Thriller or chiller?

THOSE of a romantic disposition might wish to turn away now.

Champions League finals might have provided a suitably dramatic backdrop to some undeniably epic deeds in recent years, but there is a harder, more calculated feel surrounding this season’s showpiece. The busy, brusque and defiantly ugly city of Moscow is a fitting locus for Manchester United and Chelsea, for whom this trip to the Russian capital is strictly business.

Both clubs know this is an opportunity they can ill-afford to pass up. United might have been firmly ensconced at the top of world football’s rich list ever since such rankings assumed significance but their claims to world domination carry a hollow ring when they have just two gold stars emblazoned on their Champions League jerseys. It is a record which places the club on the same level as Nottingham Forest, Porto and Benfica and its implications have been gnawing at the conscience of Alex Ferguson ever since Barcelona and all that in 1999.

For Chelsea, victory would bring the club the legitimacy it craves. Domestic trinkets are all very well, and it was vital for the club to establish domestic strength after years in the wilderness, but only a continental title will bring wider recognition.

Besides, Roman Abramovich has coveted the European Cup ever since falling in love with football during United’s thrill-fest against Real Madrid in 2003 and the oligarch usually gets what he wants, especially in Mother Russia.

The urgency with which both clubs are approaching tonight’s encounter suggests this will not be a night to win over football’s agnostics. There is simply too much at stake for romance to cloud their focus and, while United can speak whimsically of a new generation of blooming talents reclaiming the European Cup 50 years after the first Flower of Manchester was so tragically cut down, there will be nothing sentimental in the way either team attempt to chisel out victory. As Rio Ferdinand put it: “This is really just another game we have to win.”

European finals usually represent steps into a glorious unknown for English clubs, but there will be no mysteries lying in wait for United or Chelsea tonight. Familiarity has not exactly bred contempt, more a grudging respect and wariness of each other’s talents, and the air-tight nature of this season’s title race provides a clue of what to expect at the Luzhniki stadium.

United triumphed domestically, of course, but that is no guarantee Ferguson’s team boast the momentum. United struggled to hoist their wearied limbs beyond the winning post in the Premier League and the suspicion lingered that had the season been extended another fortnight, they would have been overhauled. That sprint finish is one of the reasons for Ferguson’s chagrin at having to face Chelsea, rather than Liverpool.. The Scot was in typically bullish form at his press conference last night, but beneath the bravado there are genuine anxieties.

He made no attempt to disguise Chelsea’s physical advantage over his own charges — “Chelsea are stronger than most Premier League teams,” he admitted — and he must be perturbed at seeing Avram Grant develop a taste for the big occasion. Having once been labelled a serial choker, the Israeli can now boast triumphs over Liverpool, Arsenal and, of course, United themselves, with the Londoners’ 2-1 league win last month providing a blueprint for Grant this evening.

Chelsea surprised United with their positivity that day: they pushed high up the pitch, squeezing the space Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney need to thrive, and dominated midfield thanks to all-action displays from Michael Ballack, Frank Lampard and John Mikel Obi. The champions’ rhythm was obliterated and they should have been beaten by more than a single goal.

Grant will hope his players can deliver a repeat performance tonight, although it is scarcely credible that the Israeli will sanction such an attacking approach. A month ago, Chelsea knew nothing less than a victory would prolong the title race; this evening, they have it all to lose. The pressure will be ratcheted up accordingly.

The fear for the neutral must lie in the teams delivering a re-run of last season’s FA Cup final, when Didier Drogba’s solitary goal settled a match which was the equivalent of a Harold Pinter play: lots of waiting around for a denouement which could have been predicted from the outset. It was not just Chelsea fans reacting to the final whistle with whoops of delight and a similar encounter this evening will have tv audiences scampering for cover.

Ferguson knows United are ill-equipped for attritional battles. His team are at their effervescent best when they stretch sides out of shape, using the pace of Ronaldo and Rooney, the passing range of Michael Carrick and the canny movement and x-ray vision of Paul Scholes. He also boasts a stronger, more varied bench, which may include Carlos Tevez, Owen Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson, all of whom would be first choice regulars at any other elite side.

“We had no real reserve to change the final last year but this time we have and that will make a difference,” said Ferguson. “Sometimes the game is won by your substitutions and in that sense we’re in a stronger position now than last year. I trust all my players.”

That bond is a strong one but Grant can place equally devout faith in his own charges. And while he would never admit it, Ferguson must fear that if the 2008 Champions League final is a hard-bitten affair, it is Chelsea who boast the sharper teeth.


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