Highest stage gets the final it deserves

BACK at the quarter-final stage, I publicly prayed to the footballing gods that we be spared an all-England final.

It’s an all-Europe competition after all, and if we wanted to see Chelsea play Manchester United on foreign soil, all we’d have to do is ask the money men in the Premier League to organise it.

Well, let me now just as publicly eat humble borscht. Last night’s marathon match in Moscow was terrific, as good a game of football as you could wish to see on the highest stage and an absolute credit to best the Premiership has to offer.

And so what a pity that night was disfigured by Didier Drogba receiving the ultimate sanction for a petty slap. Chelsea managed to sustain that blow and fight their way to the penalty shoot-out. But they were finally down and out after van der Sar stopped Anelka’s effort to give United the title forty years after Wembley and 50 after Munich.

The historical force may have been with United, but Chelsea, after twice hitting the woodwork on the night, really didn’t deserve to lose this one. Nor did John Terry — who had earlier prevented a probable winner with a goal-line clearance from Ryan Giggs — deserve to carry the burden of missing the penalty which would have won the trophy for Chelsea.

But credit to United and Alex Ferguson — you don’t just win the Champions’ League with one game, let alone one penalty. And they have comfortably been the best side in England in recent years.

In football parlance, it had been a cagey enough opening — or in anyone else’s language, plain boring. There was precious little thunder on the pitch until shortly before the half-hour mark, when the game exploded into life with the opening goal. Ronaldo may be famed for his twinkle-toes — too much so, for some tastes — but few experts will argue with his strength in the air. It was harsh that Michael Essien, always prodigious for Chelsea in whatever position he plays, was at fault in allowing his man a yard of space. But it still took a towering header from distance to find the net.

Just how difficult it normally is to beat Petr Cech was clear when he made a stupendous double-save to thwart first Carlos Tevez and then Michael Carrick. But just as noteworthy was the move. Ronaldo may have eclipsed Wayne Rooney in the goalscoring stakes this season, but the latter’s huge and selfless contribution to the United cause was once again evident in the way he began the move by working back and winning the ball deep in his own half. Then came the creative flourish — a superb booming pass across the pitch to find the Portuguese, whose first time ball into the box was met with a flying header from Tevez. But with an exhibition on the double of top-class shot-stopping, Cech managed to keep the Reds at bay.

And, indeed, keep Chelsea in the game. Tevez was just inches short of connecting with a Rooney ball across the face of the goal, as United, threatened to put the game out of sight. But they didn’t. As we all know, one-nil is the most perilous of leads in football — unless you’re AC Milan playing Liverpool three years ago, of course. And Chelsea made the most of a rare foray forward — and a telling slice of luck — to equalise through an opportunistic Frank Lampard effort just before the break.

Now having asked most of the questions in the first 45, it was time for United’s character to come under scrutiny. And Chelsea, playing with greater self-belief and a flowing sense of adventure, began to show that there’s much more to their game than crushing industrial strength.

Perhaps if Didier Drogba had been as fired up as he was for the second leg of the semi-final against Liverpool, Chelsea would have found the cutting edge to finish off their waves of attack. As it was, the big man came explosively to life just the once in normal time, the woodwork keeping United in the tie.

When Chelsea were denied by the post for a second time in extra time — Lampard this time the luckless one — you wondered if this might be United’s night. After all, the last time they won, it was only after Bayern Munich had dominated for long stretches and also been stymied by the woodwork. So, when a superb driving run by Patrice Evra ended with the ball at the feet of Giggs with the goal gaping, it seemed written in the stars that the veteran would decide the outcome. But this time, with Cech already committed, John Terry provided the heroics, deflecting the goal-bound shot away with his head.

And still we weren’t done, the long night’s journey into day finally only brought to a close by inexpressibly cruel and glorious drama of the shoot-out.


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