Thursday, May 22, 2008

Champions League Final

Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea (United win 6-5 on penalties)

That was awesome. It had a little something for everyone: good football, bad football, great shots, great saves, near misses, injuries, diving, whining, handbags, a red card, tears, drama, controversy, penalties... and in the end, the right team won.

I think the two teams were pretty well matched over the 120 minutes. Normally I hate penalty shootouts (and my stomach was tied up in knots watching this one), but they could have played for another three days and still not had a winner. This wasn't a case of one team desperately hanging on through extra team and hoping for some good luck; both sides were really going for it.

United definitely had the better of the first half, although it was even at 1-1 by halftime. Sir Alex surprised just about everybody by starting with an old-school 4-4-2, with Owen Hargreaves on the right of midfield (I was yelling at the TV, convinced that ESPN had fucked up their graphics once again). It turned out to be a good decision, as Hargreaves was involved in most of United's best chances, and I think Ashley Cole may have underestimated him and was giving him too much space. On the other wing, Cristiano Ronaldo was terrorizing Michael Essien and demonstrating that he's not really supposed to be a defender. And it was Ronaldo who scored the opening goal, after good work from Paul Scholes and a pinpoint cross from Wes Brown, with a solid header that left Essien flat-footd.

Chelsea almost equalized a few minutes later, with some equally bad defending from United as Rio Ferdinand was bullied by Michael Ballack and almost headed the ball into his own net only for Edwin van der Sar to tip it over. But United were generally dominating the play, and they had another great chance to score, Wayne Rooney winning the ball after a Chelsea corner and sending a cross-field pass to Ronaldo, who picked out Carlos Tevez in the box. Petr Cech made a great save from Tevez's header, and another immediately after on a hard shot from Michael Carrick, who'd picked up the rebound. Tevez missed another chance shortly after, sliding in and just failing to connect with Rooney's cross. (Maybe next year Fergie will buy a striker who's more than 5'6".)

United were hoping to go into halftime with their lead intact (and, in fact, should have been up by two or three goals), but couldn't hold out. Chelsea came close with a free kick from Ballack, after Ferdinand had fouled Frank Lampard right on the edge of the box. And then they equalized just before the break, as Essien picked up the ball about 30 yards out; his shot deflected off a couple players and fell right to Frank Lampard, with van der Sar slipping on the shitty turf and Ferdinand scrambling to make up group. Damn it.

You'd think the goal would've made the Chelsea players a bit happier, but they followed up the goal with a terrible tackle on Ronaldo by Ricardo Carvalho -- and then half the team bitching about it when he was rightly booked. Claude Makelele was still arguing with the referee as they left the field, which was particularly stupid since he'd already been booked for a clash with Paul Scholes earlier in the first half. They're a charming bunch of players, really. I suppose their captain leads by example.

With the boost from their goal, Chelsea took more control in the second half. The game got increasingly niggly, with lots of fouls from both teams, and whining about just about every call (mostly from Chelsea, and especially from Joe Cole, who didn't make any other notable contributions to the match). Chelsea's fullbacks were pushing forward more, neutralizing United's tactics from the first half, and I think Ferguson should've reacted more quickly to change things up. Scholes was dropping deeper and seemed to be fading a bit (possibly because he still had a bloody nose from colliding with Makelele in the first half), and players were going down with cramp all over the place. But it wasn't until the 85th minute that United made their first substitution, replacing Scholes with Ryan Giggs for his record 759th appearance.

Anyway, into extra time we go, with Salomon Kalou coming on for Florent Malouda. (You notice how I haven't mentioned Malouda yet? Yeah. That's because he was kind of mediocre, Tommy Smyth's idiotic commentary on ESPN to the contrary.) Both teams had chances to win it in the first half of extra-time: First Lampard's shot careened off the crossbar, and Joe Cole fired over from the rebound. Then Giggs had a great chance for United, as Patrice Evra squirmed through the defence and set him up perfectly only for John Terry to head the shot clear. Nicolas Anelka came on for big sucky baby Joe Cole (and, it turns out, outdid him in being petulant), while Nani replaced a not-very-happy-about-it Wayne Rooney.

In the second half of extra time, the main incident, aside from still more players collapsing with cramp thanks to playing almost two hours of football on a pitch that kept shifting around on them, was a ridiculous bout of handbags between just about every player from both teams. It all started when Carlos Tevez -- who worked his tail off all game but to very little ultimate effect -- didn't play the ball back to Petr Cech after it had been put out of play for an injury. (This was, I think, when Ashley Cole was sitting on the ground flapping his thighs like some kind of demented butterfly.) It ended with Tevez and Ballack booked, Drogba red-carded for smacking Vidic in the face, and John Terry possibly spitting on Tevez as the rumble broke up. For the record, I don't think Terry spit on Tevez, I do think he's an asshole, but Drogba is an even bigger one for losing it, being sent off, and leaving his team in the lurch in a massive game. (Zinedine Zidane is a role model in many ways, but this is not one of them.)

There were only a few minutes left at that point, and United weren't able to take advantage of their extra man to score, so penalties it was. I was too afraid to make an official prediction before the game, just in case I jinxed it, but if I had, it would've been this: 1-1 after extra time, United to win on penalties. I probably wouldn't have predicted the way the penalties went, though. After all the penalties Ronaldo's scored this season, you wouldn't have expected him to miss, would you? I mean, yeah, there was that one against Barcelona, but he couldn't be stupid enough to do that twice, could he? Oh. See, THIS is why you don't mess around with the way you take penalties. Get Hargreaves to show you sometime; those Germans taught him properly. Ronaldo looked wrecked after Cech saved his shot -- and so he should have; waiting for the keeper to dive one way is useless work when the keeper knows you do that and won't move. Just hit it hard and put it in the corner.

All the other players had scored theirs, so Ronaldo's miss meant that John Terry could win the whole shebang when he stepped up to take the fifth penalty. (Apparently, if Drogba had still been on the field, he was supposed to take it, but I wonder if Terry would've taken one anyway, instead of, say Ashley Cole.) So here he is: Mr. Chelsea, England's Brave John Terry, scores a lot for a defender, blah blah blah, and he...misses. Doesn't get his foot planted properly, slips over on his arse and sends the ball wide. And I laughed. Oh, how I laughed. I did feel a teensy bit bad for him later on, seeing how devastated he was, but at the time, seeing him blubbering like a little baby, it was all schadenfreude.

After that you just knew that United were going to win it. And indeed, van der Sar saved Anelka's shot -- not particularly well struck; you could almost tell that he didn't really care -- and United were champions of Europe. Meaning, incidentally, that Ryan Giggs had scored the winning penalty. It was almost poetic.

I still can't believe they really did it. But they did, and I think they deserved it, too. Not just for the memories of 1958, or 1968 -- although that just makes it even better -- but for the way they played all season. Fearlessly dominant when they were on their game, and stubbornly determined when they weren't, they have been the class of the field. Glory, glory Man United.

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