Blues' hopes die in Theatre of Dreams
They stood on the edge of the centre circle, drained and almost motionless, seeming barely capable of computing it all. The reality, the enormity, the brutality appeared to take time to sink in as Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, the two greatest players in Chelsea's recent history, lingered on the pitch after the victors had made their way down the tunnel. No wonder.
The Theatre of Dreams was the graveyard for their ambitions. Perhaps for this year, perhaps forever. As a glum Roman Abramovich returned to the ground, and the stage of this competition, that persuaded him to buy a football club, the thought must have occurred: this Chelsea team is doomed never to win the Champions League. They have no divine right; over eight years of frustration, they have never quite been the best team in Europe; over two legs against Manchester United, they weren't the better side.
They are only the golden generation on domestic duty. For the men who are 33 and 32, the long-serving loiterers on the Old Trafford turf, there was a finality and a cruelty to the last blow of Olegario Benquerenca's whistle, for Abramovich the sight of a £6 million striker doing what a £50 million forward cannot: score.
Unlike most nearly men, Chelsea are largely unloved. Their plight is unlikely to generate sympathy, apart from for their imperilled and admired manager, but that is the consequence of Abramovich's priorities and personality. His biggest buy was an inadvertent reason that United are in the semi-finals, his ultimate aim turned into an annual torment. An obsession, Sir Alex Ferguson had branded it, and whereas United's quest to conquer Europe was rendered a beautiful obsession by events in the Camp Nou and then the Luzhniki Stadium, this seems Chelsea's self-destructive fixation.
From Moscow to Manchester, United delight in thwarting them. "We are out, which is not good for us. We are disappointed but this is football," Carlo Ancelotti said with a shrug and the understated dignity he has brought to the job. The consequences for him could be greater - "It is not my decision if I stay here or not," he added - but Ancelotti is accustomed to owners' whims. In comparison, Ferguson overrides everyone's wishes to get his way, sometimes gloriously.
His team played with a swagger and a spark, epitomised by Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez respectively. They had pace and persistence, exemplified by Nani and Ji-Sung Park respectively. They had the fearless enthusiasm of youth and the unquantifiable benefits of experience. Edwin van der Sar, 40 years young, executed the finest challenge of the night, a sliding tackle on Nicolas Anelka; Ryan Giggs, the most seasoned box-to-box midfielder in elite football, created all three goals over two ties. "A unique player and person," Ferguson said. "His contribution was big."
As though roused by depictions of apparent mediocrity, United have responded by emphasising traditional values. Diffident for some of the season, they are daring now. They have rediscovered their cavalier spirit, with a solitary deep-lying midfielder and none who could be described as inherently defensive. They play on the front foot, proactive not reactive, echoing the fans' favourite chant: We're Man United, we do what we want.
The team tends to peak at this stage of the season, but so has the manager. Each selection of Ferguson has turned to gold or, in Hernandez's case, goals in the last month. The Mexican had one chalked off, following a delightful cross from the rejuvenated Rooney, but another was accepted. An unexpectedly incisive reverse pass from John O'Shea was followed by Giggs' terrific cross. Ever predatory, Hernandez anticipated it, his movement making the goal.
Giggs provided the clincher, too, sliding a pass into Park's path for a rifled finish. At times, it felt as though the South Korean was performing a man-marking job on both Ashley Cole and Florent Malouda, but the nullifier doubled up as the scorer. The multi-tasking midfielder's contribution came in handy, too, as Chelsea's ten men had just levelled on the night.
Drogba in Moscow, Ramires in Manchester: Chelsea tend to end these monumental matches with ten men. Yet when the Brazilian, his side's outstanding performer in the first half, departed for two fouls on Nani, Drogba took up the mantle.
The half-time arrival came on with redemption in mind. He drilled a shot between Van der Sar's legs to cap a contribution of power and prominence that his predecessor could only envy. This was another chastening night for Fernando Torres.
"I think having signed Torres for the money they paid, they had to play him," Ferguson argued. It was a charge Ancelotti denied. But, after 45 minutes, Torres' number was up, an 11th Chelsea game ending without a goal. The manager's decision was made: Abramovich's plaything wasn't playing any longer. Anonymity is rarely as expensive, impotence infrequently as costly.
Fired up and forceful, Drogba came on and scored. Yet during his final-whistle vigil, more modest men than the Ivorian may have wondered if, had he played 180 minutes, instead of 115, over the two legs, Chelsea's holy grail might still be feasible. Instead, it is fantasy.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Giggs. He is 37 years old and has played 870 United games, yet his displays remain more remarkable than the statistics. His reinvention as a central midfielder allows Giggs to exert an influence intelligently and his final ball, as shown in all three goals, is terrific.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: More cautious tactics may be required to win the competition, if not against Schalke in the probable semi-final, because in a stretched, open game, Chelsea had chances. O'Shea had a mixed evening at right back, his fine role in the opening goal appearing an anomaly amid some unconvincing defending and, initially, Ramires threatened to overpower United in midfield. Yet with Rooney, Hernandez, Park and Giggs all excellent, there were fine displays at the other end of the pitch.
CHELSEA VERDICT: Ancelotti's choice of system, with Anelka and Lampard playing behind Torres, seemed to catch United unawares. Had they scored the first goal, it may have been a different matter, but the performance may become irrelevant, while the repercussions could be immense.