23 May, 2008

Looking Back on the Champions League Final

Congratulations to Manchester United for completing the double then. Surely anyone likely to be reading this site watched the game for themselves, so there seems little point in transcribing the action, but suffice to say, it’s a final we will be talking about for some time now. Perhaps not as dramatic as 2005’s incredible comeback from Liverpool, but in terms of sheer emotional intensity, this year’s all-English final will go down in history for more reasons than one.

There are many reasons that as a neutral I felt United deserved to win, but bizarrely their performance on the actual night is not one of them. For once, it was hard not to feel for Chelsea, with every defender and midfielder on the pitch giving their all for the club. The oft-maligned Ashley Cole was excellent all night, and after some early hiccups, makeshift right-back Michael Essien handled Cristaino Ronaldo with aplomb. Down the middle, JT and Carvalho were excellent as ever, with the former’s goal-line clearance from Ryan Giggs late into extra time keeping the tie alive. Claude Makalele overcame initial scraps to dominate the midfield, giving Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack as much freedom as they needed to pull the strings. In terms of attacking options, they were toothless and uninterested however, with Malouda and Kalou (when he came on) struggling to handle the pace, and Joe Cole anonymously hugging the right-hand touchline. Didier Drogba offered a quite fitting underline to his Chelsea career if he is indeed to leave this summer; pouting, ineffective and ultimately just plain stupid, this was the Drogba everyone but Chelsea fans have seen week after week for three years. Anelka too should be ashamed of himself; if ever there was a mercenary footballer it is him, with nothing even approaching emotion etched on his face after missing the crucial penalty that gave United the cup.

The Champions though, despite taking the lead before the half-hour, seemed to suffer from stage-fright for perhaps not the first time this season. While they were never really subjected to elongated periods of pressure at the back, they just had difficulty maintaining possession and building much going forward. The usual slick passing was absent, with too many players giving and receiving the ball standing still even early in the second-half before fatigue truly kicked in. Carlos Tevez led the line admirably, but Wayne Rooney failed to make any impact at all, and even Ronaldo faded into the background after scoring the opener. In line with previous criticisms on this site of his play in the big games, Ronaldo once again just didn’t gauge his team were having difficulty holding the ball, and continued to attempt backheels and flicks while a simple ball to feet would’ve sufficed. Centrally in midfield, Michael Carrick still seemed a bit out of depth at this level, while Paul Scholes just didn’t really have the legs to keep up with the pace and athleticism of Chelsea.

But, and it’s a big but, over the course of the season United have been by far the most impressive team in Europe, and for the sake of historical romance, many members of the squad are worthy of being called European Champions this year:

Ryan Giggs added to his record-breaking tenth Premier League title a fortnight ago by surpassing Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time club record on the night, now with 759 professional appearances going back to the age of 17.

Paul Scholes, who missed United’s last Champions League success through suspension, was the first name on Ferguson’s team-list this year, and did himself proud at the age of 33 after propelling United into the final with that wondrous strike against Barcelona in the semi-finals.

The whole defensive unit for United has been as important as the much-praised attacking prongs, with even Wes Brown playing exceptionally on the night. You’ll struggle to find a better central-defensive partnership than Vidic and Ferdinand anywhere in the world, and behind them, Edwin van der Sar richly deserves his second Champions League medal, 13 years after the first with Ajax.

As undoubtedly the world’s best player this year, Cristiano Ronaldo warrants a Champions League medal like Kaka last year and Ronaldinho before him, to name just two. He finished the competition’s leading goal-scorer, and perhaps missing another penalty is what he needs to keep his feet on the ground.

From a real nostalgic point of view, the fact that this triumph comes fifty years after the Munich air disaster makes the whole unfolding of the season seem destined in many ways. It is also forty years since Charlton’s rebuilt Busby Babes lifted the first European Cup for an English side, so success this year was undoubtedly written in the stars.

And last, but certainly not least, this win surely lifts Sir Alex Ferguson amongst the true greats, with previously just the one European success not really representative of the club’s domestic dominance since the Premier League’s inception. His list of accolades is quite simply breath-taking, with 21 trophies in 21 years at Manchester United now if my maths is right. In 1999, he became the first manager to lead an English team to the treble of league championship, FA Cup and Champions League; he has won the FA Cup five times; he is the only manager ever to win three successive league championships in the top flight in England with the same club (1998-1999, 1999-2000 and 2000-2001); and now, he joins the illustrious company of Brian Clough and Bob Paisley as only the third British manager to win the European Cup on more than one occasion.

With further squad improvement planned for the summer, can anything stop this United team from repeating their domestic and European dominance next season and beyond? The average age of the current team is frightening young, but with a new goalkeeper, right-back and centre forward at least on Fergie’s shopping list, not to mention young talent such as Aaron Ramsey and Victor Moses linked to United, I’d get used seeing this team lift the Premier League and Champions League trophies for some time now.


Martin S. said...

I don't really agree with your views on the game itself. United nearly outplayed Chelsea for large parts of the first half, then let Chelsea into the game after the Ronaldo goal, and because of that and a couple of lucky deflections and one slip by vds, Lampard could score the equalizer. Chelsea did indeed play some seriously good football in 2nd half, they were the better team before United lead the line for basically the whole extra time.

Nice article none the less and excellent sum-up. Keep up the good work!

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