United, City bring intrigue to Shield

When Roger Goodell finally announced the cancellation of this year’s Hall of Fame Game, National Football League fans were reminded of the lockout’s implications on even the most mundane events. Like pitchers and catchers reporting in baseball, the Hall of Fame Game is pushpin on the calendar, one that’s otherwise considered a given: Just kind of "there." But when one of those pushpins is taken off the schedule and tossed to the floor, your reaction’s the same as when the internet connection drops at home: "But that’s just supposed to be there."

And then you step on the pushpin, can’t query WebMD, and think "the Luddites were really onto something."

Unlike the US’s two most popular leagues, the Barclays Premier League has no desire to pack up its tent poles and leave you stranded. Why would they, when the Premier League is making huge inroads into the North American and Asian markets? They know a good thing when they see it, which is why the Community Shield match – the English league’s version of the Hall of Fame Game (live, 9:30 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer and @FOXSoccerTrax) – is getting more publicity than ever.

Perhaps that’s because the Community Shield is more than a mere tent pole. Whereas most preseason exhibitions are just two random teams working through a list of to dos, preparing for the season, you have to earn your way into the Community Shield. With the match falling less than a week before the start of the season, it is the last and best chance to test your team before the results count.

But that’s not to say the match is especially significant. On the contrary, people have firmly come to grips with this not only being a friendly but a honest-to-goodness exhibition, something that’s not always been the case. Back in the day when domestic soccer was King, Prince, Duke (and sometimes, Dutchess), the annual meeting between league winner and FA Cup champion (English soccer’s annual knockout competition) would be a major event. The now 102-year-old event would be fodder in a debate: Which is more prestigious? The Cup competition? Or, winning the league?

Over time, that debate’s resolved itself, with the power, prestige and profit of league soccer dictating priorities. And as the three Ps of European competition have created tensions between league and continental priorities, what was previously known as the Charity Shield has been further deprioritized. Now it is little more than a Hall of Fame Game, though as labor problems in our stateside leagues have reminded us, the value, charm and reliability of these seasonal constants can be easy underestimated.

This year, the Community Shield has the added intrigue of featuring the world’s up-and-coming soccer rivalry, one that threatens to define the near future of English soccer. Manchester United is the dominant Premier League entity, winning nearly two of every three titles fought since the league started in the summer of `92. Arsenal and Chelsea have been their league rivals (Liverpool their historic competition), but now, the incredibly expensive, self-procured crown of Manchester City is coming over the horizon. As Chelsea threatens to wake, Arsenal nears implosion while Liverpool and Tottenham look more spoilers than titlists, it’s Manchester City that can save the world from another United title. And if they do, City will vault the Manchester Derby amongst the best rivalries in world soccer (a status that seems inevitable).

City is one of a handful of English clubs that have seen significant foreign investment throttle riches into the coffers (United happens to be another). Their United Arab Emirates ownership group is intent on making the club the world’s biggest, and having eliminated their red rivals on their way to their first major trophy since 1976, they take the field Sunday at Wembley as FA Cup champions, making their first appearance in this event since 1973.

That FA Cup title was no one-off, anything can happen in a knockout tournament result. Manchester City is for real, even if those touting the canard of "money doesn’t buy championships" feel the need to dwell on folklore over results and talent. With their FA Cup title, City now has both, and thanks to the summer acquisition of Argentine attacker Sergio "Kun" Aguero, their already stalwart defense is coupled with the more talented attack in the league.

But it is that defense that will make-or-break City. Vincent Kompany has quietly become the best defender in the Premier League. In front of him, Nigel de Jong is an exemplar of the contemporary Claude Makelele (a defensive midfield specialist who combines a level of brawn and athleticism the supremely astute Frenchman never had). Combined with whomever of Joleon Lescott, Kolo Toure, or Micah Richards plays beside Kompany, and it’s the best defense in the league.

Unfortunately, it’s a foundation built on strength and (in the case of Kompany) size, but against the speed of Manchester United, City’s stalwarts will have problems. Granted, those issues may not be on display come Sunday. In fact, United manager Alex Ferguson may elect to give the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Ryan Giggs starts in this exhibition. While those are talented and reliable players, they don’t possess the speed of Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Antonio Valencia, Nani, and the newly acquired Ashley Young.

That’s the not best attacking crew in the world, but it’s probably the fastest, and it’s not only City who’ll have problems containing them. None of United’s fellow title contenders have enough speed at the back to match the Red Devil attackers. The only exception may be Arsenal, but what the Gunners have in speed they take away from with inexplicable unreliability. With the other contenders, it’s as it Alex Ferguson has looked at a Liverpool defense (still) led by Jamie Carragher, Chelsea with John Terry, and Tottenham with Michael Dawson and noticed a trio of robust but plodding Englishmen that can be exploited by his burners. Suffice to say, none of Ferguson’s opposition have a duo like Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, United’s pair that are amongst the world’s best when healthy (insert obligatory nod to Barcelona’s duo here).

Those two are likely to play on Sunday, though at its heart this match will still be an exhibition. Yet look back to last year’s result. Manchester United defeating Chelsea, with "Chicharito" Hernandez picking up the game-winning goal. Squint long enough – disregard enough logic – and that result almost looks like foreshadowing. At the end of the year, when Hernandez scored in the first minute against Chelsea on May 5, that’s almost how the season ended – United’s new star finding a decisive goal to differentiate the champions from the fallen.

This year, with the Premier League title likely to come down to Manchesters United and City, the Community Shield may again foreshadow the season.