Twists, turns and a worthy final
MOSCOW -- "Football is the true winner tonight!"
Of the innumerable clichés littering our sport, this is one of my least favorites. It's trite, rather meaningless and generally idiotic. Rather like the colleague who uttered it Wednesday night, a few seats down from me in the press box at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Cynical thirtysomething hack that I am, I sneered at such predictable crap. But then, it struck me. We had just witnessed 128 minutes of just about everything the game can offer -- good and bad, happy and sad -- and, by and large, the winning team was irrelevant. What mattered was what we had witnessed.
You can look at a game like this as a whole. Do so, and you will find Manchester United getting the edge in a first half which could probably have ended with Sir Alex Ferguson's men 3-1 up. And then nearly an hour of Chelsea battering United up and down the pitch, outrunning, outplaying and outfighting the Red Army, while twice heartbreakingly hitting the woodwork.
Finally, the cruel epilogue of penalty kicks, with Chelsea facing them robbed of its top scorer, ejected for a moment of folly towards the end of extra time and United's Golden Boy being the first to miss from the spot, before fate and the wet Luzhniki pitch caused Chelsea to relent and United to triumph.
Or, you can look at it as a series of potentially game-turning episodes. Paul Scholes' moment of genius, releasing Wes Brown for a left-footed pinpoint cross (when's the last time you saw Brown do that with his left foot?) which caught Michael Essien asleep and allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to break the ice.
The usually deadly Carlos Tévez missing from a few yards out. Michael Carrick smacking a virtual penalty kick right down the middle of the goal, allowing a prone Petr Cech to make unlikeliest of saves. Chelsea's route one equalizer: long pass, Frank Lampard's strike and two deflections along the way.
Rio Ferdinand's face-high lunge at Joe Cole in the box: Had Cole gone down, it would have been a penalty (in fact, the linesman -- the exact same linesman who gave the much-disputed "ghost goal" against Liverpool three years earlier -- put his flag up and then mysteriously took it down again).
Chelsea hitting the post in the second half. Chelsea hitting the post in extra time. Didier Drogba putting his hands in Nemanja Vidic's face and getting his marching orders. Cech hypnotizing Ronaldo. John Terry volunteering to take the fifth penalty and slipping, just as he was about to connect. Nicolas Anelka, looking like a man stunned by the whole occasion, putting an end to proceedings by missing his decisive kick.
I like to think of it as a series of fragments, some relevant, some less so, all of which contributed to one of the most emotional Champions League finals in recent memory.
The battle between Ronaldo and Essien, the unstoppable force versus the immovable object.
Ferguson's drenched grey suit.
Lampard pointing to the heavens and dedicating his goal to his recently deceased mother, Pat.
Tévez taking on four Chelsea opponents by the corner flag with a fury and intensity not seen since Diego Maradona.
Scholes' bloody visage, the result of a long and toe-to-toe battle with another golden oldie, Claude Makélélé.
Edwin van der Sar leaping like a little boy after the penalty shootout, 13 years after winning the Champions League with Ajax.
Michael Ballack unselfishly laying the ball off to Lampard, whose shot found the crossbar.
Avram Grant and Sir Alex sending on Juliano Belletti and Anderson, respectively, just so they could convert a penalty in the shootout. Both did, talk about professionalism.
Terry being consoled not just by his teammates, but by Ferdinand and Carrick as well.
Grant, derided and humiliated, but walking out with his head held high. You showed them, Avram. You showed them all.
Congratulations to Manchester United, worthy winners of the Champions League. Along with -- much as it pains me to say it -- the game of football itself.