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Abramovich homecoming wrecked by Utd

Quests for world domination tend to fail in and around Moscow and, despite the inside knowledge of a Muscovite owner, so did Chelsea's.

Ambitions have been much vaunted and much mocked, but the biggest prize has eluded them. Neither the Champions League nor the global quest for hearts and minds has been won. In the former respect, Chelsea are so near and yet so far. In the latter, seemingly borrowing Millwall's ethos may reduce the sympathy afforded them, but they merit it nonetheless.

The heightened drama of penalty shootouts provide individual narratives in abundance, yet the most compelling may be those of the observers: Avram Grant, on the touchline, perhaps destined to be remembered as the nearly man; and Roman Abramovich, his homecoming ruined by the width of the Luzhniki Stadium woodwork twice in open play and, most crucially, when a sliding John Terry's penalty rebounded off the post.

As Premier League champions in back-to-back seasons, Manchester United's is the greater claim to be Europe's foremost team. Unbeaten on the continent, top scorers domestically, and boasting the most extravagant talent on the planet, their case will be endorsed outside Old Trafford. And given their history and the litany of anniversaries 2008 has provided, it was appropriate that they were the winners.

Indeed, on his record-breaking 759th appearance, it was fitting that Ryan Giggs converted what proved United's decisive spot kick. Tradition triumphed as, in a country overflowing with new money, the nouveau riche came off second best.

Perhaps Chelsea's snarl cost them. A lack of respect for authority can alienate neutrals and a reluctance to accept decisions resulted in the wrong sort of history being made. A dispute over a throw-in turned into a contretemps, and Didier Drogba's stupid slap saw his departure. It may have marked his final contribution to Chelsea. If so, it was a featherweight ending to a heavyweight contribution to Chelsea's greatest team. The man who uses physical force to destroy teams exited for something so childish, and with him went a recognised penalty taker.

Had he remained, would John Terry have been presented with the opportunity to win the trophy? Rather than the scripted ending, this was the cruel denouement for the man who had executed a magnificent goal-line clearance in extra time. Terry polarises opinion but, while the 'Mr Chelsea' image can irritate and the Braveheart status conferred upon him can jar, this was utterly undeserved. In any event, Nicolas Anelka, usually reliable from 12 yards, shuffled up seventh with the air of a man who wished he were anywhere else. Edwin van der Sar duly saved.

He had been unimpressive beforehand, but penalty shootouts have the capacity to distort earlier events. United's sole man to miss was their most devastating attacker. Cristiano Ronaldo's 42nd goal of the season gave his side a deserved lead. It provided a blend of statistics and style for the show-off with substance, displaying a willingness to monopolise the ball in the sort of display that suggests he is destined for the Ballon D'Or. For all the stepovers, his two most meaningful Champions League goals have been booming headers and the most recent marked a tactical triumph.

There are occasions when Sir Alex Ferguson suppresses his own cavalier instincts in tightly-fought games. This was not one of them. Resisting the temptation to go like-for-like and field three central midfielders enabled United to stretch the first half. Deploying Ronaldo against the auxiliary right-back Michael Essien was justified as the Ghanaian was - for once - found fallible by United's trump card. Chelsea's attempt to crowbar in all his big beasts came at a price, with Essien exposed.

Chelsea's subsequent revival is attributable to their defensive weak link, Essien marauding with intent to prompt the thought of what might have happened if he had been unleashed in midfield. Whereas the first 45 minutes, the passing of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes was the dominant feature; thereafter it was the control exerted by Lampard and Michael Ballack.

After Lampard levelled, collective willpower, as much as tactics, appeared to change the game. Respect for Chelsea has mounted, not through moments of inspiration, but matches of perspiration. Until van der Sar intervened, they had elongated their duel with United further than long appeared possible.

They remain football's greatest enigmas, the experts at the attritional who persuade themselves they are entertainers. Caviar football is wanted, but they gorge themselves on stodgier fare. So this marked perhaps the final outing for a side so full of paradoxes. It is rare that redoubtable battlers are rarely rewarded so richly. They were signed with the salarys of superstars, they have the work ethic of Russians of past achievements with a rather greater belief in communal effort than Abramovich.

Under the socialist from Govan, United's ethos is clearer and unchanging. They and Chelsea were so evenly matched and yet so different, separated by fine margins and radically different management. But attacking football and a faith in youth were rewarded, albeit paradoxically by only conceding once in the final six Champions League games and courtesy of their two elder statesmen, Giggs and van der Sar.

But, unlike in many previous years, the finest side in Europe are its champions. To repeat the words of Ferguson in Barcelona: 'Football, bloody hell.'

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