Murray’s victory captures hearts and minds like few other

There can be few career arcs in tennis that resonate quite as sweetly, and with quite as much tangible inspiration as Andy Murray’s from a talented young player struggling to put it all together to a supreme champion of the game, who reached his thrilling apotheosis in the shimmering atmosphere of Centre Court last Sunday. For Murray’s career has been studded with the kind of juddering emotional setbacks that would have caused a lesser man to crack, to discard all the hours of sweat and toil he had put in over the years through a feeling of helplessness. He had been in countless semi-finals against the other members of the top four club he has so convincingly made himself at home in, and four crushing finals – each closer than the last and therefore harder to deal with physically and emotionally. The agony that was increasing with each defeat nearly bubbled to the surface in losing to Roger Federer in the 2010 Australian Open final, before bursting out of him in a torrent of tears at his defeat in the Wimbledon final last year. Here was a man who had dedicated his whole life to the pursuit of his goals, from moving to a foreign country as a teenager to learn tennis and sacrificing the comforts of his home and friends to building up his body through agonising sessions of physical work to taking that fiendishly difficult hard look at himself and replacing his mental demons with a new calm, a new belief. Yet even after he had exhausted all those steps he was still coming up short and there was no guarantee after Wimbledon last year that he would ever find a way to cross that last barrier. It is therefore to his enormous credit that he never gave up the quest to improve himself, and continue finding the slimmest margins of self-betterment despite the dark hole that must have been growing wider and gnawing harder at him with each excruciating Grand Slam final defeat. There can be fewer worthy, more deserving or more heroic champions than this young man from Dunblane who has left no stone unturned in his quest to maximise his talent and nurture his gifts. Reflected in his shining eyes by the furiously clicking photographers on Sunday was that blissful happiness that accompanies the feeling that a human being has overcome crushing setbacks and moved past the fear of never knowing if what they dreamed about was possible, to transforming it into reality and experiencing the warm glow of fulfilment along with it. The way his career has run the full gamut of emotions to arrive at this giddy precipice of happiness invests his victory and the feelings around it with a sweet joy and a special significance.

This constant struggle against mental demons, this paragon of dedication to self-improvement resonates far beyond the tennis court in any walk of life. Anyone ever facing a difficult professional or personal obstacle, and doubting their fortitude in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, can look to Andy Murray as an example of how sweet a reward can taste if one never shirks the challenge, but instead rises taller to meet it as it grows ever greater in front of one. Anyone ever facing an apparent brick wall and struggling to find the bravery required to knock it down can draw a link between how Andy Murray must have felt after losing important match after important match to the world’s top three players, and then the soaring, sweet joy that would have engulfed him upon realising how he had overcome the great labour of his life to stand victorious at last. His is a tale of talent alloyed to the greatest human qualities: fortitude of heart and mind, ultimate dedication and constant self-improvement.

There will be people on the tennis courts as a result of his victories, but his shining eyes upon realising what he had done carried a message far and wide to all that finding the bravery to confront life’s great challenges can also bring tremendous rewards. Bravo, Andy Murray, for winning Wimbledon at last and bravo, for winning over and inspiring all of us in the greatest possible way.

Barcelona and Neymar’s hasty marriage signals ominous return of club’s worst practices

Whilst undoubtedly exciting, the signing of Neymar by Barcelona smacks of everything that is wrong about the club coming to the fore once again. No matter how alluring the raw talent of Neymar may be, any decision made to satisfy the ego and self-serving ends of one man – the president, Sandro Rosell -, rather than the more pressing needs of the football team will be tainted from the start. With the signing of an unproven starlet whose football career often appears to be suffocated by the sheer weight of public attention foisted on him, Rosell has single-handedly overwritten the importance of reinforcing the defence, providing Lionel Messi with a more reliable foil and prioritising the breakthrough of Barca’s much-vaunted La Masia graduates.

Worse, it shows a disrespect and lack of deference for the forces that have made Barcelona such a paragon over the last four years, by pursuing a trophy signing in a headstrong manner that presumably paid no more than lip service to the consideration that this new signing has the ability to unsettle the form and happiness of the most important player of this generation and many others in Lionel Messi. If Neymar struggles to adapt immediately, the circus that follows him may well coalesce into a chorus of disapproval for the way Messi fails to work with the players brought in around him – from Villa, Sanchez and possibly their beloved heir apparent. That would fail to take into account that the right type of player would find the correct mix of tactical awareness and range to flourish alongside Messi, and if Rosell had the team’s best interests at heart, he might have considered that Luis Suarez (now pursued by Madrid) or Eden Hazard would have been the better fit. Regardless, the paramount duty upon every Barcelona manager and president to attend to the needs of Messi – a true genius with whom they are fortunate to share such a special bond – should have been the first consideration in any signing, yet it is more than plausible that Rosell was thinking of his presidency rather than the needs of the club that he is supposed to serve in making his decision.

There are rumours that Pep Guardiola did not approve of the pursuit of Neymar, and it is no coincidence that Barcelona’s greatest period of success coincided with them ceding to the wishes of an astute manager rather than the normal modus operandi of allowing a president with delusions of his own grandeur to ride roughshod over everyone. Other concerns Guardiola had about Neymar have yet to be dispelled; his talent is indisputable but the question of the sufficiency of his strength of will to make the most of his gifts – raised by his reported tendencies to dive in difficult situations or fail to make the right pass at the right time – is open to debate. Barcelona have Gerard Deulofeu in their ranks, a player of similar gifts and growing problems, but have effectively just paid at least 60 million euros to acquire a player they still need to work on with no guarantee that it will bear fruit.

Even if he proves all the doubters wrong, it still does not shake the impression that the club are returning to the bad old days – reinforced by their inability to learn from their mistakes of overplaying stars, the fighting and scenes of drunkenness witnessed amongst players on their supposed open bus celebration, the contradication between players and management in Pique’s assertion that they needed reinforcements and Rosell’s dismissal of those concerns after the Bayern match, as well as the uncomfortable fact of the president’s business links to Ricardo Teixeira – a man of immensely dubitable integrity whose has been proven to abuse football’s privileges for his own benefit in the past.

O’Sullivan’s conflicted relationship with snooker adds gravitas to the game

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s latest instalment of his hate-love affair with snooker has been the subject of much debate within the game, compounded as it was by his inability to emotionally reset himself following his sabbatical from the table and a crowning as world champion that gave the fullest possible exposure to his discordant feelings towards his own sport. However, those concerned with the image of snooker need not fear; O’Sullivan’s frank and fascinating portrait of a man struggling to negotiate the vicissitudes of his own temperament is a resounding testament to the drama and poetry of sport.

Instead of reading with dismay negative connotations into his talk of “snooker not [being] for [him]” or how he can’t “keep putting [himself] through being unhappy”, the game’s well-wishers should treat these as articulations of the timeless, exquisitely cathartic negotiation between the blessing of a sportsman’s talent and the burden of his temperament. When O’ Sullivan, following a flat opening four frames, missed a simple red in his 2008 semi-final with Stephen Hendry and walked off, the initial reaction on his face to that error spoke volumes to the expectations human beings put on their talent, and the subsequent pressure that can swallow them whole if they allow the dam to break. O’Sullivan raised himself from the table ashen-faced, shook his head in an entirely instinctual expression of mingled frustration and self-loathing, and called it quits; his dam had broken, and so was he. Off he walked, leaving a nonplussed and aghast Hendry to also shake his head, collect his cues and walk off an unsatisfied winner.

Yet the regular sports viewers among us would have recognised that fury and frustration O’ Sullivan felt at his sport at that moment as a necessary component of the fierce desire of all artists to produce something of the sort of soaring quality that returns an intangible, almost spiritual satisfaction to its owner ; without this frustration at the immense difficulty involved in producing such virtuoso performances at one’s beck and call, the satisfaction accrued on the rare occasions on which it all falls sweetly into place would also be non-existent. The drama of sport owes much to these raw depictions of the psychological struggles that consume most human beings, whether it lies in O’Sullivan’s inability to cope with the frustration of inevitable dips in his flawless snooker exhibitions, or Luis Suarez’s primal, subconscious urge to bite Branislav Ivanovic following a perceived injustice, or Sergio Garcia’s collapse on the 17th hole of the Players’ Championship at Sawgrass under the knowledge that he could best Tiger Woods in a high-profile battle and surmount the mental hurdles that have haunted him throughout his career, or Richard Gasquet’s tendency to only unfurl his full repertoire of shot-making artistry when he has built a lead and the pressure has subsided.

Dr Steve Peters, the psychologist charged with exorcising Luis Suarez’s demons, has described how human beings struggle to overcome the negative emotions weighing them down as they are often unable to perceive the root causes of those emotions, yet the transparent depiction of this inner struggle through sporting contests is vital and compelling theatre. There are lessons to be learned in Adam Scott’s recovery from a traumatic abdication of his grasp on the British Open Claret Jug at the death, to win the Masters in a nerve-wracking play-off this year, or even the fact that O’Sullivan’s frustration stems from engagement with the highest forms of creative endeavour through the medium of snooker. Sport is a distilled microcosm of the struggles of human life, in which the goals to be attained are clearer and more morally laudable, making the efforts of the protagonists attempting to accomplish them more open to evaluation and reliable as sources of inspiration. Which politician’s success or failure, built on the back of wider forces than himself, can ever be regarded as sincerely or purely as that of the sportsman struggling to overcome his own person to achieve something he knows to be of intangible, immeasurable wealth?

In this respect, O’Sullivan has rendered a great service to snooker by placing it in that hallowed club of sports which by their nature demand the greatest engagement of human talent and spirit from their protagonists, and which carry stories of miraculous successes and heart-wrenchingly heroic failures that will continue to enthrall for generations to come.

Chelsea might pine for Mourinho’s return, but others may shake their heads in dismay at the prospect

If Mourinho really is going to come back to English football, and thus switch on the perfect and most wanton receptacle for his unashamedly debased circus act of mocking others, stirring up hostility and pettily reducing the vastly imaginative and enriching scope of football to nothing other than a beaten and flayed donkey by which to enhance his self-image, then British football fans could do worse than to read this Guardian article on the subject by Barney Ronay. There is a boorish, confrontational, divisive streak in a vast tract of football fans in Britain that is awakened and swollen by someone like Mourinho, and clumsily articulated in their monopolisation of the word ‘legend’ and strident attribution of it to him. Some of these so-called ‘legends’ who see their worst traits glorified in this demagogue occasionally pop up on Facebook or other online forums to post pathetically derogatory comments about other teams and fans. Reading this might serve as a much-needed look in the mirror for them, and an absolutely necessary pre-emptory sedative for the rest of us from the anger, recriminations and fractiousness that will inevitably follow the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’s’ return to England:

PSG expose Barcelona’s lack of self-belief

Barcelona and PSG are rightly hailing the decisive impact a footballing force of nature in the form of Lionel Messi made in Wednesday night’s match, but the Catalan side should not let the uncomfortable questions about their self-belief that arose from their performance to be buried under the adulation. Given the success Spain have had in fielding Xavi and Iniesta in the midfield berths behind a roaming Cesc Fabregas in the false nine position, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that Barcelona’s struggles against PSG with this rejigged line-up had something to do with a lack of confidence as well as the lack of Messi. Fluid passing football requires a certain assurance in decision-making, a confidence in the pass that is about to be executed, and the way Sergio Busquets constantly ceded the ball to PSG’s midfield and Gerard Pique passed it straight to Zlatan Ibrahimovic suggests this was uncharacteristically missing from otherwise accomplished performers.

Undoubtedly, Messi’s arrival injected a level of unique technical excellence that could be seen in his mazy run which drew and confounded PSG’s defenders before allowing David Villa and Pedro to find the inches of space to create which had been denied them all night, but there were fleeting glimpses that suggested Barcelona had not given a full demonstration of their abilities sans Messi on the night. Interspersed among their struggles to sustain possession, repel PSG and create attacks, was a period at the very beginning of the game when they demonstrated their trademark slick interplay in moving threateningly towards the PSG goal, another fluid play later in the half and then a clear opening to score from inside the PSG penalty area that Dani Alves squandered just prior to the arrival of Messi, after going behind had shook off the shackles of fear that had paralysed them and led to their first period of exerted pressure in the match.

Notwithstanding the technical excellence of PSG’s attack, or the way in which Messi in his false 9 position and the rest of the team have become nearly inseparable, Barcelona still missed a golden opportunity to build additional reserves of confidence in his absence and come up with an alternative tactical plan. The sense that the shadow of Messi has at times threatened to put the lights out on the Barcelona careers of those playing immediately around him – including David Villa, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas – could have been snuffed out and, as unique a talent as Messi is, the emboldening of these players could only have served to give Barcelona more outlets for attack in a possible match-up against defensively tight-knit teams such as Bayern and Real who will seek to isolate and suffocate Messi. Instead of grasping one of these opportunities, Barcelona have limped into the top four carrying the sense that they are the most vulnerable, lopsided team of those that remain in the competition.

That said, they still have Messi and where Messi plays, anything in football is possible.

City’s convincing win over United raises further questions about Mancini’s stewardship

If the 2-1 defeat of Manchester United by Manchester City revealed anything, it was the absolute urgency of the need for the club’s Abu Dhabi owners to cast a searching eye on the subject of Roberto Mancini’s future. In contrast to other clubs under the domain of the rich and powerful, Sheikh Mansour has demonstrated an admirable resolve to stick to a long-term blueprint at Manchester City that includes giving his manager time and resources to build a legacy. Yet it is impossible to escape the feeling that, amid the constant emphasis on patience and long-term team-building, City have lost the opportunity to make more of the present.

This is a fantastic, fluid, multi-talented side, as was evidenced by the way they comprehensively beat a United team who are nevertheless on the verge of reclaiming the title from them by a margin that currently stands at 12 points. The incongruity of their triumphant performance yesterday and the wide gap to United in the table brings into focus Mancini’s failure to motivate them for the less high-profile matches that have derailed their bid throughout the season (including defeats to Sunderland, Everton and Southampton), and severely undercuts his regularly voiced conviction that it is the lack of sufficient player resources that has held City back this season. Most of these complaints have centred on City losing out to United in the race to sign Robin van Persie, but it was one of Mancini’s own forwards who has been unwittingly belittled by his constant lament at missing out on the Dutchman who stole the show yesterday with a brilliantly taken goal that made a mockery of his manager’s constant claims that they had not bought well enough to challenge for the title again this season. Taken together with their unburdened schedule after falling at the first hurdle of the Champions League, yesterday’s defeat demonstrated that there can be nowhere for Mancini to hide when it comes to explaining why he was unable to unlock City’s enduring potential to be Premier League champions once again this year.

Rather than accepting blithe platitudes about the time it takes to accrue trophies, Abu Dhabi should instead consider whether Mancini has been unreasonably tardy in guiding City towards their ultimate goal of becoming a top footballing team and global brand. After failing to progress in the Champions League and making the Premier League race a non-event earlier than expected, the only claim City have on the hearts of neutrals and potential fans around the world is their stylish football. Yet even there the suspicion remains that it has more to do with the innate gifts of players such as David Silva, Carlos Tevez and Aguero than any firm philosophy of the manager. As with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Mancini’s most important task would have been to imbue a set of lavishly gifted players with the hunger and drive required to bridge the gap to glory; this understandably surfaced in City’s players for a marquee match such as at Old Trafford yesterday, but his crucial inability to rouse them for matches against smaller teams means he failed in this department too.

It may be that City missed a trick by not approaching and wooing Pep Guardiola. An arch-motivator of men, he would have refined the team’s natural inclination for attractive football whilst adding a hunger to them that meant their battles with Manchester United would take on a much greater significance than they do at present. As much as City have emphasised the fact that the team wins or loses with more members of its staff than simply the manager, the role of the footballing figurehead still remains pivotal and Guardiola would have ticked all the on-pitch and off-pitch boxes that would usher City closer to their dream of becoming a genuine footballing force on the world stage. Instead, after Mancini’s public tussle with Balotelli, fall-out with other key players, failure to inject his team with sufficient enthusiasm, and increasingly tetchy public persona, they risk becoming a parody of blundering incompetence and foolhardy governance.

Dignified Benitez growing in stature as a result of his Chelsea trials

Amidst the recurring malcontent that has peppered Chelsea’s season, there has been one man who has stood firm to enhance his interpersonal and managerial skills under the sternest tests, and that is Rafael Benitez. No manager facing the overwhelming pressure that stalks big clubs can also claim to have had to deal with a hand of cards as difficult as Benitez’s – including those held by his much-vaunted nemesis at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho, whose deific stature in the eyes of Chelsea fans trips the Spaniard’s every forward step even now. Benitez has been buffeted at every treacherous twist and turn by slights and insults as varyingly vilifying as being jeered by Chelsea’s fans at every opportune moment in a match, greeted by silence whenever his tactical switches induce a positive turn in events, being forced to bear the emasculating title of “interim manager” despite carrying the CV of a Champions League winner and two-time La Liga winner with one of Spain’s “other” clubs, enduring his own fans teaming up with those of the opposition to abuse him in songs, and having a fellow colleague in charge of a great rival completely ignore his offer of a handshake at the beginning of a game.

Throughout this steadily growing flood of insults and invective aimed at him from every angle, that would have tormented and broken the spirit of a lesser man, he has displayed an admirable resolve not to let his personal hurt get in the way of his professional job. As provoking as it must be to have his weight and entire personality dissected by wanton abuse on a weekly basis for six months – and we need only recall Emmanuel Adebayor’s knee-jerk reaction to Arsenal fans who had been abusing him for 90 minutes against Man City to acknowledge the tolerance threshold of lesser men– his steady resolve to resist the invitation to lash out at his abusers in interviews has given him an aura of quiet dignity and increasing authority. Goaded repeatedly and insolently by Geoff Shreeves to react to the catcalls that greeted his first match in charge and express his disappointment (view it here), Benitez diplomatically chose to explain that he had not heard them and his only disappointment stemmed from the draw that hurt Chelsea’s cause. This was of course necessitated by a realisation that fanning the flames of the fans’ anger could result in an even shorter stay than originally intended, but as the weeks went on and the abuse became more virulent, his ability to stay on message displays both the greatest professional steel and reserves of character, patience and equanimity that not enough people have given him credit for.

“I am professional”, he said in a recent attempt to gain more crowd support for Chelsea’s cause, and “will do my best until the last minute.” Even following Sir Alex Ferguson’s puerile decision to snub his offer of a handshake, Benitez largely contained his understandable affront by tactfully asking journalists to redirect the question of why the handshake failed to take place to the Manchester United manager instead.

Benitez has always been credited with tactical acumen that is in keeping with the mind of an avid chess player, and his decision to introduce John Obi Mikel to free up Ramires to make his rampaging forays towards the United penalty area in their FA Cup clash flummoxed the home team and nearly claimed a glorious comeback. Yet in being forced to summon up hitherto unnoticed qualities of diplomatic tact and personal restraint to deal with the bear pit at Chelsea, he has finally added stature to his tactical skills to emerge as a firm and fair leader of men who puts to shame those who characterised him as a “fat Spanish waiter” for so long. Only Benitez knows how much he has learnt about himself by coming through his siege at Chelsea with flying colours, but this stiffest character examination may have just invaluably enriched his skills as a manager and provided him the means to unlock far greater success in the future. Would this reborn Benitez, in possession of a fine tactical mind along with the ability to inspire his players through his new statesmanlike example off the pitch, have succeeded where the old one failed at Inter Milan? Are Chelsea not in fact missing a trick by opting against helping a highly able manager who has demonstrated an admirable – and hitherto unnoticed – capacity to endure the worst dirt people can throw at him and emerge stronger for it weather the storm and work with a talented squad that has many Spanish speakers at its core for longer?

Observant clubs across Europe would have done well not to miss the way Benitez bravely plunged himself into the fire at Chelsea and is emerging stronger and better than before as a result. If he does end up at Real Madrid, his stoic, remarkable ability to conjure up positive results and build personal authority in the face of an avalanche of political intrigue, boardroom machinations, and reckless populist barracking may stand him in good stead to add the proudest chapter to his CV yet. Wherever he goes, and whatever he does next, this dignified man may find that his sincerest efforts at a difficult posting will end up enhancing his career from this point on and ironically, he may have Chelsea’s fans to thank for that.

Barcelona’s human brilliance against Milan rouses the soul

Barcelona’s heroic 4-0 dismantling of AC Milan will go down in their annals and indeed, the annals of the great matches of European football, as a moment when a great team reaffirmed why it deserves its place at the head of football’s pantheon. The sumptuous football has rightly been acclaimed before, and will be acclaimed again, but what was so uplifting about this particular victory was the way it stemmed from the other, human qualities of a magnificent set of individuals. From the outset, they made a mockery of their many admirers’ pessimism by tearing into Milan with a hunger and passion that cast them and their magical play in a glowing halo in those first thirty minutes. Lionel Messi’s ethereal chip-shot within the first five minutes of the match, recalling a similar goal by Ronaldinho for Barca against Chelsea in the same tournament, was summoned up by his rare genius yet also by his magnificent determination to seize his moment and not see his glittering team cast into darkness; Xavi ran through injury and pain for ninety minutes because he possesses that same innate drive that lifts men to greatness and nothing typified his spirit more than the sliding tackle, followed by the kick of the ball he made from his prone position on the floor in the second half – when the pressure was at its height – to disarm Milan’s attack.

Indeed it was the hovering threat of an away goal that severely tested the nerves of Barcelona and their 90,000 magnificent fans – resplendently heralding their intentions to back up a great team with great support through their banner “Som Un Equipo” (“we are a team) – but which also cast them in the sort of heroic light we rarely get to appreciate. Dominating teams so easily, almost in a somnambulant fashion, has led some neutrals to the erroneous conclusion that their play is either monotonous or less worthy of praise. Last night Barcelona walked a tightrope from first minute to the last, and the fact that they chose to answer the daunting challenge of overturning a 0-2 lead with a style of play as beautiful as it was vulnerable, and perhaps even ill-suited to the task, brilliantly illuminated the heroic aspect of their endeavour. It is under extreme stress that the true face of a man’s character is revealed, and Barcelona demonstrated a rousing faith in their beautifully fragile style of play at a time when it was questioned most, in the face of an increasingly nerve-wracked ninety minutes, that will burnish their legend for decades to come.

All the wishes that a neutral harbours in following one of the great sports teams in history, all the inspiration they might wish to gain from watching them summon up their boundless strength and character to produce their magical best to overturn a formidable lead in historic and unreal fashion – in short, many of the dreams one hopes to find fulfilled by watching sport and then to carry the spirit of into life were realised by this fantastic Barcelona team on Tuesday’s magical night at the Camp Nou. Even if they do not go on to win the tournament, they have rendered football and the watching world another invaluable service whilst creating a night that will live long in the memories of all lucky enough to see it.

Woods’s startling win over the rest at Doral points to a rebirth

Tiger Woods issued a significant statement of intent with his 19-under par, two shot victory at the World Golf Championship in Doral last week, and there was enough about this one to suggest it could prove the start of something greater than the false dawns he has encountered since his return to the game in 2010.

Of all the formidable statistics accompanying his most dominant win since his slide from greatness began (100 putts, beating his personal best for fewest putts in a PGA tournament, or the 27 birdies that were one shy of his most ever in one week, to name but a few), the most startling was this: that for the bulk of the 36 holes played over the weekend, Woods led a star-studded field filled with competitors who have supposedly narrowed the gap to him by either three or four shots. Indeed, were it not for a conservative, pragmatic approach that resulted in a bogey on his final hole, he would have ended the tournament three shots ahead of next best-placed Steve Stricker. Add that to the fact that the Blue Monster Course played nice and true over the four days, offering the finest shot-makers in golf every opportunity to attack the pins, go for birdies and locate their best golf, and the size of Woods’s gap to the rest becomes even more frightening.

During last year’s Wimbledon final Roger Federer struggled with the windy conditions that disrupted his rhythm and timing in the early part of the match, but once the roof had been closed due to rain and external factors had been blotted out, the match became a much purer test of shot-making where each competitor’s innate skill with racket and ball made all the difference. It was then, in those equalising conditions that took away the influence of the elements on the ball’s flight and negated much of the effect the surface had on the ball’s speed, that the gap between Federer and Andy Murray (representing the rest of tennis) in creative shot-making became clear. He destroyed Murray over the remainder of that match in as artistic and breath-taking a way as is possible to imagine, and went on to add another Wimbledon title to his collection.

In many ways the Blue Monster Course was golf’s equivalent of the closed Wimbledon Centre Court that day, offering as fair a test of true ability as possible on a layout un-tampered by overweening weather or the recent trend to stifle golfers by leaving hyperbolically deep rough and deepening and widening bunkers to cavernous levels. It instead sought to recognise the greatest talents in the game by offering a layout that balanced difficulty against the need to allow them room to realise their stunning ability to sink monster putts and put the ball to within an inch of the hole from their approach shots. This encouraged the cream to rise to the top and slug it out with each other, and all the names regarded as the purest talents in golf duly appeared on the leaderboard: Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott finished at 14- under par while McIlroy made a recovery once his confidence had stabilised to finish 10- under par.

In light of these conditions, Woods’s statistical domination of the field entails an altogether more awe-inspiring message: that, on a course as likely as any to offer a true and reliable comparison of where the best golfers in the world stand relative to each other in terms of ability and form, he is three shots better than anyone else. In a game that has supposedly risen in quality since his fall from the top, this was a stunning re-affirmation of the limitless extent of his abilities and consummation of mental and technical excellence into perhaps the most fearsome competitor of our times. Whether he can sustain this run of form throughout the season or, more importantly, replicate it in the Major tournaments in which he has fallen short in recent years, must still be regarded as an unknown. However, the overwhelmingly convincing nature of this victory will have done nothing to dampen the rising belief that he is re-discovering his sporting essence once more, and emerging stronger and greater from his Phoenix-like reconstruction with Sean Foley – as well as lending an ominous degree of weight to his words that he “doesn’t want it to be as good as it was before – I want it to be better.”

Ferguson and his lionhearted team suffer tragic travesty of justice

If ever there was a moment when the so-called guardians of football, in the form of UEFA and their angelic referees, shamed a great game and drained the joy out of it for its millions of adoring acolytes, it was in the fifty-sixth minute of the second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid yesterday. For in choosing to utterly reject his duty to uphold the spirit and occasion of one of football’s most sacrosanct events – the meeting of two torch-carriers of the game in Manchester United and Real Madrid -, in favour of enforcing a crassly pedantic interpretation of the rules, referee Cuneyt Cakir committed blasphemy against the sport. What other phrase is there to bestow on such a capricious, careless act undertaken by a match official on as big a night as this which at a stroke neutered one team, pre-determined the outcome and destroyed one of the greatest spectacles football has offered for years?

If Cakir so reprehensibly failed to grasp the significance of the occasion, and importance not to let unnecessary refereeing interventions cripple it, others did not. Sir Alex Ferguson as good as admitted in his programme notes that the biggest source of kindling that keeps his hunger burning bright for the game at 71 was the prospect of grand European duels on nights such as this, with “a packed Old Trafford, the floodlights on, the pitch glistening and two of the greatest and romantic clubs in the game about to do battle.” For fifty-six minutes, the game between these two great clubs lived up to every one of those hopes and dreams evoked by Ferguson above, and it would have delighted him that his players were largely responsible for that. From first to fifty-sixth minute, they put in a performance of such warrior-like commitment and panache that it adorned football in a magnificent light before one of its largest watching audiences since the last World Cup. These were players who were deservedly etching their names in history with giant-sized performances to match the greatness of the occasion, and who were doing a sterling job in conveying Manchester United’s name as a vehicle for all that is good and inspiring in the game.

How galling, when such stirring footballing lore was in the midst of being created, that a pint-sized insurance agent with an inflated sense of his own power should step in and decide at the injudicious stroke of a card what would happen instead. How galling that one man should wipe out the greatness of United’s performance from the history books, with no consultation of his linesmen in making his decision, nor admittance of the need not to despoil the occasion unless it was absolutely necessary. Ferguson did not prolong his career to have the night which was promising to bring the sum of his labours together in thrilling apotheosis on the pitch, and rank alongside his finest achievements, ruined in such an unnatural way. United had forced Real into a corner through a stunning array of the most fundamental sporting values – competitiveness, tactical ingenuity, physical stamina, lionheartedness – only for that to be rendered null and void by a decision that corrupted the occasion.

If UEFA think there is no need to offer so much as a platitudinous apology for what was allowed to pass as footballing justice yesterday, they are grossly mistaken. Their democratic policy of choosing referees from a variety of countries with different interpretations of the rules has belittled a competition that is supposed to represent the apex of the game in every sense. Juventus were allowed to grapple and manhandle Celtic’s players at every opportunity at set-pieces in their first leg, in full view of the much-vaunted extra referees; but in last year’s competition, AC Milan were reduced to ten men against Barcelona for doing the same thing. In 2011, Robin van Persie received a second yellow card and his marching orders against Barcelona for an offence as trivial as kicking the ball following the referee’s whistle at a point when Arsenal were ahead in the tie, which meant the referee effectively guaranteed a Barcelona comeback; Chelsea suffered much the same against them last year when John Terry was sent off for an offence that an official more in sync with the occasion could easily have issued him a yellow for. Chelsea were also denied a place in the Champions League final of 2009 by a referee who seemed determined not to award them a single penalty despite the evidence piling up to the contrary in their semi-final. Greater consistency in decisions, more merit-based election of officials and, above all, an appreciation that they are there to protect the spirit of the occasion rather than dictate its outcome with heavy-handed decisions is sorely required if fans are not to begin growing disillusioned with the tournament. For there is no doubt that plenty of neutrals would have woken up this morning feeling that Manchester United had been denied their rightful place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in the cruellest manner possible, and that the lack of any correction of these grievances will lead to some adopting a resigned, apathetic attitude to this tournament in the future.