tactical incoherence but because no individual could take control. The game was being played in a power-vacuum, one crying out for the hand of a leader, for an occasion-moulder, either in the grand manner, or in the manner of the still-watching Belletti.

Michael Ballack was charging forward with a demented look in his eyes. He has done it before and was brimming with the belief that he could do so again. Ronaldo, running, pouting and falling over with a martyred air, was determined that he should be the one.

The search continued with increasing desperation. It is a hero that is required at such stages, but at times of almost disturbing commitment and effort, the game was unable to find its direction and its leading player. It seemed that it would be remembered for something other than a single stellar performance: rather, for a showcasing of an episode between between rivals who could hardly be separated. The heroes did a good job of cancelling each other out. It was time to look for more earthy, less glamorous virtues in a game of a peculiarly unforgiving kind.

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