A moment’s pause as Sir Alex Ferguson says goodbye to Old Trafford

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Long ago, I thought I was a Manchester United fan, back when I assumed you had to have a team to care about any league. It wasn’t long before I grew out of it – an errant soul unable to believe any of his childhood dreams, disillusioned into a life of criticism and suspicion — but in the days when the only games you’d see if you were a kid growing up in rural California were late, English league matches tape delayed by your regional sports outlet, you either followed Manchester United, Liverpool or whatever other club happened to be playing when insomnia exposed your credulity. Even back when they weren’t good – before the Premier League, Cantona, and the boon of Sky’s bankroll – Manchester United were still on television all the time, albeit at ridiculous hours when even Australian Rules Football had a mid-day highlight shows on the not-yet Worldwide Leader.

I didn’t know who Alex Ferguson was, and I’m not sure when I found out, though when I did, I’m sure I didn’t bat an eye. Even to the pre-teen me, whose knowledge of soccer barely went beyond my AYSO league and Ryan Giggs’ ability to set up a defender before his next touch, there was already a ubiquity to man overseeing the Red Devils. To me, he was both unknown and omnipresent; a transcendent figure just waiting to be revealed. The only other people I could equate him to were Quincy Jones or Clive Davis – elusive, omniscient presences that forced me to stop and asked, “Oh, he’s running this? Oh, of course he’s running this. I knew that.” There were no English league-scouring friends or Twitter followers to offer alternatives, and without their second-guessing, I was sure Ferguson had been there all along.

For people my age (mid-30s), Ferguson is as prominent in our English soccer lives as the league itself – a league that fragmented and spawned a leviathan in our early fandom, leaving entities like Manchester United and its manager to transcend the turmoil. Once the chaos settled and the Premier League was born, the United boss was its central figure, having acquired its first big star (Eric Cantona) and featuring a class of player that would define the circuit’s early commercial success: the flare of Giggs; the skill of Scholes; the inspiration of Keane; and the draw of Beckham. And while the van Nistelrooys, Ronaldos, Ferdinands and Rooneys cycled in to played their part, it was the manager that remained the protagonist. In terms of plot, in terms of narrative, there was no Premier League without Alex Ferguson driving it.

source: Getty ImagesIt seems like a stretch, but with 13 titles in the 21-year Premier League era, it’s no exaggeration to say each year’s drama can been seen through a Red Devils’ lens, especially given the contrast of the club’s fortunes before and after the circuit broke of from the Football League. Prior to the Sky-travaganza that started in 1992, spurring a surge that has since redefined world soccer, Manchester United went 26 years without a title. But they won in year one. And every year since, a stretch that’s seen them claim 12 titles in 20 years, each season’s defined by two questions: Is Manchester United supposed to win? And if not, how will the favorite hold them off?

During that time, English football has gone from a lightly-exported regional league to the defining brand in world soccer, a journey which can be tracked by its exposure in this country. Whereas a soccer fan born in the times of an Eastern Bloc and divided Germany had to scrounge low-budget late night repeats for their soccer fix, converts were soon able to see games an honest-to-goodness national entity. And then there was a channel that broadcast soccer. Then there were multiple games, digital packages, and starting next year, a free-to-air network committed to showing games on a weekly basis. Now, South America, Africa, Asia all follow the league with the same zeal as we do. This is not the post-Heysel, pre-inclusion league Ferguson joined in 1986. From exclusion to exemplar, England’s become the commercial benchmark.

And amid that accompanying iconography, few presences have been as constant as Ferguson’s. Perhaps you could point to Manchester United’s titles or the metronomic Ryan Giggs as other heartbeats of the Premiership’s infancy, but that’d only be dodging the obvious. Ferguson is the backbone behind each. Within that handful of clubs (seven) that have been in the league since day one, Ferguson’s has been the protagonist. If you did nothing but track Ferguson over the lifetime of the Premier League – if you were nothing but a true believer who bought into the legend before it was born — you’d be as cognizant as anybody of what the Premier League is all about.

So if you’re relatively new to English soccer – if you were lucky or young enough to not have to wade through its ascendance, to land on the doormat of this pre-constructed Orwellian monolith – this is why day like Sunday’s against Swansea and next week’s at West Brom’s are so important. Today, Ferguson manages his final game at Old Trafford – the final chance for Red Devils supporters to pay tribute to a man who literally defined the club. And next week, at the Hawthorns, West Brom and their fans will get the honor of representing the Premier League at large. The ever-present, the backbone, the constant will be gone, saying goodbye in Sandwell in front of 26,272.

Nobody watching Sunday’s game will know a Premier League without Alex Ferguson, and only those old enough to remember Ron Atkinson can speak to what world soccer was before Ferguson’s arrival. But in our confusion we can still acknowledge our ignorance and realize the change that’s upon us. Most of us don’t know of a league without Ferguson, and many of us would not be watching without him. It’s worth a moment to consider before Sunday’s farewell.

As an American, I normally refrain from calling Ferguson “Sir Alex,” but eight hours before his final match in Manchester, I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute. You don’t have to cower to British honorifics to make “Sir” into something else, if only for one day. Use it to recognize his achievement. Use it to recognize his influence. But on Sunday, use ‘Sir Alex’ to recognize an icon is saying goodbye to Old Trafford.

Champions League preview: Spurs host Leipzig, Valencia visits Atalanta

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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties kickoff Wednesday, including one being labeled as the biggest in a club’s existence.

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That would be Serie A side Atalanta, which hosts Valencia at 3 p.m. at Gewiss Stadium.

Atalanta had played in two consecutive Europa Leagues, but this is their first move into the Champions League. To make the knockout rounds is exceptional, and club president Antonio Percassi is fired up.

“We must be honest, this is the most important game in the history of this club,” Percassi told Sky Sport Italia. “It doesn’t seem real. It’s exciting just thinking that tomorrow we’ll be in a Champions League Round of 16. It’s wonderful for our fans too. … This is going to be a unique experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

Atalanta finished second in its group to Manchester City, and is fourth in Serie A. Valencia won its group.

There’s a Premier League side in action on Wednesday, too, as Spurs begin life without Heung-Min Son.

Jose Mourinho spun a tale about how badly Tottenham will need its fans against RB Leipzig, comparing the home-field advantage to an emergency rescue crew of sorts.

Leipzig is led by Julian Nagelsmann, who was once referred to as “Baby Mourinho” by his players.

The 32-year-old was quick to distance himself from the story.

“Tomorrow it is Leipzig against Tottenham, not Mourinho v. Baby Mourinho,” he said. “I have great respect for Mourinho. He has won lots of titles with big clubs, the Champions League twice. He has made his mark on European football at some big European clubs. I think it his 59th knockout game in the CL and it is my first so there is obviously respect there.”

Liverpool’s Robertson not a fan of Atletico Madrid theatrics

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Liverpool fullback Andy Robertson was not impressed with Atletico Madrid’s display as his side fell 1-0 in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Reds fell behind on a fourth-minute Saul Niguez goal and couldn’t get a shot on target despite 73 percent possession in Spain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Atleti executed its plan to near-perfection, slowing restarts and taking advantage of counterattacking opportunities to assuage the constant pressure of Liverpool.

At times it was reminiscent of early-century Italian national team play, and both neutrals and Liverpool knew what they were in for once Atleti took the lead.

“We gave them the best possible start to get the fans behind them and then they can start falling over and things like that, trying to get under our skin a bit which I think we handled quite well to be honest,” Robertson told BT Sport. “We know we are better than (how they played). We put in a decent performance and we can be better than that. Luckily we have got a second leg to put it right.”

Given the performance and the reputation, you’d still fancy the Reds to “put it right” at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp thinks Atleti will feel plenty of pressure at Anfield, and he will certainly feel the officiating will be more to his liking.

Liverpool’s Klopp: ‘Our people will be ready’ for second leg at Anfield

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Jurgen Klopp didn’t have any issue with Diego Simeone’s defense-first Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Spanish side flummoxed Liverpool’s attack and the Reds didn’t manage a shot on target despite eight attempts and 73 percent possession at the Wanda Metropolitano.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

What Klopp didn’t appreciate was the referee’s work, though, implying that Polish official Szymon Marciniak was overwhelmed by the occasion. Marciniak has worked UCL matches for six seasons, twice overseeing quarterfinal ties.

Klopp was shown a yellow card in the second half, and the Liverpool boss felt Sadio Mane was harassed by Atleti. Klopp removed yellow-carrying Mane at halftime.

“He was targeted obviously,” Klopp said after the game. “The only thing they wanted was to make sure he got a yellow card. The score is 1-0, that’s all but you need to be really strong as a ref in this atmosphere. So many things happened, after 30 minutes already three players were on the ground. The first yellow card was a striker from us. I’m not sure they even got a yellow card, which is funny.”

Atleti’s Angel Correa was shown a yellow, while Klopp, Mane, and Joe Gomez were cautioned for Liverpool.

The Liverpool boss found himself laughing a few times, especially when he was asked about Simeone’s touchline personality.

Klopp said before the game that if the German was a four in intensity, then Simeone was a 12. Simeone followed suit by constantly urging the crowd to get behind the home side on Tuesday.

That didn’t bother Klopp, but he issued a public relations officer’s dream in reacting to it.

“Wow, wow,” he laughed. “That’s energy. I don’t think I have to do it that much (at Anfield). Our people will be ready. Welcome to Anfield. It’s not over yet.”

Klopp finished his remarks by saying of Jordan Henderson‘s removal from the game with a hamstring injury, “I hope it was a precaution, but I’m not 100 percent sure”

Haaland wins first leg after Borussia Dortmund-PSG comes to life late

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Erling Haaland scored twice in a mid-second half flurry as Borussia Dortmund beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The hosts also got an assist from teenager Giovanni Reyna, who became the youngest American to appear in a Champions League match.

Haaland now has 39 goals in 29 appearances between Red Bull Salzburg and BVB, 11 of those for his new German employer.

Neymar scored off a Kylian Mbappe goal for PSG, who brings an away goal back to the Parc des Princes for a March 11 second leg.

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Neymar had an early free kick, missing just wide of the far post.

Jadon Sancho troubled the keeper twice in the first half hour, first with a cross that Mats Hummels headed over goal. Then, Keylor Navas picked another Sancho offering out of the air.

Sancho kept serving, and Erling Haaland couldn’t turn a promising cross on target.

Dortmund walked into halftime with a scoreless match but a 7-2 edge in shot attempts. Neither of PSG’s shots were on target.

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Borussia Dortmund boss Lucien Favre put in American teen Giovani Reyna in the 67th minute.

Two minutes later, it was 1-0 to the hosts through Haaland’s close-range goal.

Neymar replied from close range himself after a powerful, clever dribble from Kylian Mbappe led to a pass through the box.

But Haaland got his second in the 77th minute with a scorching shot that serves as the first senior assist of Reyna’s senior career with Dortmund (Watch it here).