Soccer and its mysteries

Football is full of surprises. Faltering teams strike back with brilliance, spoiling the party for the highfliers. Players blow hot and cold from time to time. Over to Brian Glanville.

“In Hollywood, nobody knows anything,” opined the leading American screenwriter, William Goldman. Much the same might surely be said of football, as a spate of recent surprises has shown us. Not least is the surprise of Schalke. Last season, under the supposedly iron regime of Felix Magath, once the scorer of the winning goal in a European Cup final, the Gelsenkirchen team had come second in the Bundesliga, making light of its enormous Euro 220 million deficit. This season has been strangely contradictory. With the players increasingly unhappy under Magath's implacable regime, the team had slumped to mid-table position. Yet in the European Cup it excelled.

Especially when Magath, whose decision to join them after winning the previous Bundesliga elsewhere, had baffled at the time, departed, giving way to the much more benign and relaxed regime of Ralf Rangnick. Though not a footballer of any consequence, unlike his distinguished predecessor, he was a university student on the South Coast of England, where he played football. He'd had several Bundesliga clubs, including a previous stint as in charge of Schalke 04 themselves.

But when his team were drawn in the quarterfinals of the European Cup against Inter, their prospects seemed limited to a degree, Even though it became known that Inter would be without their two dominating centrebacks, Walter Samuel of Argentina and Lucio of Brazil. Less still, after only 24 sparse seconds, an astonishing volley from almost the halfway line by Inter's Serbian midfielder, Dejan Stankovic, sailed over the head of Germany's goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, and into the net.

In parenthesis, one might cite the fluctuating form of Neuer for more of soccer's surprises. Against Manchester United in Gelsenkirchen in the first leg semifinal he had a magnificent game, making save after remarkable save, keeping the score down to 2-0 when it might easily have been five or six.

Yet when it came to the return game at Old Trafford, Neuer, who had been so quick in South Africa to grab the ball back off Frank Lampard's shot for England — which had plainly bounced over the goal line enabling Germany to escape — had a wretched evening giving away at least two of the goals United scored with his mistakes.

At San Siro, however, Schalke, far from being traumatised by that freakish early goal, proceeded in due course to take the Inter defence to pieces, inspired by the form upfront of the 33-year-old Raul, prodigious goal-scorer previously in his distinguished years at Real Madrid. The younger members of the team rallied to his leadership and Inter were swept aside. In the return match, in Germany, Raul scored one goal and set up the other for Schalke, in a 2-1 success.

Then came United; and disaster. Notably inconsistent in preceding games, curiously flaccid at Wembley where, in the FA Cup semifinal they went down to their eternal local foes, Manchester City, United were irresistible in Gelsenkirchen. Dominant from first to last, with Wayne Rooney powerfully expunging all bleak memories of his last appearance on that ground, when he was sent off while playing for England against Portugal, United were majestic. The veteran Ryan Giggs, who was such a coruscating outside-left, thrived in central midfield. The 22-year-old Mexican, Javier Hernandez, showed his skills and exceptional anticipation in attack. Schalke were overwhelmed.

When it came to the return leg at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson, the United manager, knowing that on the subsequent Sunday there'd be a life or death Premier League game to come against Chelsea, put out a team that was packed with reserves, yet which cruised to a facile 4-1 victory. How was it that the virtue so emphatically had gone out of Schalke, after their elimination of Inter? How was it that such seasoned attackers like Raul himself and the talented Peruvian international Farfan, with so much pace and control, were so easily nullified? Yes, indeed a mystery.

Yet only three days earlier, a much stronger looking United, who were all set for winning yet another Championship, had come to play Arsenal at The Emirates, where they had won so easily and even humiliatingly the season before and were well beaten. The Gunners, by contrast, had been slipping embarrassingly for weeks. They had lost the League Cup final to a Birmingham City team which would have won much more comfortably had the bemused linesman not ruled a perfectly good potential early goal offside. Arsenal's young Polish 'keeper should certainly have been sent off for felling Lee Bowyer as he broke through. At Newcastle, a four-nil lead was frittered away. Mediocre Sunderland drew 0-0 at The Emirates. And Bolton Wanderers, having astonishingly been thrashed at Wembley in the FA Cup semifinal by Stoke City 5-0, were still able in their previous game, at home, to get the better of the Gunners with a 2-1 win, the very late winner coming from a header by defender Cohen.

Yet even without Cesc Fabregas, they defeated United. But how did Bolton collapse so ineptly against Stoke, a good functional side, but hardly a team of all the talents? How could the admittedly talented Stoke wingers, Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington have run riot on the flanks? How was it that the Bolton's Gary Cahill, who was recently capped by England on the same ground and coveted by several bigger clubs, was himself overwhelmed by the likes of the strong Trinidad attacker, Kenwyne Jones? Just another mystery.