May 21, 2008 - a date which will live in infamy.
Over the last four years, I have blocked out almost everything that had to do with this match. I know we lost and I remember the miss - the ball slicing high and wide right of the post; the rain bucketing down; Terry sitting dejected at the spot; head between his knees - but not much else. My mind's post-traumatic response has been to repress all other memories. While I have seen a few highlights over the years, I have never watched that Final again in its entirety.
Just to illustrate my level of psychosis: my most treasured, most often worn and in my opinion the most perfect Chelsea shirt is the one that we used in the final. Simple blue with the Adidas white stripes. Yellow trim. V-Neck. White collar. But it's not something I associate with the final AT ALL.
It is time to face my fears; permit them to pass over and through me. And when they've gone, only I shall remain.
So, casting our minds back to 2008: High Definition was still a fairly new concept; Andy Gray was still in the Sky Sports studio; Jamie Redknapp was already in a grey suit; Portable GPS units were cool enough to be used as a device to tell the teams' journeys to the Final; Cristiano Ronaldo was the undisputed best player in the world.
It is around the latter than Manchester United built their team and they came out in their usual, title-winning formation. Ferguson's 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid utilized Ronaldo's abilities on the left-hand side, constantly shifting him from a wide-left midfielder to a wide-left attacker. Six players from the starting lineup remain with Manchester United today, with a further four joining that group from the bench (five, if you also count Darren Fletcher):
Avram Grant's Chelsea starting lineup featured no less than seven players who are still here today, three of whom are locked-in as starters (John Terry would be a fourth). They came out in the traditional Mourinho 4-3-3 with Michael Essien slotting in at right back (ahead of Paulo Ferreira and Belletti) to match up against Cristiano Ronaldo and make room for Michael Ballack in the center of midfield.
The first 15-16 minutes were predictably cagey and they passed without much incident. Both teams looked to settle in, but the tension was palpable. Minor fouls on Makelele, then on Cristiano Ronaldo ("foul") were diffused quickly...even when Scholes appeared to lead with his elbow going for an unwinnable header v. Makelele, the Slovakian referee Lubos Michel did well to keep things under control (although booking the Frenchman as well was a terrible decision)...but the undercurrent of emotions balanced on a knife-edge never quite dissipated.
Just when it looked like Chelsea might be in the ascendancy (J.Cole & Ballack pulling the strings; Drogba bullying all in sight), United took the lead. From a throw-in on the right side, Wes Brown and Scholes worked the ball neatly to elude A.Cole and Lampard. Wes Brown's LEFT-footed cross was nice enough, and Cristiano Ronaldo made no mistake in nodding the ball into the net. Cech had no chance. It's a mystery to this day what Essien was doing. I'd call his defense Bosingwa-esque, but that may be an insult to Jose.
To their credit, Chelsea were made of stern stuff and responded almost immediately: Drogba making a nuisance of himself and creating an opportunity for Ballack to unleash a howitzer above the bar. A repeat combination five minutes later almost brought the equalizer , this time van der Sar clawing Ballack's close-ranger header over the bar. The resulting Chelsea corner was a near disaster however, as United broke quickly and only two brilliant Cech saves in quick succession from Tevez and Carrick kept Chelsea in the game.
Our goal came with just a few seconds left in the first half. A hopeful Essien long-range effort deflected first off Vidic, then off Ferdinand, leaving van der Sar sprawled on the turf unable to keep up with the changes in direction. Needless to say, Frank Lampard was there in typical fashion to poach the bouncing ball into the back of the net. After a half where United had the overall edge, it was all tied up 1-1.
It would not be a huge stretch to claim that the second half was ALL Chelsea. It took us just 15 seconds to launch a shot in anger (a Malouda special well over); Drogba operating at his bullying/occupying best; Essien & A.Cole marauding forward at every opportunity; our midfield three finally exerting proper control over the United midfield two - Chelsea deserved nothing less than a second goal.
The first 25 minutes of the second were spent entirely in United's half, although Chelsea fail to carve out any truly clear-cut opportunities. As it tends to happen, once United came a bit further forward, better opportunities opened up for Chelsea. For just about the first time all night, Drogba was afforded a slight bit of space by Vidic and Ferdinand and unleashed a superb shot from 25 yards. It looked to be heading in, curling past van der Sar's despairing fingers, only to ping back off the post.
Chelsea would manage miss a couple additional half-chances in regulation, including a Drogba effort from a Joe Cole cross that was poked wide from 5 yards out and that one part when Rio Ferdinand almost karate kicked Joe Cole's head off in the penalty area (the linesman raised his flag, but put it down VERY quickly)...and the match went to extra time.
Extra time picked up where the second half left off, and Chelsea hit the bar within 4 minutes. A good bit of skill from Kalou (Chelsea's first sub, having just come on) released A.Cole into the penalty area, who teed it up for Ballack, who in turn teed it up for Lampard...but Frank's shot only found the bottom of the crossbar and the ball bounced out.
The pattern of the game continued unchanged, until Avram Grant introduced Anelka in place of J.Cole. United immediately threatened on their left, Evra blasting up the line, taking half the Chelsea team and Cech as well out of the equation, setting up Giggs to slot home into the empty net...but Giggs didn't hit it true and Terry acrobatically headed off the line. 2 minutes later it was Tevez's turn to run the rule over our right side, but Cech was equal to his shot. Chelsea were suddenly deflated, Kalou the lone bright spot - but his now customary Kalou-ness in full effect.
The second half of extra time was largely uneventful...expect of course for that bizarre fracas over a friendly that United failed to play back to Cech and instead put out for a throw. Chelsea players took exception, everybody came together, and somewhere in the middle of it all, Drogba decided to slap at Vidic's cheek. Out came the red and Chelsea went into the penalty kicks one man short.
And then there was Terry...and then Anelka...and United lifted the Trophy with the Big Ears.
A few other thoughts:
- United penalties scored by: Tevez, Carrick, Hargreaves, Nani, Anderson, Giggs
- Cech was nowhere near the first two penalties, but his save from C.Ronaldo was excellent. Back when the douchey stutter step was a legal move, it was a glorious moment. Also, C.Ronaldo played in 3/4 sleeves. That's a punchable offense in my book.
- Chelsea penalties scored by: Ballack, Belletti (came on with 5 seconds to go in extra time!), Lampard, A.Cole, Kalou
- I couldn't help it, my heart was still pounding when Terry stepped up. Maybe it would turn out differently this time?
- Obvious strategy is obvious - amazing to watch just how focused United were on controlling Drogba. His sending off didn't matter much in extra time, but he was sorely missed in the shootout. I think we can safely presume that Terry would not have been in the first 5 if Drogba had still been available.
- The Vidic/Drogba thing started as early as the 2nd minute. By the 7th, Drogba had blood in his mouth, thanks to Vidic grappling at his face. Drogba had one of United's center two breathing down his neck almost the entire game, and there was pushing/shoving going on the whole match between hem.
- The Joe Cole / Essien combo started well enough, keeping Evra quiet and denying Cristiano Ronaldo the ball in wide areas. J.Cole would drop very deep, often in line with Makelele to help provide a first-line of defense. Then Essien got pants' d in the 16th minute...and although Cristiano Ronaldo overhit his cross then, it set the tone for the rest of the first half.
- C.Ronaldo was kept under wraps much better in the second. Essien was given free license to roam forward, and it was often the combination of Joe Cole and a midfielder (Lampard or Ballack, depending on their rotation) who shut down the winger. Essien's threatening runs forward were a key part of Chelsea's second half revival, the overlaps causing issues for United's left hand side. Joe Cole excelled in his role as the often-de-facto-right-back and not once was he beaten.
- Lampard was flying around like a man possessed in the initial minutes, then settled in to provide yet another fine display of control and timely running, especially in the second half. From the lens of 2012, his deeper role (Ballack playing further forward, generally) was a good preview of his accomplished displays in Di Matteo's double pivot.
- I'd forgotten just how amazing that defensive trio of Carvalho-Terry-Makelele could be. That Ferguson had to specifically assign Tevez to hound Makelele speaks volumes.
- Hargreaves was excellent as the emergency MR and for a while it looked like A.Cole would be in for a long day...especially in the first half. What a player he could've/would've/should've been over the years! His influence lessened as Chelsea & A.Cole pushed forward in the second half.
- Rooney was anonymous (and that's a generous assessment); Tevez wasteful. The Argentinian could've single-handedly put Chelsea out of the running in the first half, but missed two rather easy chances.
- The Anelka substitution was Grant's big mistake. While Kalou offered an upgrade over Malouda on the left, J.Cole was doing a fantastic job on the right, helping shackle C.Ronaldo, and did not look to be out of legs just yet. Anelka was a clear downgrade defensively and he did not bring any benefit at the other end either. This was not yet the Anelka of later seasons.
- The pitch and its sloppiness/slippy-ness was a constant topic of conversation, including a mention of how John Terry had 10 pairs of boots to choose from. I guess he made a wrong choice?
- First half shots: 6-5 to United. Second half shots: 14-4 to Chelsea. Many for us were from range as in our usual style, mostly from Ballack, but it truly was a tale of two halves. Then again, stop me when this sounds familiar: 24 Chelsea shots: 3 on target. THREE!
So a missed opportunity then, in 2008. From as much of a neutral perspective that I can imagine, it was mostly an open, attacking, fun game. United had the slight edge in the first half, Chelsea had the clear edge in the second but failed to make their superiority count. And then still...that one kick...that one slip...having watched the whole match again, the pain is lessened...but oh the things that might have been.
We can only hope that we take full advantage of this second chance. COME ON CHELSEA!!!