It Couldn’t Have Been Any Closer

Joy, heartbreak, ecstasy, agony – the stark contrast in the emotions of those wearing blue and those wearing red was obvious to all the viewers. It took nearly three hours to determine which team would be the new Champion of Europe. Even after the match ended, one couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been better, had both teams shared the spoils, for both were so well in line.

Alas, football doesn’t work that way; and there could have been only one winner. It was left for the game of chance, that is, the penalty shootout, to determine the team that was destined to win. And destiny decided that it wasn’t yet Chelsea’s time to rule Europe.

Despite putting out attacking line-ups, both teams started cautiously, each not wanting to fall back early. After about fifteen minutes, during which neither goalkeeper was forced into any serious action, Manchester United began taking control of the match. All the pre-match talk of the poor playing surface adversely affecting the Red Devils’ style of play was proven wrong as they maintained possession of the ball with great ease, passing the ball around and intimidating both flanks.

United obtained a well deserved lead in the 26th minute thanks to (no prizes for guessing) Ronaldo. Wes Brown found himself well down the right wing, and delivered a pin-point cross with his left foot. Ronaldo had cut across into the penalty area from the left wing and literally rose above Michael Essien to head the ball past a stranded Petr Cech. It was Ronny’s eighth goal in this Champions League campaign, and 42nd for the season.

Had it not been for Petr Cech, United could have gained a further advantage in a matter of minutes. Rooney stole the ball from Ricardo Carvalho well inside his own half and sent a long cross over the heads of Chelsea’s backline. Ronaldo used his pace to get to the ball before Ashley Cole and then proceeded to deliver a driven cross to Carlos Tevez, whose header was deflected onto an oncoming Michael Carrick. Carrick’s shot was somehow miraculously stopped by Cech.

The Chelsea goalkeeper was being put to serious work by M-United. Chelsea survived another scare when Tevez missed a sitter. Rooney delivered a low ball into the six yard box from the right flank to the path of Tevez. However, the Argentine international was not expecting the ball to get past Claude Makalele; therefore he couldn’t get the touch which would have been sufficient to enhance M-United’s lead.

Man-United suffered for their follies at half time. Michael Essien made a rare run into United’s half and took a wayward shot that took a deflection off both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Van der Sar lost his footing as the loose ball fell for an unmarked Frank Lampard, who coolly scored a much needed goal for his team. Despite M-United having dominating the first half completely, both teams were still level.

If the first half belonged to United, the second certainly belonged to Chelsea. M-United were on the back foot right, with Chelsea dominating the midfield. M-United was hanging by a thread, with the Blues constantly pressing the Red Devil’s defense. Drogba nearly scored in the 78th minute – when he received the ball at the edge of M-United’s penalty area, opened up his body and curled a shot that clipped the far post.

Ninety minutes weren’t sufficient to determine the winner and the match went into extra time. Lampard nearly broke the deadlock a couple of minutes into the first period when he struck the woodwork after receiving a pass from a marauding Ashley Cole. Soon after, United would have taken the lead themselves had it not been for some last ditch defending efforts made by the Chelsea skipper John Terry. Patrice Evra made a run into Chelsea’s penalty area and drew the ball back to Ryan Giggs.

Giggs stabbed at the ball with his left foot and Terry instinctively jumped to block the effort, thus denying the Welshman to cap off his club record 759th appearance with a goal.

The match took a shameful turn in the 125th minute. Chelsea had put the ball out since a player needed treatment. When the throw in was taken, Carlos Tevez, instead of passing the ball to the Chelsea ‘keeper, sent the ball out of play. The Londoners were furious with Tevez who argued that Chelsea had done the same thing twice earlier in the match. In the melee between the two sides, Tevez and Ballack were yellow carded for pushing and shoving. Drogba slapped Nemanja Vidic right in front of the referee, who didn’t have any option but to shown the Ivorian striker a red card. And as if that weren’t enough, he took forever to get off the pitch. With the scores still tied even after extra time, penalties were needed to decide the winner.

With the score at 2-2, Petr Cech saved Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot. John Terry stepped up to take the final shot, needing to score to win the game. The scene appeared to be perfectly poised for a fairytale ending for the Chelsea captain, who had just about managed to get fit for the game after an injury that had forced him off the team less than two weeks ago. Fate, however had entirely different plans, and Terry slipped upon contact and the ball hit the post. M-United survived. Nicolas Anelka stepped in to take Chelsea’ seventh penalty, knowing that he had to score if Chelsea were to stay in the game. Edwin Van der Sar saved the Frenchman’s effort, and United won the Champions League for the third time in the club’s history.

In retrospect, one can argue that M-United probably deserved the trophy for their consistent performance throughout the season. The Red Devil’s were unbeaten throughout their campaign, this was in contrast to the Blues who had lost to Fenerbahce in the quarterfinals and had struggled for a while in the group stages. However, on that night – both squads played like Champions. The match was expected to be cagy, much like last year’s FA Cup final, but despite only two goals being scored – there was no shortage of entertainment. All in all, it was a perfect way to end a magnificent and thrilling season.

Raveesh Bhalla

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