Lie back and think of England
The English takeover only intensified the next European club season, 2008. Manchester United had brought in Argentine forward Carlos Tevez. He, Ronaldo and Rooney would form an attacking trio of brilliant understanding, he and Ronaldo often telepathic in England. It was the greatest Man United team Ferguson ever had.
Liverpool and Chelsea once more suited up for the semi-final, with Mourinho now gone. Once again Liverpool were in control at Anfield in yet another low-scoring, tactical battle, until a bizarre own goal at the very end to Chelsea unlocked something in the universe, and the following three matches between them would rain goals from then on. In the second leg, this time crucially at Chelsea, the stars Drogba and Liverpool’s new tall, blond Spaniard Fernando Torres sent it to extra time, where Chelsea finally threw off the shackles of Liverpool past with two extra time goals (plus one disallowed). Drogba had scored twice. He was usually there for Chelsea when they needed him over the years, with a couple of exceptions.
I should take a look at how the English clubs dominated. Italian correspondent Roberto Gotta described Liverpool’s 1-0 win in Italy over Inter in 2008: “Inter would pass the ball somewhere, where there would be two or three Liverpool players, so they would pass it somewhere else, where there would be two more Liverpool players.” And so on. Manchester United beat Roma away in a brilliant tactical victory, and so did Arsenal away against Milan. Manchester United would wrap it all up by holding on grimly for 180 minutes to win an Italian-style victory over Barcelona in the semi-final. The next year, Chelsea would beat Juventus in a tense battle, Liverpool would thrash a sorry Real Madrid, and title holder Manchester United saw off Inter, not without difficulty. Even Arsenal had the odd moment, a quarter-final and semi-final utterly overshadowed by the big three.
Those three all seemed to be able to defend better than the others on the continent, to control and/or disrupt the tempo of matches as necessary, and to chip in with a timely key goal when it mattered. Torres for Liverpool, Essien for Chelsea, Ronaldo for Man United, all seemed to be able to consistently deliver on D-day. In short, I don’t know how they all did it, what the specific common factor was. England had not even qualified for Euro 2008, yet Lampard and Gerrard continued to rule the roost when away from each other. But it is perhaps telling that no Champions League final has yet been won by an English team in command of the situation, instead relying on miracle comebacks, grim survival and penalty shootouts.
Manchester United and Chelsea exactly equal
The Manchester United versus Chelsea free-for-all continued from 2007 into all competitions in 2008. They ended the year exactly equal at the top of the European tree, except that Manchester United somehow were on the mathematical side of victory twice – in England and Europe – over a Chelsea who were slightly, slightly, slightly better than them.
Manchester United’s back three of veteran Dutch keeper Edwin Van der Sar, dusted off and revived after something of a mid-career lull, and central defenders Rio Ferdinand and second-year Nemanja Vidic were United’s strength at the back, as were the aforementioned Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez trio who rotated and dovetailed freely up front. The midfielders, the opposite of the 1999 team, didn’t do much more than keep it solid. Chelsea’s core was generally the same as it had always been, plus the integration of Michael Ballack. His two goals decided a 2-1 win over United two weeks before the end of the season, but Ferguson gambled successfully that United’s superior goal difference would be the deciding factor in squeaking the Premier League.
They likewise played the Champions League final against each other. This all-English Champions League final exemplar turned out to be far superior to the Spanish and Italian versions. United surprisingly utterly dominated the opening half. Ronaldo, the competition’s leading goal scorer, showed that even if marked on the ground he needed to equally be taken care of in the air. He scored a 26th-minute header from a slick United move to get any final monkeys off his back early. Chelsea keeper Cech pulled off a double save before halftime that, given United’s defensive strength, would have sealed the game.
Instead United conceded a soft goal to Chelsea figurehead Lampard directly on halftime, after assorted rebounds and slips. It is always the worst psychological time to concede, and after playing such a dominant first half it would have been demoralising for United to have to start all over again. To their credit Man United didn’t concede another goal, but after halftime Chelsea took over and shaded the entire rest of the game. Drogba and Lampard both hit the goal frame with clever shots on the turn.
Brian Phillips likened the match in extra time to two superheroes fighting on the edge of a precipice. Sure, they can’t use all of their moves – but they’re still fighting! United left-back Evra, in his second Champions League final, bullocked through the Chelsea left and put the winning goal on a plate for Ryan Giggs, a previously manic player who would age like a fine wine in 2011 but was somewhat out of sorts for a few years before reinventing himself, not starting in this final. Here he hit the gift straight at John Terry covering on the line.
Chelsea had done their penalty homework as detailed in the book Soccernomics and Ronaldo, who was generally a penalty expert but had missed one in the semi-final, was saved again here. Thus Captain John Terry in the pouring Moscow rain walked up to take the penalty that would make Chelsea Champions of Europe for the first time. He put it wide, hitting the outside of the post and, slipping, ended up on his backside, sitting crouched in dejection on the penalty spot. To fit the storyline United of course won the now prolonged shootout, despite the amateurish move of having given supremely important penalty number five to inconsistent first-year player Nani. Maybe they are lotteries after all.