Well, this is it. This is IMPORTANT. Everyone must pick a side. Blue or red. You must choose. It’s the biggest match in world football since 1966. In about four and half hours time, we will know who is the biggest football club in the world. Over fifty years after the European Cup started as the impertinent challenge by a handful of continental clubs to the proud boast of Wolverhampton Wanderers to being the best club in the world, we have finally reached the conclusion of what has been a fifty-two year long quest to establish once and for all who is the biggest and best of all, and by about 10.30 tonight at the absolute latest, we will know for sure.
Actually, I’m starting to wonder who and where all these people that care so desperately actually are. They don’t appear to be the supporters of either club, since tickets sales appear to have been sluggish. I know enough football supporters to be able to say with a degree of confidence that any club worth its salt would be able to shift 21,000 tickets for a match of major importance anywhere in the world. Even if they have, eventually, sold out, how come Manchester United, a club with an average home attendance of 76,000, had any difficulties whatsoever shifting its allocation, even if the match is being played in Moscow. They aren’t the neutrals, who have been going about their ordinary business and might be slightly diverted this evening, though now more than when, say, England play in the World Cup finals.
The people that care the most about this are the media. England’s failure to qualify for the final of the European Championships will be costing the British media millions of pounds this summer, and this match is a chance to recoup some of this money. For the last couple of weeks, they have been telling us in no uncertain terms that this is the most important match in the history of English football, and they have an agenda for doing so. Now that England aren’t in it, Euro 2008 is about as important to them as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Never mind that tonight’s match could only conceivably have any relevance to Manchester United and Chelsea supporters (and, pushing it as far as it could go, Liverpool, Arsenal, West Ham United and Manchester City supporters). This is THE BIG ONE and YOU MUST CARE. Except, of course, we don’t, much. I mean, I’m looking forward to it. I always look forward to the European Cup final. I wouldn’t be much of a football supporter if I didn’t, would I?
19.25: Right, we’re back back back! I’ve assembled a crack team of pundits, got a glass of delicious, cold, gin & tonic and got the teams to hand:
Manchester United: Van der Sar, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Carrick, Hargreaves, Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez. Subs: Kuszczak, Anderson, Giggs, Nani, O’Shea, Fletcher, Silvestre.
Chelsea: Cech, Essien, Terry, Carvalho, A Cole, Makelele, Ballack, Lampard, Malouda, J Cole, Drogba. Subs: Cudicini, Shevchenko, Mikel, Kalou, Alex, Belletti, Anelka.
19.40: Here come the teams. Chelsea have eschewed their traditional white socks in favour of all blue, and United are wearing white socks. Petr Cech (who is reportedly of the opinion that if you dress brightly enough, strikers instinctively shoot straight at you) looks like he may have stopped off at Chernobyl on the way here this evening. Meanwhile, UEFA have released a large number of red and gold balloons. These colours just happen to be the corporate colours of Mastercard. What a coincidence!
19.45: “May the best team win”, says ITV’s Clive Tyldesley, as the teams kick off. Bollocks, Clive. Everyone knows that you support Manchester United.
19.50: Five minutes in and not a lot has happened, apart from the watching audience having been told about 11 times how important this all is. The pitch, by the way, looks in shocking condition. It looks like a patchwork quilt and was heavily watered yesterday, prior to torrential rain in Moscow this afternoon.
19.55: It’s still pretty average stuff at the moment. A lot of passes going astray from both teams – possibly on account of the pitch, possibly because English teams seem to be genetically pre-disposed to play at 100 miles per hour.
20.00: First shot of Roman Abramovich of the evening. I don’t want to sound rude or anything, but doesn’t he look a bit, well, simple to you?
20.05: No word yet from ITV on the fact that we have been playing for 20 minutes without either team having managed a shot on goal yet. United are the better of the two teams at the moment, by the way, but that’s not saying a great deal. First yellow card of the evening to Paul Scholes. Quite a nasty cut to the face, too, by the looks of it.
20.11: GOAL! Chelsea 0-1 Manchester United – Terrible, woeful marking from Chelsea. A cross from the right and Cristiano Ronaldo, who is about half a mile away from his marker, Michael Essien, heads into the corner of the net. Petr Cech, presumably assuming that Ronaldo has no choice but to head the ball straight at him, doesn’t bother diving for it.
20.15: Essien is being pulled all over the place by Ronaldo now. When did Cristiano Ronaldo become any good in the air? Didier Drogba’s down injured now. The poor love.
20.20: Great chance for Chelsea – Drogba heads back across goal from a good deep cross by Lampard and Ferdinand, under pressure from Ballack, forces a good save from Van Der Saar. The ball goes straight up the other end, and Cech pulls off an outstanding double save from Carlos Tevez and Michael Carrick. It’s starting to warm up now.
20.25: Pause for thought – there are ten English players out on the pitch tonight. This is more than I would have expected.
20.29: Rooney crosses low from the left and Tevez puts the ball well wide – he didn’t really make much contact with the ball at all. A real chance to kill the game off there. The ball is straight up the other end, and Chelsea get a free kick on the edge of the penalty area. Rio Ferdinand picks up a yellow card. Ballack’s shot sails a foot or two over.
20.30: GOAL! Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United – Two deflections and – all importantly – a horrendous slip from Edwin Van Der Saar, and Frank Lampard can’t believe his luck, putting the ball into an empty net to level things up for Chelsea.
20.33: Half Time – Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United: I still suspect that United will win this. Defensively, the placing of Cristiano Ronaldo is pulling Michael Essien all over the place, and the gaps that he is creating are making plenty of space for Carlos Tevez. United had the chances to kill the game stone dead, but Chelsea had a bit of luck for the equalizer having not played particularly well. 1-1 is harsh on United, but there is all to play for. Back in fifteen.
20.49: The second half has started, and I made the mistake of not switching the sound off at half time. Perhaps surprisingly, ITV didn’t tell me anything that I couldn’t have been told by an orang utan with an eye patch and an Etch-a-Sketch. Alex Ferguson chases the referee out onto the pitch, complaining about, well, something.
20.55: Joe Cole is exceptionally angry at not having been a corner and runs twenty yards to tell the referee exactly why he’s so wrong. Lucky to escape a card, there.
21.00: Good chance for Michael Essien on the break, there, demonstrating the danger that he can cause if he breaks forward but, in loads of space on the edge of the penalty area, he shoots well over when he should really have done better. Midnight ticks over in Moscow.
21.05: Fifteen minutes into the second half, and Chelsea have been the better team since the break. The constant criticism of Avram Grant is something that I find somewhat baffling. I don’t know what he said at half-time, but it has made a hell of a difference.
21.10: It’s still all Chelsea. It looks as if they’re playing a bolder formation in the second half, with Essien pushing forward more, and creating more space in attacking positions. On balance, Chelsea deserve the lead at the moment, which probably means that United will score next.
21.15: The players are starting to suffer, as the end of the season kicks in. Makelele and Ferdinand both needed treatment, there, but they both seem to be okay now.
21.20: Into the last fifteen minutes, and… was that a penalty? Drogba’s header down looks like it might put Malouda in but the ball bounces wide as Malouda goes down under a challenge from Ferdinand. Nothing given, but I’ve seen them given for less.
21.22: Best chance of the second half for Chelsea – Didier Drogba curls a shot in from the edge of the penalty area and hits the outside of the post. There’s quite a lot of petulance and borderline simulation going on at the moment, too.
21.25: Seventeen shots on goal to Chelsea and eight to Manchester United at the moment, and United have done not much more than nothing in the second half. As things stand, it’s Chelsea’s to lose.
21.30: Less than five minutes to play, and Drogba shoots just wide for Chelsea. Ryan Giggs comes on as a substitute for his 9362th appearance, overtaking Bobby Charlton as their record appearance holder.
21.35: We are headed, surprise ending notwithstanding, for extra time. Manchester United haven’t been in this second half, but they’re still hanging on at 1-1. Two minutes of added time at the end of the match.
FULL TIME: Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United – A slightly disappointing second half, I have to say, after the excitement of the first half. United were second best in that half, but they’re still in it and the substitution of Scholes for Giggs might have made their midfield a little better balanced. I’m predicting Manchester United to win, but only because, well, that’s what United do, isn’t it?
21.42: No changes for the start of extra-time. Half a chance for United a minute into extra time, with Rooney just seeming to over-hit a poke through for Tevez and Cech collects. Substitute for Chelsea – Malouda off for Kalou.
21.44: For the second time, the ball is back off the United woodwork. Lampard shoots languidly from the edge of the area, Van Der Saar is again static and the ball comes back off the bar. Trust me – United are going to win this.
21.50: A good surging run from Essien (who has been the best player on the pitch since half-time), but the ball is nicked off his toe at the last. Nicolas Anelka is on for Joe Cole, for Chelsea.
21.51: Best chance since the second goal – Evra runs through and pulls the ball back for Ryan Giggs, but his shot is miraculously headed off the line by John Terry.
21.55: Almost half-time now. and the cracks are beginning to show. Both teams are starting to give the ball away rather a lot, and one suspects that either a moment of genius or a defensive disaster will win (or lose) the match.
22.00: Half Time In Extra Time – Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United. Not a lot more to say, as they’re going straight back out. I still think that United are more likely to score than Chelsea, but hasn’t that been the case all season?
22.05: Apart from possibly – just possibly – going bald, Ryan Giggs doesn’t look much different to how he did when he was eighteen or so. The commentators are all queuing up to praise him for his loyalty too, by the way. I’d suggest that it’s easier to be “loyal” when your team is in the Champions League every year and winning the Premier League every other year. Yellow card for Vidic for a foul on Anelka.
22.10: Six minutes to go until penalties, and it all goes off. Carvalho shoves Tevez and/or vice versa and suddenly everyone is involved. A red card for Drogba, and a yellow card for Ferdinand and Tevez. Stupid, petulant behaviour, and he might have cost them very dear here. Two minutes later, and they’re having difficulties getting him off the pitch.
22.12: Yellow card for Essien now, and every time the players go anywhere near each other, they’re taking kicks at each other.
22.15: Another two minutes of stoppage time in the second period of extra time, thanks in no small part to the brief slapping competition that took place. Looks like penalties from here now, though.
22.19: Penalties, then. Unlucky, Chelsea, I rather think. They hit the post and the bar and bossed the second half and extra-time until the cramp started to kick in, and Drogba’s sending off might prove to be very expensive. Back soon for penalties.
Penalties: Right then, five penalties each. The pressure’s on. Manchester United to go first.
Tevez scores – Cech sent the wrong way. 1-0.
Ballack scores – Close but no cigar, for Van Der Saar. 1-1.
Carrick scores – 2-1. I’m pretty certain that Clive Tyldesley has an erection.
Belletti scores – Van Der Saar the wrong way. 2-2.
Ronaldo MISSES – Take that, you bloody little cheat. He stopped his run up completely half way through, and Cech saves the penalty comfortably. 2-2.
Lampard scores – But only just. Van Der Saar gets one hand on the ball. 2-3.
Hargreaves scores – A perfect penalty into the top corner. 3-3.
Ashley Cole scores – Nani must score now. 3-4.
Nani scores – Cech gets a hand on the ball. Terry now to win it. 4-4.
Terry MISSES – Slips and the shot hits the outside of the post. Still 4-4, then.
Anderson Scores – Straight down the middle. 5-4.
Kalou scores – Van Der Saar sent the wrong way. 5-5. Giggs next.
Giggs scores – Easy. 6-5.
Anelka MISSES – Saved by Van Der Saar – 6-5 Final.
And Manchester United are the European champions for the first time since 1999. Scarcely deserved, I would say. Chelsea were the better team over the 120 minutes, and it is worth pointing out that, for the criticism that he has endured and all the rumours of discord within the club, Avram Grant has achieved something spectacular in taking Chelsea to being in contention for the Premier League title and to within literally one kick of becoming the European champions. If Grant gets the sack this summer, then we’ll have seen the acid test for whether Chelsea Football Club is sick or not. Manchester United, however, are deserved winners – although they are the best of a bunch that perhaps isn’t quite as strong as it has been in recent years. Whether they’ll have it as easy again next year is very much open to question. Still, next on the menu are the Football League play-offs and the European Championships. IT WILL NEVER BE FINALLY DECIDED WHO HAS WON THE FOOTBALL.