Over the Moon & Down in the Dumps

Man City Fly Higher while Roma Leave a Bitter Taste in Budapest

"It was men against boys," opined Dion Dublin after the F.A. Cup Final, daring to define the gap between the two Manchester clubs in black and white terms.

A 2-1 win does not suggest a gulf in class, but it was still clear at Wembley how far Manchester City have pulled away from United in recent seasons. Pre-match Erik Ten Haag had called them "probably the best team in the world at this moment."

City's passing and thinking were quicker and more accurate than United's and their pressing was more effective, clustering around any red shirt in midfield who had the ball.

With in-built telepathy, City could master the game better than United, whose players seemed to pause to think too often, losing precious split-seconds.

Ilkay Gundogan's lightning strike as fans took their seats was perhaps fortuitous but then to even things out, lady luck gave United a leg-up via Jack Grealish's handball.

As for the winning goal, it was a simple case of a ball-watching defence leaving the already goalscorer with a free shot. The Red Devils do deserve credit for suffocating Erling Haaland and for only losing by one goal to a team so superior they look set fair to win the same treble the Red Devils won in 1999.

Teenage super-sub Alejandro Garnacho was the red half of Manchester's leading light at Wembley, giving us a vintage display of barnstorming wing play in his half-hour of action. How they missed the injured Anthony on the other flank, whose incisions might have made the tie a closer affair.

Comparing the two benches said it all - Garnacho was Erik Ten Haag's only real potential gamechanger, whereas Pep Guardiola could call upon Julian Alvarez, Phil Foden or Riyadh Mahrez.

With revenue of £619 million last year, Manchester City sit atop Deloitte's Football Money League, with United, for so long the biggest brand in soccer, trailing in fourth with £583 million. However, United slightly outspent City in transfers, £179m v £176.4m, which suggests work to be done on recruitment.

However, reigning champions with a storied coach were always more likely to catch the eye of potential targets more readily than a club hoping to qualify for the Champions League with a manager not yet proven at the highest level.

United need another big transfer haul to compete with the Etihad's residents, perhaps four new players in the key positions - goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and striker. A new and monied club owner remains their best hope of reducing the distance between East and West Manchester.

City's almost clean sweep this season (they failed to win the League Cup) is raising questions again about football's lack of a level playing field, particularly compared to American sports. Arsenal made a brave attempt to wrest the title from City but in the end the 19 other clubs of England's Premier League were left scratching their heads about how to compete with Guardiola's Abu Dhabi-backed operation.

Talk of a salary cap has returned in soccer circles recently, prompted by the petrodollar takeovers of Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Newcastle United and possibly soon Manchester United, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo's megabucks move to Saudi Arabia and the Qatari World Cup.

Competing in the transfer market against moguls like Gianni Angnelli or Silvio Berlusconi was one thing, but outbidding nations' sovereign wealth funds is another mountain altogether.

For now, Manchester City motor on, appearing unbeatable.

Europa League Final

Roma deserve a hefty punishment from UEFA for the appalling way some of their supporters physically harassed referee Anthony Taylor at Budapest airport following their Europa League final loss to Sevilla, taking their cue from manager Jose Mourinho's verbal assault on Taylor in the stadium car park after the match.

Mourinho mixed languages but clearly wailed 'Vergogna!' (disgrace, shame on you) at the referee from close range, a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Football cannot function when match officials are abused and threatened like this. Some lines just cannot be crossed. Absurdly given what happened next, at the post-match press conference Mourinho insisted his side had lost with dignity. For all his talent, the Special One has a permanent penchant for petulance.

It had been a bad-tempered final with 14 bookings but that was not Taylor's fault any more than the Netherlands' dirty play in the 2010 World Cup final was the fault of referee Howard Webb.

Taylor's refereeing was not Italian in style, letting go some actions that would not normally go unpunished in Serie A. Still, his overall conduct was in no way unfair to Mourinho's team. The fact is, in Italy many fans suspect match officials of bias because Italian football has a long history of fixing matches, going back to the 1934 World Cup Fascist Italy hosted and won, partly thanks to some state interference.

Brian Glanville, the great football scribe, exposed a famous match-fixing scandal in Italy in the 1960s. Later, there was the Totonero scandal of 1980, the 2006 Calciopoli scandal and further scandals in 2011 and 2015. Every season, it is also frequent for final league fixtures between sides who need points and those who do not, to be 'arranged' in order to store up friendship credits for subsequent seasons.

Against this cultural backdrop many Italian fans are conditioned to think "il arbitro e' venduto" (the referee has been sold) when decisions or results go against them. A culture clash was partly to blame for the outrageous treatment of Taylor.

Yet, as with the Dutch in 2010, Roma only have themselves to blame for being sore losers.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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