Review of the year: Football

Master strategists upset the old order at home and away
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The Independent Online

They'll remember 2005 as the year that the new school of football management assumed control. The Mourinho-istas would say that Chelsea's Premiership title, with just one defeat along the way, was the season's outstanding achievement. Those of a Benitez-esque persuasion would point to his thrilling Champions' League final victory with a Liverpool team only good enough to finish fifth in the Premiership and argue that this year belonged to Anfield's unassuming Spaniard.

"Not out of a bottle," was how he introduced himself, "but a special one." José Mourinho, a tough-talking, instinctive master of tactics and preparation, won Chelsea's first league title in 50 years in his debut season. Described as "an overnight sensation 20 years in the making", he had spent a lifetime on the support staff of bigger clubs before winning the European Cup as manager of Porto in 2004. Put in charge of the richest club on the planet, he set about his adversaries with a vengeance that suggested years of thwarted ambition.

In January, he was caught illegally "tapping up" Arsenal's star left back Ashley Cole and, in the inquiry that followed, fought tenaciously to reduce his £200,000 fine. He picked a fight with Frank Rijkaard before beating his Barcelona team over two thrilling Champions' League matches. Above all, he broke the duopoly of Manchester United and Arsenal with a fervour for disciplined football that crushed all domestic opposition.

In England he was unparalleled, but in Europe, Mourinho was deposed by a man whose public profile could scarcely have been less imposing. When he was a child growing up in Spain, Rafael Benitez was obsessed with strategy board-games, and as a young man he was given leave from his National Service to play chess. Portly, content to wear nothing more grandiose than the regulation club suit, the conclusion to his team's season was the year's most gripping match.

The semi-final defeat of Chelsea at Anfield by a goal that did not cross the line saw the old stadium at its passionate best. The final in Istanbul was in the new Ataturk stadium, a remote, soulless ground in the hills outside the city which, in order to reach, required Liverpool's supporters to abandon their taxis and walk the last mile. They came like tired pilgrims to watch arguably the greatest European Cup final of all time.

Three goals from Milan in the first half were equalled by three from Liverpool in the second. After Liverpool's victory on penalties, and their fifth European Cup, captain Steven Gerrard kept the trophy at the end of his bed for the night. This was, however, Benitez's night, although you wouldn't have known; he spent the flight home discussing plans for the new season with club officials.

So much for the glory, now for the pain. In May, the banks at last trusted the American tycoon Malcolm Glazer, and three of his sons, with the money to buy 127 years of Manchester United's history, lock, stock and barrel. At a stroke, United's legal, registered headquarters was no longer Old Trafford, M16 0RA, but a lawyer's office in Reno, Nevada. The £800m takeover precipitated a near-riot outside the club's famous megastore, that enduring symbol of United's financial supremacy. Historically debt-free, they now have loans of at least £525m to service.

Sir Alex Ferguson battled on. He was there on 3 December when George Best was buried in Belfast after losing his battle against alcoholism at 59. On New Year's Eve, Ferguson turns 64. He has cast out his key lieutenant, Roy Keane, in favour of Old Trafford's new generation. Keane's attack on his team-mates' failings in October - an interview considered so damaging by the club's own TV channel that it was never broadcast - and the club's refusal to offer him a new contract meant that, after 12 years, he took his leave without ceremony last month.

Ferguson still, though, has Wayne Rooney, and where there is Rooney there is hope, as Sven Goran Eriksson will testify. The England manager steered his side to the top of their qualifying group for the 2006 World Cup finals with a game to spare and only one defeat. Unfortunately for Eriksson, that 1-0 defeat was in September against puny Northern Ireland at Windsor Park - an international disaster on the scale of anything his predecessors had accomplished.

Eriksson rehabilitated himself with a last-minute 3-2 victory over Argentina in Geneva last month. England's £4.2m-a-year coach will have watched with interest the shifts in the management hierarchy this year. Some of his rivals are on the rise, and others most definitely in decline, but, should England triumph in Germany next summer, anything they achieve will be eclipsed by Eriksson.

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