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Greatest Champions League Finals: Manchester At Midnight In Moscow

Greatest Champions League Finals: Manchester At Midnight In Moscow
By Eoin Harrington Updated
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Ahead of this weekend's Champions League final in Istanbul, we've taken a look back at some of the best finals from down through the years - starting with the 2008 edition between Manchester United and Chelsea in Moscow

At the outset of his commentary on the 2008 Champions League final, Clive Tyldesley said that it would undoubtedly be a memorable occasion, whether for its skill and goals or for a mistake or "missed penalty."

Quaintly, this first all-English final would come to be remembered for not one missed penalty, but three.

The first ever two-day European Cup final, the 2008 decider kicked off at 10:45pm local time at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. After following their teams through a gripping battle for the Premier League title all season, fans of Manchester United and Chelsea trekked the width of the European continent to follow their teams in only the third final ever contested by two teams from the same country.

There had been at least one English side in every final since Liverpool's victory in Istanbul in 2005, but this was United's first appearance in nine years, and Chelsea's first ever. A lack of consistent success in Europe was the one question mark hanging over Alex Ferguson's ruthlessly successful reign as Manchester United manager, while it was also the one thing that had eluded Chelsea in the years following the takeover of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003.

The game took place in Abramovich's home country (both Abramovich and Russia have since been ostracised from European football as a result of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine), while it also took place on the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, and the 40th anniversary of United becoming the first ever English team to win the European Cup. It would be an historic night (or, rather, morning) for one of these teams, and was one of the richest narratives ever set up for a Champions League final.

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Moscow, June 21 2008: Manchester United v Chelsea

There were superstars all over the park, but each team was defined by one standout performer during the 2007-08 season.

For Chelsea, it was English midfielder Frank Lampard. Already cemented as a club legend, Lampard had one of his finest seasons in blue that year, scoring 20 goals from midfield, including the decisive goal in the semi-final victory over rivals Liverpool. This was, memorably, the season in which no English side was knocked out by a non-English side, with Liverpool themselves having defeated Arsenal in the quarter-finals.

For Manchester United, it was 23-year-old Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo - at this stage, neither he nor Lionel Messi had ever won the Ballon d'Or but, with Ronaldo entering the '08 final with 41 goals in all competitions, including 31 in United's victorious Premier League campaign, he was well on his way to his first crown.


And, with the rain pelting down in the late hours of a Wednesday night in Moscow, it was Ronaldo who came up with the first big moment of the final.

Paul Scholes, who had played for United in their historic treble winning campaign of 1998-99 (but had missed the final through suspension) linked up neatly with Wes Brown down the right flank, and Ronaldo rose highest in the area to meet Brown's cross and put United 1-0 up with his 42nd goal of the season.

In hindsight, the right-backs on show were perhaps the most unusual parts of both team selections, and both Brown and his counterpart Michael Essien played pivotal roles in this goal.


Essien, a defensive midfielder by trade, was given the unenviable task of marking the seemingly unstoppable Ronaldo down the left flank, and was left flat footed as his man nodded in the first goal.

If Essien had played a rather unfortunate but important role in the first goal, he played an even more pivotal role in Chelsea's equaliser just before the break.

United's veteran goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar was left completely helpless, as two wicked deflections from Essien's long-range shot had the Dutchman sliding on the soaked Moscow pitch, and it was Lampard who responded quickest to tap home the leveller for Chelsea just before the break.


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The first half had been almost entirely Manchester United - Carlos Tevez and Michael Carrick had missed huge opportunities to put them 2-0 up before Lampard's equaliser, with Carrick, Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney tormenting the Chelsea defence throughout the first 45. After half-time, however, things completely changed.

Rio Ferdinand - immense that season alongside Nemanja Vidic at the heart of United's defence - could be seen limping for periods of the second-half, while Lampard and Chelsea's main man up top Didier Drogba were running rings around the United rearguard as the game progressed. Drogba hit the woodwork, while Essien missed a golden opportunity to put Chelsea 2-1 up.

United were looking to become only the second English team to win a league-European Cup double, while Chelsea were looking to avenge losing out on the league title by just two points mere days before the final in Moscow. There was an edge to this game and, with the clock ticking well past midnight, it edged over into extra-time with United - having been comfortably in the ascendancy - almost looking to be on the ropes.


Extra-time brought Manchester United back into the game, with a huge chance for record-breaking Ryan Giggs bringing a goal-saving clearance from Chelsea skipper John Terry.

And then, the slap.

A rather mundane clash on the sidelines involving Carlos Tevez turned into something resembling a melée and, in the chaos, Drogba lashed out with a slap to the face of Nemanja Vidic. The replays showed that it had been the merest of clips, but Drogba had indeed struck Vidic's face, and referee Lubos Michel sent the Ivorian off. With the game ticking towards a shootout, Chelsea had lost one of their most reliable penalty takers.

It was now almost 1:30 in the morning in Russia, and the final whistle blew with nothing to split England's two finest teams. Though the game had been low-scoring, it had been riveting, with Lampard rocking the United woodwork for a second time in extra-time, and drama throughout the 120 minutes.

Much of that came from the pace of the pitch, with the torrential rain in Moscow leaving the surface of the Luzhniki Stadium soaked through and quickening the pace of the ball. It was to prove decisive in the shootout.

42 goals in all competitions had Ronaldo as the outstanding candidate for the Ballon d'Or, and one of those coming in regular time of the final had only added to his candidacy. He, however, was the first to fall, and the final act of his 2007-08 season was to see a poor penalty saved by Chelsea's Petr Cech.

The remainder of the first nine penalties were flawless, which meant that when Chelsea captain John Terry stepped up to take his spot-kick (which had, allegedly, originally been Drogba's to take) he had the chance to win a first ever Champions League for his club.

But the drenched Moscow pitch, and Terry's studs, had something else to say.

And Manchester United lived to fight another day.

Two of the biggest names on the pitch had missed, and now the two sides faced sudden death to decide the 2008 Champions League.

At this stage of the game, there were five previous Champions League winners on the pitch. Beletti had scored his spot-kick for Chelsea, while Owen Hargreaves had scored United's fourth. As the shootout progressed, another of those previous winners - '99 champion Ryan Giggs - converted his penalty, to leave the remaining two winners on the pitch to face off.

Nicolas Anelka had won the 2000 Champions League with Real Madrid, while Edwin van der Sar in goal for United had been part of Ajax's 1995 winning team. Anelka had to score to keep Chelsea in it but, with almost a carbon copy of Ronaldo's penalty, saw his shot parried away by van der Sar and Manchester United were European champions once again.



Rather aptly, it was Bobby Charlton - goalscorer in the 1968 final for United, and a survivor of the horrors of Munich ten years previous - who presented the team with their medals and, as the clock ticked towards 2am in Moscow, Manchester United finally hoisted the iconic trophy high.

It had been a final filled with drama, controversy, and intrigue, but it couldn't be argued that the finest team in Europe had won the title. Some would even contend that this 2008 Manchester United team might have been even better than the side that claimed the treble in 1999.

The margins were razor thin for Chelsea. They had missed out on a league title by just two points, and now saw their European Cup dreams dashed by a slip on a soaking wet Moscow pitch. Having almost matched United all the way during a tumultuous season, they came away empty handed.

It may not have been the high-scoring affair we saw in Istanbul in 2005, or matched the late drama of 1999 in the Camp Nou, but the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow lived up to its billing.

For Manchester United, they were champions for a third time. For Cristiano Ronaldo, it was the first winner's medal of five. For Chelsea, it was the only unsuccessful trip they've had to a European final - they have since won the Champions League twice.

And for this author - who was but eight years old at the time and has spent the years since reminiscing on one of his favourite nights as a football fan - it was firmly bed time.

Magic from Manchester United in Moscow.

SEE ALSO: Quiz: Identify These 11 Forgotten Champions League Final Players

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