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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
They went into the last day of the league separated only by goal difference and when it came to the final of the biggest cup competition in the world, the margin between Manchester United and Chelsea was somehow even thinner. After 120 minutes of gruelling football that ebbed and flowed between these two powerhouses, they could only be broken apart in the cruellest of ways. Every penalty shoot-out must have a loser and, even though it was Nicolas Anelka who missed the crucial spot-kick, it was John Terry who crumpled into tears in Avram Grant's arms, shoulders heaving with emotion as he replayed, again and again, the moment when he could have won the European Cup for Chelsea.

In truth, it shouldn't even have got that far after a first half in which Manchester United were dominant in every department. Sir Alex Ferguson surprised everyone with a 4-4-2 that dared Chelsea to make use of the extra man in the middle, while romping down the flanks, notably on the left at a startled and out-of-his depth Michael Essien. There could be no complaints when Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring in the 26th minute, but Sir Alex would have been furious at the way that two golden opportunities, one for Michael Carrick, one for Carlos Tevez, were squandered.

Chelsea could very easily have gone into half-time three goals down, but you write this team off at your peril. When the ball pinballed in the United penalty area Frank Lampard, as always, raced in to slam home an equaliser right before the break. Chelsea were a different side in the second half. Stronger, harder, faster, more composed. This was their season encapsulated; a poor start, a lifeline, a ferocious comeback against the odds. Unfortunately, the metaphor extends all the way. In the league, in the Carling Cup and now in Europe, Chelsea have sweated blood in pursuit of victory, but finished second on each occasion.

Their collective bravery was more than matched by the penalty-takers. It takes enormous guts to tell the manager that you want to be one of the five to play, what was in this case very much a game of Russian roulette. It takes something else entirely to step up for sudden death. Anderson, just 20, was the first to jump up for spot-kick six and he blasted it down the centre. Salomon Kalou, just two years older, was even better.

Chelsea deserve enormous credit for their efforts, but it may be sucked into the slipstream of the plaudits that go whizzing towards Old Trafford. Such is the curse of defeat. Only the astonishing, surely never to be repeated heroics of 1999 can overshadow a season that has delivered the two most prestigious trophies on offer. Twenty two years in, and Sir Alex is simply getting better and better. Pitchside, with the cold Moscow rain pouring from his brow, he would not be drawn on how this team compares with the 1999 vintage, and understandably so. How could you choose between the two?

The true depth of this victory and the scale of this magnificent achievement sank in as the red shirts were led up the steps towards the trophy by Sir Bobby Charlton, club director, club legend and survivor of the Munich air crash fifty years ago that robbed the club of Busby's babes. Dignified as always, he refused to allow Michel Platini to adorn him with a medal, stood aside and gestured to the players to pass through. Before the trophy was finally lifted, Ronaldo came to embrace him, two generations of superstars joined together in triumph. This was Manchester United's night; for the players, for the fans, for Munich. Football, eh? Bloody hell.