As we've more or less given up expecting great finals, Chelsea and Manchester United provided the sort of game we've gotten used to -- a Champions League final that was good, but not great.
Two teams with millions of dollars worth of attacking talent on the field, managed to give us only two goals, but the near misses -- particularly Chelsea's -- and a couple of saves
-- from Chelsea again -- provided excitement.
As to the winner -- did Man U deserve their victory? Maybe -- though I can't honestly say that Chelsea deserved to lose. Anyway,
we're talking about a win based on the infamous penalty kicks.
After 120 minutes of the real game, the championship was decided in less than 10 minutes of shootout activity. Does
anyone really like the shootout? Maybe some people do -- I haven't met any of them -- but almost everyone admits that it is not the way to decide a game. Especially an important one.
Yet, given the fact that finals are likely to be tight, cautious -- and defensive -- games, the blight of a shootout looms large in such games. This was the fourth Champions League final in the last
eight to be settled in this way. We also have a world champion, Italy, that claimed the title via a shootout.
I can find but one thing to say in praise of last night's penalty
kicks: they were honest. I don't mean the kickers were honest -- they have little choice -- I mean the goalkeepers, Edwin Van der Saar and Petr Cech, managed to obey the rules.
Playing by the rules has not been a prominent feature of past champions' league shootouts. In 2003, the Milan keeper Dida engaged in flagrant cheating against Juventus, coming well off his line to
save -- first from Marcelo Zalayeta and then, crucially, from Paolo Montero. Two years later, some sort of delayed justice struck, when Milan was on the receiving end of goalkeeper skulduggery, as
Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek almost raced out of his goal to block Andrea Pirlo's kick. In both games, the referee -- not mention the assistants who are specially positioned to watch out for
goalkeeper movement -- saw nothing wrong.
But last night, in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, things were different. It all came down to 20 seconds of referee Lubos Michel's time.
There he was, with his assistant, talking to both goalkeepers, immediately before the shootout began. Well, true, I don't know what he was saying -- but I'd bet from the gestures he was making
-- and from the impeccable behavior of the goalkeepers later, that he was letting them know that illegal movement would be punished.
Petr Cech saved Ronaldo's kick, and then Van
der Saar sealed Man U's win with his save from Nicolas Anelka ... and both saves were legitimate, made without cheating.
That save of Van der Saar's inevitably led to yet
another of the shootout's unsatisfactory consequences: headlines talking of him as the hero of the win, and his selection as the game's MVP. What nonsense. I counted one genuine save by him
during the game; aside from Frank Lampard's goal, he was beaten twice but was lucky that the shots, by Didier Drogba and Lampard hit the woodwork. But he takes the award for a couple of seconds
worth of what might well have been sheer guesswork.
The MVP award probably should have gone to one of the hard-working midfielders or defenders. It was that sort of a game, made even
more of a grind by torrential game. It could have Michael Carrick or Michael Essien, or Ricardo Carvalho or Nemanja Vidic, all played their hearts out. But ... Van Der Saar?
was, strictly speaking, for Man of the Match. As it doesn't mention a player, I think I'd stretch a point and give it to referee Michel who handled difficult and explosive matters with calm
authority throughout. In particular, he was not intimidated by Chelsea's repeated complaints, nor by their mobbing tactics, which in the end, cost them dear.
The incident that ended
with Lubos ejecting Drogba seemed like an innocuous disagreement between John Terry and Carlos Tevez -- before, suddenly, Ballack and Lampard and, fatally, Drogba muscled their way into the fracas.
When Drogba slapped Vidic in the face, that was the sad end of the night for him -- possibly a sad end to his career at Chelsea.
As Manchester United has pipped Chelsea to both the EPL
and the Champions League titles, I'd say that makes it the better team. But on this night, I could see nothing to choose between them. The luck of the shootout said Manchester United.