Man United bask in glory

FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

The first all-English European Cup Final between Manchester United and Chelsea was a battle from start to finish.  The 151st meeting between these two Clubs had the lot: excitement, controversy and agony.  No matter who the victor, England would have its 11th European Cup triumph equalling that of Spain and Italy.

Both Man Utd and Chelsea had an undefeated record in European finals, one side was going to have that record broken, and by the narrowest of margins.  Chelsea could field 8 players with previous finals experience and Man Utd 5, two of those being Ryan Giggs and Edwin Van der Sar, who would both affect the outcome of the match.

Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium played host to only its second European Final with just over 84,000 fans eagerly awaiting the continent’s showpiece event.  All eyes were on Cristiano Ronaldo, the competition’s top scorer with 7 goals, and Didier Drogba who had bagged 6 of his own.  The two best teams in English football had a combined 16 nationalities represented in their squad’s, an indication of what it takes to get to the Final.

An amazing $65 million in prize money was on offer for the winner.  Add gate, TV rights and other benefits and the sum could be well over 9 figures.  No other sport can compete with football in this regard.  In another sense, this puts the pressure on Clubs, players and managers in perspective.

Man Utd came into this match knowing history could be created, fate was going to play its part, of that there was no doubt.  2008 was the 50-year anniversary of the Munich air disaster and 40 years since their first victory in 1968.

Back then a very special player wore the number 7 shirt, George Best, now Ronaldo was being compared to the Man Utd legend, a burden none too big for the young Portuguese’s shoulders.  Sir Alex Ferguson, who would become the oldest British manager to win the European Cup at 66, had specific instructions for Ronaldo which proved influential.

Russia’s capital produced a colourful opening ceremony and should be commended on their efforts to keep the event trouble-free.  7,000 riot police were prepared just in case, but it was the quality of the playing surface which let them down.

The Luzhniki Stadium has an artificial turf, which UEFA deemed not appropriate for such an important match and had new turf replace it, causing much speculation by the media, fans and the Club’s themselves.  UEFA President, Michel Platini said, “Let the players train on it first,” when questioned about what he thought of the pitch.  However, the truth was obvious to see, it was far from perfect.

Could Man Utd do the domestic/European double?  Thoughts of 1999 were on the minds of the fans in red.  Man Utd were undefeated in reaching the UEFA Champions League Final, with 9 wins and 3 draws.  For Chelsea, the disappointment of 4 Semi-Final’s appearances in 5 seasons was a distant memory, manager Avram Grant had guided the Blues to their first ever UCL Final.

Man Utd lined-up with Van der Sar, Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Owen Hargreaves, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney.  Chelsea took the field with Petr Cech, Michael Essien, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Claude Makelele, Michael Ballack, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Florent Malouda and Drogba.

Ronaldo had never scored against Chelsea.  The match-up between him and Ashley Cole never eventuated due to some smart thinking by Ferguson, who opted to play him on the left against Essien who is usually a midfielder and out of position at right back.

The match kicked-off with the predicted cagey start, for 25 minutes the two sides were finding their feet so to speak.  On 26 minutes a lovely one-two between Brown and Scholes led to a perfectly weighted cross finding the head of Ronaldo for the opening goal, and his first against the Blues silencing his critics.  Essien was easily beaten and had a very difficult first-half.  Ronaldo had now scored 8 goals in 11 matches and an incredible 42 for the season.

The Reds clearly dominated the first-half, the opening 30 minutes saw them command 65% ball possession.  A good-run after the goal led to a couple of clear chances, only Cech stood in the way of a lop-sided score line, it’s no wonder the Czech Republic international was voted the world’s best goalkeeper two year’s in a row.  Evra and Ronaldo were causing havoc on the left wing, while a battle was raging in midfield between Makelele and Scholes, both booked during the match.

Just when Man Utd looked to take a comfortable 1-0 lead into the dressing room, Chelsea hit-back with a goal on 45 minutes from Lampard after a lucky deflection from Essien’s shot and a slip by Van der Sar.  Lampard pointed up to the heaven’s to acknowledge his mother Pat’s presence.  A high-intensity first-half provided some entertaining football, but who wanted to win it more?

Chelsea came out of the tunnel to start the second-half with one thing one their minds: winning!  The Blues were the more physically intimidating side and played to their strengths.  Essien pushed-on in midfield displaying the more skilful side of his game, playing much better than he did in the first-half.  For a good 10 minutes, chances from Essien, Ballack and Drogba put Man Utd under pressure and they began to buckle.

After an hour, Makelele had completed 95% of his passes showing his value to the Chelsea midfield.  The Blues’ midfield was running, by the 75 minute mark, Joe Cole, Ballack and Lampard had each covered approximately 9.3 kilometres each.  Player’s on both sides were starting to cramp.  Ryan Giggs’ 87th minute substitution was the first by either manager, Giggs surpassing Sir Bobby Charlton’s record with 759 appearances for the Red Devils.

Extra-time would define the destiny of this match.  Lampard hit the crossbar, Terry headed away a clear goal, and some unsportsmanlike behaviour from Tevez five minutes before the end of extra-time, fuelled a bust-up between the two sides in which Drogba was sent-off for striking Vidic in the face.

Chelsea switched Juliano Belletti for Makelele and Man Utd brought on Anderson for Brown just before the final whistle in anticipation of the dreaded penalty shoot-out.  The final statistics showed Chelsea doubling Man Utd’s shot count, 24 to 12, although Man Utd clearly dominated ball possession with 58%, and 77% of completed passes compared to 68%.

Ferdinand won the toss and confirmed with Van der Sar to kick first heaping pressure back on Chelsea.  Tevez, Ballack, Carrick and Belletti converted for 2-2.  Ronaldo, who missed a penalty against Barcelona in the away leg of the Semi-Final, choked and was left to wait anxiously for the duration of the spot kicks.  Lampard scored his, again signalling to his mother.

Hargreaves, Ashley Cole and Nani (who had replaced Rooney), scored to leave the defining moment to Terry, the Chelsea captain and heart of the team.  Terry steps-up and slips, his shot hitting the right post and blowing his chance for European glory.  Anderson and Kalou slot home, as does Giggs leaving late substitute Nicolas Anelka to take the crucial penalty.  He missed.  The penalty shoot-out was over.  Man Utd were champions!

It was a history-making moment for Man Utd.  Ferdinand and Giggs held the trophy aloft while Terry buried his head into the arms of Steve Clarke.  Clarke, the Chelsea assistant manager, shared his captain’s pain as an ex-player.  Grant, who will surely be sacked, tried his best but never really outsmarted Ferguson.  I personally would’ve put on Andriy Shevchenko instead of Anelka, I’m sure Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, would be thinking the same.

Nevertheless, it was Man Utd’s year!  They have the best player in the world at the moment in Ronaldo, and an over-achiever in Giggs.  The Red Devils set the benchmark, winning the UCL was a well-earned prize.  Terry’s slip will haunt him forever but it just shows you how fine the margin is between success and failure in the modern game.

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