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Rae's Say: Mission to Moscow

The column comes to you this week from Moscow ahead of Wednesday's all-English UEFA Champions League showdown.

More than 40,000 Manchester United and Chelsea supporters will be pouring in, and no, they're not here for a brisk stroll through Gorky Park, or an opportunity to visit the Pushkin Museum.

Can United prove that Red Square is aptly named, or will Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich succeed in painting the Russian capital blue, as part of his apparent five-year plan for world football domination? On home turf here in Russia, Abramovich is figuring prominently in the pre-match storyline department. But owners can influence nothing once the action begins: and a good thing too.

By kick-off time, the Luzhniki Stadium will be full of significantly more engrossing confrontations than Abramovich against Glazer.

United, when last they lifted the Champions League trophy in 1999, could be counted on to play with sweeping abandon. That ability remains very much in their repertoire, but increasingly this season, Sir Alex Ferguson's men have won in Europe with a more cautious approach. En route to Moscow, United have scored 19 and conceded a miserly 5. By contrast, the 1999 treble-winning side free-wheeled their way to 29 goals and shipped an alarmingly high 16 in the Champions League.

Much as purists would love to see a return to that swashbuckling era in Manchester United's history, it's difficult to envisage Sir Alex going gung-ho in the forthcoming final. Their days of 4-4-2 with a preference for gambling, are behind them. Of course, the defence is a lot stronger these days. In the centre the steely Nemanja Vidic and the more elegant Rio Ferdinand complement each other perfectly

Assuming everyone is fit by Wednesday night, Ferguson will have to leave one or two prominent names on the bench. Park Ji-Sung, Carlos Tevez, Nani and Owen Hargreaves all excelled in the semi-final win against Barcelona, yet there's a good chance at least two of the four will start on the sidelines. The manager has made a point of describing the current United squad as his best in terms of its 'completeness.' I find it impossible to disagree.

Cristiano Ronaldo is still the club's crown jewel. 41 goals in 48 matches represents a stunning season for any player, let alone a wide man. But can he outshine everyone else in a game that truly matters? His critics will tell you he underperforms in the big matches. In addition, and this is rather surprising, Ronaldo has never scored against Chelsea.

The Londoners, having been pipped at the Premier League post by United, are highly motivated as they await their very first Champions League final appearance. Avram Grant's credibility is burgeoning, although only Abramovich can say for certain if the club's Israeli manager will return next season.

Grant has fewer selection conundrums than Ferguson. The team comes close to picking itself, with the only real issue being who to play in an attacking role on the left. Florent Malouda, Salomon Kalou, Nicolas Anelka? All are worthy candidates.

Michael Essien's talents often appear wasted at right-back, although the gifted Ghanaian does give Chelsea the equivalent of three penetrating players in that position. The evergreen Claude Makelele will hold in midfield, with Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack prompting just behind the moody but deadly Didier Drogba.

The powerful Ivorian was magnificent in Chelsea's recent 2-1 victory over United in the Premier League. At times he would drop into deep positions and thread balls through to Ballack and Joe Cole. At others, he was his usual rampant, physically imposing self. Like Ronaldo at the other end of the park, Drogba is always a potential match-winner.

There are a few reasons to make Chelsea favourites this week. For one thing, since 2004, they've won 6, drawn 3 and lost only 2 of their 11 Premier League, FA Cup and Carling Cup meetings with Manchester United. They will also be encouraged by the two previous Champions League finals (2000 and 2003) featuring two sides from the same country. Real Madrid and Milan, the winners in each case, finished their respective domestic seasons beneath their final opponents, Valencia and Juventus.

Manchester United are entitled to believe however, that there's something in the air. This is after all, 50 years on from the Munich air disaster, 40 years on from the club's maiden European Cup triumph, and 25 years since Ferguson won his first European trophy as an ambitious young manager at unfashionable Aberdeen.

Sir Alex has never lost a major European final. Extending that sequence to 4 will be difficult, as Grant is not the tactical incompetent some have portrayed him to be.

Kick-off time is 10.45 pm, local time. Expect a tense, taut final at the Luzhniki. For my part, I won't be at all surprised if I'm still at the microphone come 1 o'clock on Thursday morning!

My money's on the biggest game on the European club calendar going to penalties for the ninth time.

It would be remiss of me if I didn't remind you that in various parts of the world, the whole extravaganza is live on ESPN. Tommy Smyth will join me and our special guest in the commentary box will be the 4-times Champions League winner, Clarence Seedorf.


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