The Heroes Of Moscow
It was a terrible day. Quite simply I could not concentrate on anything after waking up yesterday. I had to go to the library for some books and it took two hours to find them all as I kept walking past the shelves without looking at them, thinking about the evening.
At home I was terribly annoying. Any conversation that was attempted with me broke down very quickly and turned into my prayers about the big match. I tried to watch TV but everywhere I bumped into previews and interviews and stuff. I tried to read but my mind could not comprehend what my eyes were seeing. In short, I came as close to being a complete lunatic as it's possible to be.
At half past six the starting line-ups appeared on uefa.com and my anxiety became frenzied so I left for my favourite pub where our company (15 people) would gather to cheer on the Reds in the biggest game of the season.
That calmed me down a little, having a beer in front of me and red shirts around me everywhere. And I liked Fergie's starting line-up with all the main goalscorers on the pitch from the start. I felt sorry for Ji-sung Park as he would have deserved a place on the bench but it seems Fergie did not want to risk naming only one defender.
Though I said I had begun to calm down it had still seemed hours until Lubos Michel blew his whistle to get the European Cup Final underway. And my boy the game itself was like water for those who've been wandering in the desert for a week. And, most importantly, United were excellent.
In the first half, the passing ability of Carrick and Scholes, the pace and dynamism of Hargreaves overwhelmed Chelsea who could not keep the ball and usually hoofed it forward quickly and aimlessly. Having said that, United did not create many openings. Our main aim was to get behind the defence on the flanks and though it negated Rooney's influence a little, it worked quite well.
The problem was that Chelsea usually headed out the crosses easily so despite all the good work from Ronaldo, Evra, Hargreaves and the impressive, excellent Brown we got to very little. Paul Scholes, sporting a bloody nose after a clash with Makelele (the collision itself showed how nervous and tense the players are: it was as innocous as it could be yet almost a massive brawl came to life as Chelsea attacked the referee - true, they always do that, regardless of the significance of the game) was not as effective as usually, with offering very little in attacking play. He chose the safety passes which made us somewhat predictable.
Having said that, we were clearly on top and got the goal our football and passing deserved. After more good work on the right flank, Brown sent in a pinpoint cross which Ronaldo, shrugging off Essien, headed into the top corner in a bit strange fashion, leaving Cech stranded.
After the goal United were content to sit back and waiting for Chelsea to open up. And the plan worked: we should have put the game beyond doubt. Not long after the goal Ronaldo raced away on the left, beat Essien with ease (he's clearly not a right-back) and his low cross found Tevez who headed the ball goalwards but Cech made an excellent save. The ball was hastily cleared by Terry but it went only as far as Carrick who sent it back from the edge of the box at once but Cech made a superhuman save to keep it out.
Minutes later Rooney found space on the right and passed the ball into the box towards Tevez. Makelele slipped, Cech missed the ball - but so did Tevez, by about half an inch. It really should have been 2-0, or 3-0 for that matter.
Of course Chelsea survived and of course their famous luck came to their aid. Minutes after Rio almost headed in an own goal (he was clearly fouled by Ballack though) a clearance from the captain hit Makelele's head near the halfway line. He passed forward to Essien who tried to shoot or pass - we'll never know. What we know is that the ball got deflected on TWO United players and bounced into the path of Lampard, Van der Sar slipped and Lampard thus had no problem converting his chance.
It came out of nothing, really as Chelsea did not have a single chance worthy of note before that. But as it came, right at the end of the first half, I feared that it would shatter the confidence and composure of our players who were probably getting ready for a second half of good defending and counter-attacking.
The second half was far poorer for United than the first. The lucky goal somehow knocked the stuffing out of us. The waning stamina of Scholes was increasingly evident as Chelsea, boosted by their unlikely equaliser, pressed us hard the way only they can do in world football. They had the better of the half, up to their snarling best, pressing and pressing and intimidating the referee and all that.
Lubos Michel was easily intimidated of course and he made a total mess of the game. His assistants did not help him much, mind: they never seemed to guess correctly who touched the ball last so goalkicks and corners were awarded randomly. Most of the little decisions went in Chelsea's favour as their usual 'surround-the-referee-and-shout-at-him-from-close-range' tactics seemed to work.
Their football was also pretty good as Scholes was overran, Hargreaves played too far up the field and Carrick himself could not stop the rampaging Essien, Lampard and Ballack. Their approach was notably different from United's: we tried to create openings, we were much more elaborate whereas they had a shoot on sight policy and though I haven't seen a stat on blocked shots yet I'm fairly certain that we had at least 6 or 7.
They had very good chances, too: Essien beat Ronaldo and Vidic on the edge of the box and fired above but the biggest opportunity fell to Drogba who unleashed a long-range thunderbolt which hit the post and bounced off it...
It was a huge let-off and United did not really have chances in the second half, apart from a promising Tevez-shot which went wide. The situation was crying out for reinforcing the midfield but Fergie seemed very reluctant to take off Scholes - and when he did he did not replace him with Anderson or Fletcher as I expected but with Giggs.
But it was a good move. Extra time saw a much more settled and composed United side who threatened again and kept possession again. But only after another huge let-off. Once again, the ball somehow found its way to Lampard in the box (the move itself was brilliant but at the end, it became a mess yet again) and he turned and shot - to the underside of the crossbar...
It really felt like 1999 all over again except that we were not behind and we had great chances. Not long after Lampard's effort Giggs could have won the game for United. Evra broke clear on the left with a terrifying burst of pace and he cut the ball back for Giggs the way he did in the Community Shield, way back in August. Giggs, left-footed he is, struck the ball with his left foot thus he did not find the corner of the net but allowed Terry to head it out from the line. Had a right-footed player got that chance it would have been 2-1 as it was crying out for a right-foot shot.
Apart from a dubious offside call against Giggs, that was it. Chelsea's nerves approached breaking point when after one of their players received treatment Tevez gave the ball back to them but only by kicking it over the touchline and staying there to attack the throw-in. Ballack felt it was unsporting (who is he to talk about sportsmanship, shouting at the referee and starting rows with United players all night?) and had a go at Tevez.
In the subsequent brawl, Drogba hit Vidic with a lazy little movement of his hand (like Aliadiere v Mascherano if you remember) and he was rightly sent off - did not even protest much. But we have reasons to be grateful to John Terry as he restrained Vidic from trying to kill the Ivorian. It could have been a double red had JT not acted...
So, after 120 minutes of football, it was even. United were lucky as Chelsea hit the post twice, Chelsea were lucky to equalise after being totally outplayed. United were much the better team in the first half, Chelsea were much the better team in the second half and extra time was pretty even. Penalties. Heart failure. Terror.
Carlos Tevez was the first to stand up: he went there, put it down, ran forward and hammered it home. Easy. Michael Ballack came and though his kick was close to Edwin's gloves it went in, too.
Michael Carrick, an English penalty-taker. My head in my hands. An Englishman. Surely he's going to miss? No way, he struck it sweetly giving Cech no chance. Juliano Belletti, brought in for the penalties, also scored confidently.
Then came the big moment. Cristiano Ronaldo, our regular penalty taker stepped up. If anyone was not going to miss it was him. But he missed. He stopped during his run and then struck a weak and not very accurate penalty that Cech dealt easily with.
Frank Lampard, of course, did not miss - he only does so for England. Owen Hargreaves, with his German upbringing, was a good bet to score and score he did, hammering it to the roof of the net. Ashley Cole's penalty was poor but Van der Sar could only push it inside - for a moment in my despair I believed he was keeping it out but then disappointment swallowed me.
Nani stepped up and I was thinking it's over, he's going to miss. But the young Portuguese, unlike his compatriot, kept it simple and fired home. We survived but John Terry came and I was certain he would score.
And he would have scored. He sent Van der Sar the wrong way but slipped in the crucial moment, very much the way Beckham did against Turkey and sent the ball wide. Jubilation. Relief. I felt the trophy was destined to end up in Manchester.
Anderson came and held his nerves: he hammered it right into the middle, exactly where Cech was a moment before. But it was in. Substitute (and very poorly playing) Salomon Kalou stepped up and I was confident he would miss. He didn't: he struck home an expert penalty.
And then the BIGGEST moment arrived: record-breaker Ryan Giggs, on his 759th appearance came to take a penalty. He made it look easy under extreme pressure: he sent Cech the wrong way and scored.
Nicolas Anelka came. His introduction for the lively Joe Cole contributed much to the even nature of extra time so we have reasons to be grateful for Avram Grant... And the player who played for Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City - only Leeds is absent from his terrible tour - missed. He missed. Van der Sar dived to his right and kept the ball out. AND WE WON THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE!
Ronaldo, lying face down, looking like crying knew he must be grateful to his teammates. But he was playing very well in the game, he scored a brilliant goal and ended up top scorer in the Champions League - he must not be blamed.
Ryan Giggs injected experience and composure to a rattled side and could have won it for us - and in the end, he did win it with a coolly converted penalty. Bobby Charlton looked emotionally overcome - one thing is certain: he does not begrudge Giggs this achievement.
So the season started with a 1-1 draw against Chelsea, won on penalties and ended with a 1-1 draw against Chelsea, won on penalties. Beautiful. And when Ryan Giggs stepped up, took his medal and lifted the trophy - it vindicated us, stupid fans who spent 10 months with tension, nerves, anticipation, disappointment and jubilation. It was worth all the tears, the exhaustion, the rollercoaster ride this season was. We made it hard for ourselves yesterday night as we always do but in the end I firmly believe that Europe's best team defeated Europe's second best team.