Jim White

All on the length of a stud

Jim White

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Unlike Manchester United's last appearance in the Champions League final, this time round there was to be no last minute intervention by the substitutes, no wholly unexpected conclusion of business in normal time. Instead, at the end of a sinew-sapping season, as the two super powers of the Premier League pushed each other to the very edge of exhaustion in magnificent, determined pursuit of the prize they craved, it all came down to penalties.

What a twist: the first all-English Champions League final decided by the one footballing skill at which the English have never found much renown. And then, as if running precisely to national stereotype, it was an Englishman who was responsible for the crucial miss.

It was some game this, in its way almost as extraordinary as the last time an English team won the trophy, back in 2005 when Liverpool took it home from Istanbul. It was a game that advertised the very best of the Premier League, an encounter that suggested all the self-aggrandisement might be right and the competition does indeed deserve to be called the best in the world. "Attack, attack, attack" yelled the crowds in the Luzhniki stadium. And for more than 120 minutes, the teams did just that.

Anyone who feared United and Chelsea might cancel each other out in deadlocked negativity had their worries put to rest in a pulsating opening by United. Cristiano Ronaldo's header was so prodigious it made you wonder how the footballer of the year was ever considered to be a winger and not the most old-fashioned of barnstorming centre forwards. Chelsea came back, through the indefatigable Frank Lampard, and dominated the second half, Didier Drogba's shot that hit the post a strike deserving of a more positive conclusion. But then, in extra time, Drogba lost his brain and was sent off for the silliest of girly slaps. What a time to do it, with penalties galloping into view: a quality player can never make a difference for his side when he is watching the action from afar. Espeically when he is one of the designated penalty takers.

So it came down to the twelve yard roulette. Ronaldo, surely stuttering to the point of an illegal stop, was punished by Cech's save and it all seemed to be opening up for Terry. The captain, the hero, the indefatigable spirit of Chelsea who had kept them in the game clearing off the line from Ryan Giggs, stepped up to win it for the club that is in his heart. He slipped, missed and could barely lift his head to see what he had done. And from then on, destiny was with United. Edwin van der Sar made the crucial save, then Sir Bobby Charlton, the living bridge to the lads of 1958 who lost their lives in pursuit of a trophy that has come to define the club, led the glory boys of 2008 up to receive their prize. As Ryan Giggs, overtaking Sir Bobby to top United's all-time appearance table, lifted the biggest prize in club football, history seemed to be on their side. Yet Sir Alex Ferguson, speaking afterwards, said the past was now over; this was just the start. His team would go on and on, he said. And yes, he would be at its helm. The future, he warned, was only just beginning.

For Chelsea it was the cruellest of conclusions. They had matched United everywhere on the pitch, bettering them indeed for almost the whole of the second half. But as United's players danced and sang and bounced in victory, they fell to the Moscow earth in exhaustion. Terry, their rock, blubbed into his manager's chest. Such is the slender margins of victory. And as Chelsea made their way to the dressing room, soaked to the skin by weather familiar to anyone who has taken a summer holiday in the Lake District, there was a sense that this was it. That Drogba, Lampard, Shevchenko and several others had performed their last for the blues. Particularly their manager, Avram Grant. Roman Abramovich has not spent over £500million to come second in three different competitions. For many of these guys their next pursuit of glory will be elsewhere. On the impact of a stud on the turf do such things hang.

 

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