SO NEAR BUT YET SO FAR
One run up, one strike and one scuff away from Champions League glory for Chelsea, in a night where victory belonged to Manchester United as the Old Trafford club won 6-5 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
Chelsea captain John Terry’s missed penalty – which after Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech’s save in the penalty shootout from Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to have put the Blues in the driving seat – proved a crucial margin of error in a tempestuous, turbulent, intense and ultimately entertaining affair.
Once Terry (who if he had scored would ultimately have lifted Chelsea the European Cup) had missed a crucial spot kick by diverting his shot wide of the right post with Van Der Saar beaten, United capitalised and clinched victory with out of sorts Chelsea striker Nicholas Anelka driving a tame shot straight at Van Der Saar.
Euphoria, ecstasy and glory were emotions exuded by the Red Devils once the realisation of a second Champions League trophy in nine years and a third in their history had been triumphed by United.
Despite the notion which penalties are a cruel manner to succumb to defeat, United were hardly in the mood to offer sympathy to their London counterparts. Furthermore, why should they have been? Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s side exuberated in victory while Chelsea boss Avram Grant and Terry particularly appeared devastated at the loss, with the latter reduced to tears.
However whilst Chelsea can feel disappointed, fate sometimes delivers fortune and then the hammer blows which dictate thereafter. Manchester United’s first half display therefore could well have given them a comfortable half time lead at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, had Carlos Tevez not been denied by Cech, Carrick’s rebound pounded away by the Chelsea keeper and Tevez not missed a glorious chance to slide the ball home, but skidding on the turf with opportunity over.
Although Manchester United’s opening half display merited a deserved half time lead which their superior passing in tighter areas and exposure of Chelsea’s full backs Michael Essien (unorthodox right-back) and Ashley Cole by Cristiano Ronaldo and the effervescent Owen Hargreaves, helped provide width and consequently chances.
Chelsea by contrast had not coped with United in the midfield areas with Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick passing superbly in defensive areas and then probing forward to provide for the three pronged attack of Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo whilst Chelsea’s midfield and defence remained static and lacking rhythm.
Once Portuguese winger Ronaldo had provided the opener after a run inside Ashley Cole by Wes Brown and a chip in to the area, where Ronaldo guided a supremely placed header past Cech, United compounded their ascendancy. Chelsea needed to respond and in fervent panic they did, when on 33 minutes only seven after United’s first, Van Der Saar had to deny Rio Ferdinand’s goal bound header after the England centre half had been pressured by Chelsea midfielder Michael Ballack.
A stir of action then almost proved costly when on the counter attack Rooney broke quickly, a high cross to Ronaldo was driven in by the goal scorer to Tevez whose header was pounded away by Cech, with Carrick’s drive tipped over by the giant Chelsea keeper in a crucial moment.
At this point 2-0 would surely have been too much for Grant’s Blues to recover by and the game appeared an uphill struggle with a 1-0 deficit with United asserting control. However Chelsea’s late first half spell of pressure resulted in a bolt from the blue quite literally to equalise just before half-time. Essien’s central foray after some intricate Chelsea movement and passing ended with the Ghanaian’s drive deflected fortuitously in to the path of Frank Lampard in the penalty area. With United defenders stumbling, Lampard poked home from eight yards over Van Der Saar who himself had fallen to provide the Blues with hope at the break.
By this point – where Chelsea’s Claude Makelele had been lucky to remain on the pitch after constant bickering, along with Ballack and Joe Cole’s juvenile behaviour, which encouraged United’s Ferdinand, Tevez and Nemanja Vidic to engage also – Grant felt relief his side had rode the red tide.
Lampard’s equaliser had given Chelsea a timely second half lift, with Essien’s continued central probes and forward full back drives and the rejuvenated form of Chelsea’s midfield, alongside quicker passing in tight areas and greater pressing up field, ensuring the Blues looked likelier to turn the screw.
Essien’s shot over on the break, Vidic’s’ crucial challenges on the previously isolated first half’s Didier Drogba demonstrated Chelsea’s increased pressure. Indeed the Ivorian began to impose a greater force on Man United’s defence and almost struck a supreme winner in to the net but hit the post from 25 yards and some close calls for Ferguson’s side almost provided a winner for the Blues.
However United stood firm and emphasised the solid unit which has now lifted them two trophies this season in the form of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, whilst Patrice Evra and Wes Brown still tried to counter forward on every opportunity.
Despite increased pressure by the West Londoners in the second period, Grant’s side appeared consigned to fate and a lack of width when it mattered. As although Chelsea had improved vastly in all areas and especially on the ball after the break, United still drove confidence at the back and nearly struck their second when Michael Carrick’s effort was blocked brilliantly by Ricardo Carvalho.
Manchester United displayed weariness as Chelsea’s renewed vigour appeared enough to enforce a second goal in extra time. However the second strike would not materialise as Lampard’s darting pirouette in the area saw the midfielder slam his strike against the bar, with Ferguson surely sneakily feeling confident that fortune was with his side.
United then came agonisingly close in the opening period of extra time when substitute Ryan Giggs’ (who broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s all time appearance record last night) tame effort in the area was diverted superbly behind by “captain marvel” John Terry for a corner with the ball destined to slot home.
Terry had played with superb character during the match and tried desperately to resolve a dispute between Ricardo Carvalho and Carlos Tevez in extra time, which resulted in Drogba sent off for a feminine flick slap at Vidic.
However despite him not being available for penalties at that moment, it appeared to be damage limitation with only four minutes of extra time to play once he was sent off. Chelsea’s second half display and extra time effort had possibly rewarded them a win, though United’s first half show should already have drove them to comfort by half time with the Red Devils defending admirably after Lampard’s equaliser.
Too close to call for a victor as despite both sides having good cases to prove worthy winners, United’s all-round performance had probably edged it once it came to the penalty shootout crunch. Once again it had taken Chelsea an eternity to spring from the traps with another slow start signalling the direction of the match from the offset.
By the time the tense conclusion ended with Manchester United’s jubilant players lifting the trophy for the third time in their history and Chelsea reduced to a dumbstruck mess of tears and desperation, Sir Alex Ferguson was in party mood.
“It is a fantastic achievement. That is the first shoot-out I’ve won in a big game,” said the United boss.
Meanwhile the futures over adversary Avram Grant, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard loom large in the summer, though Grant was proud of his side and preferred to praise their performance rather than comment on his own future. Grant said: “We hit the post, we hit the bar, we did everything but score the second goal and then lost. What can you say?”
Opposition supporters of Chelsea should pay credit to the Israeli whose season has defied odds to reach two finals and take the Premier League to the final day. Chelsea narrowly missed out and lessons to be learnt for next season are to improve their goal scoring and flee from the traps more frequently whilst playing faster football may rival United if their formula succeeds.
Whether Grant will be amongst the scenes or behind them next season for Chelsea to help deliver this, only Russian owner Roman Abramovich will decide.
However on a night of diverse electric energy, Manchester United were crowned deserved champions of Europe.
In hindsight United had played brilliantly defeating Roma, Barcelona and Chelsea (some of Europe’s giants) on the path to victory, with Ferguson’s side displaying artistry, passion and a consistent work ethic which ultimately proved enough on a night of intense drama.
That old Red Devil has done it again and again, riding the storm and providing the sucker punch at the death in an even battle. Who said this final would be boring?