All eyes were on Moscow last night for the much anticipated Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea. The game’s drama — from Ronaldo’s header to Drogba’s red card to Terry’s major choke job — did not disappoint fans looking for some excitement. The quality of the game, though, was an entirely different story. As a whole, it was subpar at best. Perhaps it was the pitch, the jitters, or the rain, or maybe it was the atmosphere of playing in a different country. In the end, though, the penalty shootout made most of us forget how “unbeautifully played” the prior 120 minutes were.
Sure, there were moments of glory on both sides, but none of this was sustained. How many long balls did you see kicked that went nowhere? How many times did you see either team string more than six passes together (not including those on their side of the half)? How many crosses did you see that were even close to connecting? How many shots did you see that were actually on goal (Ballack was aiming at a goal somewhere in the upper deck of the stadium)?
Now don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of English football. I am also a big fan of Liverpool (so, yes, I still believe Liverpool should have been in the final and could have beat Manchester United in regular time). And that’s why I’m writing this post here: I don’t think the game last night was representative of the beauty of English football, and particularly what either Chelsea or Manchester United are capable of. It seemed more like a kickball match with occasional moments of individual glory — from Ronaldo to Lampard. The only thing that truly saved this game from mediocrity was the penalty shootout. The shootout hoodwinked us to thinking how amazing the game it was.
To be sure, it was amazing in terms of overall excitement, much like watching a dog brawl. But was it amazing in terms of high quality soccer? I don’t think so.
In the end, I do feel bad for Chelsea. To me, if Chelsea can get past the first half without losing too much, they always have a shot to win. Chelsea is a second-half team. And as anyone could see last night, Edwin Van Der Sar seemed mighty weak and tentative last night. I think Ballack could see that and he kept shooting. It was the right thing to do except that Ballack was missing awfully. If Chelsea had a few more shots on goal, then the seemingly flat-footed Van Der Sar would have some serious problems stopping them. Who knows what would have happened then. Did you see Essien’s left-footed shot to the right corner? Van Der Sar was studying rocks when the shot was taken.
Manchester United had their opportunities in the first half for at least two extra goals, but they couldn’t convert. Chelsea made MU pay for their failure, when Lampard was in the right place at the right time. Lampard was certainly fortunate but he wasn’t lucky. Great players like Lampard are in the right place at the right time for a reason.
The second-half was dominated by Chelsea, even though Drogba was pretty much useless. Chelsea controlled the ball and for the most part sidelined Ronaldo from doing much of anything. Although Chelsea had their opportunities, Manchester United was not truly pressed by Chelesea’s offense. Kalou should have been put in much earlier. His quickness was too much for Manchester United, but he wasn’t in long enough to really sustain a solid string of attacks. Of course, too, Terry, the master defender, had his head in the right place at the right time to stop Giggs from attaining glory in the last few minutes.
Then came the shootouts. It’s more mental task than one of skill at that point and especially for these professionals. No one wants to be the one to miss and that fact will always weigh heavy on a player’s mind — to some, much more. Ronaldo, not surprisingly, missed his shot in a stupid attempt at a start/stop. What’s his deal? I think Ronaldo is to penalty shots as Shaq is to free throws. It’s a big mental wall for him, which is a little hard to explain for such a great player. To be fair to Cech, he seemed to be in the right place at the right time, for most of the initial shots. Unlike Van Der Sar’s performance, Cech seemed like he was capable of stopping any of the shots. With Van Der Sar, you just hoped that a player missed or shot it directly at him.
And then came John Terry. It only seemed right that the final goal should come down to him. This is what soccer dreams are made of: to shoot the final goal to win the whole enchilada. It’s like bases loaded, 2 outs, bottom of the 9th. But Terry didn’t hit a homerun. He didn’t hit much of anything, in fact. Sure, he slipped on the pitch.
Blame it on the rain. Blame it on the Russians. Blame it on the rising prise of crude oil. Frankly, though, he choked. Terry choked. There is no getting around it. He is the heart and soul of that Chelsea team and when he slipped and missed, all knew that was the end for Chelsea. Sure, he didn’t lose the game for Chelsea, but he surely didn’t win it for them either.
It would only be a matter of time before an unlucky Chelsea player missed — Anelka — in what ended up being a good guess stop by Van Der Sar. This was no testament at all to Van Der Sar’s prior attempts at stopping the other Chelsea players, such as Lampard, who had pretty much kicked a fastball a few feet to Van Der Sar’s left.
In the end, whoever won the game last night would be a testament to their luck as opposed to being the better team. At least for this go round, Manchester United was the luckier.