Manchester United wins Champions League final

The Champions League, Europe’s most coveted trophy, is back in the hands of Manchester United. It was won at 1.34 a.m. in Moscow in the cruellest way a sporting contest can end —
on the penalty shoot out that many of us have compared to Russian Roulette.

FOOTBALL 2007-2008 Champions League final – Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson holds aloft trophy

2008 Champions League final Chelsea John Terry slips as he misses a penalty At 90 minutes, the final against Chelsea stood all square, one goal apiece and nothing to decree that one side or the other deserved defeat. After 30 minutes overtime, and a total of almost 10 minutes more for various injuries and stoppages, the two teams were like exhausted prize fighters.

FOOTBALL 2007-2008 Champions League final – Didier Drogba of Chelsea shown red card against Manchester United

They were still on their feet, those that hadn’t fallen with cramp. They were pawing instinctively at one another in torrential rain, neither having the energy to land a knock out blow. So to penalties, to the lottery that tests the nerve of men paid millions to be soccer players not men praying for a lucky break in a sequence of kicks on goal.

Alex Ferguson celebrates with his team

The shootout was like the game itself, the teams were inseparable over the first 10 penalty kicks. Of all people, the first man whose nerve failed was Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the finest player in the world at the moment.

He had already scored a proper goal, rising in the area after 26 minutes, escaping his marker Michael Essien and, tall man that Ronaldo is, guiding the cross from Wes Brown with consummate power and precision into the top of the net.

United should then have consolidated because its game flowed with movement and passing that Chelsea could not compete with. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes were the pass-masters, and twice Carlos Tevez, his aim not a match for his energy, failed to capitalise on chances.

Alex Ferguson celebrates with Carlos Tevez

The one quality keeping Chelsea in the final at this stage was heart. Their spirit is stubborn, their will sometimes appear insuperable, and on the stroke of half time they levelled the score. It was a fortuitous goal, the first hint this night in the Luzhniki Stadium that there was indeed a lottery rolling.

What Essien lacks as a full back, especially when the shadow he is chasing is Ronaldo, he makes up for in his hunger to power forwards. He got lucky because his shot from outside the area was not worth a goal, but by the time it had ricocheted off not one but two men in red — Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand — it fell sweetly into the path of Frank Lampard. Even then, there was a capricious twist of fate, a slip by the foot of goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar as he came forward to meet the danger.

Manchester United’s manager Ferguson reacts

Lampard mercilessly punished the slip by placing the ball beyond the keeper.

After that, at times fiesty but refereed with prompt authority by the Slovak Lubos Michel, the momentum passed from United to Chelsea. The finesse of Manchester was eclipsed by the power, and hunger, of the team in blue.

Had the luck reflected Chelsea’s effort, it would then have taken the title. But first Didier Drogba, able to conjure sudden and violent power with a shot out of nothing, struck the post. Then, well past the midnight hour and indeed into the first period of extra time, Lampard repeated the trick — with the same fate, the ball bouncing away off van der Sar’s post.

Men were now falling with cramp on that dreadful pitch, laid less than two weeks ago and made to look green but draining the juice from players’ limbs. Minds were fraying too, and after Tevez and Terry had become embroiled in a tetchy argument, Drogba foolishly, petulantly slapped the face of Vidic.

It was a tap, not at all a heavyweight’s punch. But Michel refereed it by the book, and sent off the big Ivorian Drogba who has been suggesting all season long that he will quit Chelsea this summer. If so, his last act in the shirt was to walk in disgrace.

Rules are rules — and the rule of soccer is that if players can’t decide on the field which team is the better, then those darned penalties will do it for them. The first four kicks went in with metronomic precision, the fifth was to be taken by Ronaldo.

Alex Ferguson holds up the trophy – Thursday May 22, 01:33 PM
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (3rdL) holds up the trophy as his team celebrates victory over Chelsea in their UEFA Champions League final match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow May 22, 2008. REUTERS/Darren Staples

He is United’s penalty taker. He has scored 42 times in a year, an amazing count for a winger, and he is both the English Premier league top scorer, and Europe’s this season. Yet he stopped on his run up to the ball, betrayed by hesitation; and Petr Cech dived to save his weak shot.

The penalties rattled in until, at 4-4, John terry, Chelsea’s redoubtable captain, walked up to take what would have been the decisive kick.

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