Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Chelsea seek to tear up the script as history beckons for United (SN)

The first all-English final of the Champions League was always going to be a dramatic affair.

But it would have been hard to predict an encounter quite as rich in sub-plots as Wednesday's meeting between Manchester United and Chelsea at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.

Looming largest of all in the backdrop to the 2008 edition of club football's biggest match is the sense of history weighing down on United as they bid to claim the club's third European Cup in a year that has marked both the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster as well as 40 years since they became the first English club to lift the trophy.

For Chelsea it is the uncertainty over the future of their manager, Avram Grant, and several of their leading players, that has made the build-up to this final unlike any other.

On an individual level, there are many more questions that will have been answered before midnight in the Russian capital, chief among them whether Cristiano Ronaldo really is capable of taking on the leading role on one of the game's biggest stages.

Sir Bobby Charlton, a Munich survivor, addressed Ferguson's squad last week and his appeal for a fitting memorial to those lost in the disaster has clearly had an impact on those who listened.

Inevitably there is a risk that the burden of delivering the required result will weigh too heavily on them, but Wayne Rooney, for one, believes an awareness of and respect for the club's past need not cramp the style of the United's current generation.

“It is very important with the history, 50 years since Munich and 40 years since we won it,” Rooney acknowledged. “United had some brilliant teams, I have looked at some old videos and they look like they were great teams.

“But we also need to go out there and try and enjoy it. If we enjoy playing then I am sure we will do well.”

Rooney is such a ferocious competitor it is hard to imagine him not enjoying a match of this consequence. Things might not be quite the same for neutral observers of this summit meeting between England's top two, which is expected to be viewed by a live television audience of 150 million as well as the 61,000 inside what was once known as The Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium.

Meetings between the two clubs of late have rarely been easy on the eye and it is Chelsea who have had the edge in the four seasons that have elapsed since Grant's predecessor Jose Mourinho introduced the term “Special One” to the lexicon of the English game.

In that time, United have won just two of the 11 meetings while their London rivals have walked off with bragging rights six times, a sequence that includes both last year's FA Cup final and the most recent encounter between them.

Michael Ballack's double gave Chelsea a 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge last month that effectively ensured United would be made to work for their Premier League victory until deep into the second-half of their final day match against Wigan.

With Chelsea set to line up with a midfield trio of Ballack, Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele, the ability of Germany's captain to continue his end-of-season run of form could prove every bit as decisive on Wednesday as whether or not Ronaldo can add to the 41 goals he has plundered in all competitions in this campaign.

Despite the disappointment of losing out at the last in the league, Ballack believes it is Chelsea who have reached the end of the campaign in better shape.

“I said before the Champions League semi-final second leg against Liverpool that I think we still look good and fresh as a team,” he said. “We coped with playing 120 minutes in that game and scored two goals in extra-time.

“So I think it shows that we have a very good level of physical strength in this team. The final of the Champions League is one game so it is all in our hands.

“We are a strong team, mentally and physically, and we've shown that constantly during the season.”

Physically, Chelsea may be in good shape but it would be hard to argue that the current uncertainty surrounding the club has helped preparations for their first appearance in a European Cup final.

With Mourinho expected to return to work soon, the prospect of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Ricardo Carvalho moving to join up with him appears a distinct possibility, while Chelsea have done nothing to assure Grant that he will not be moved back to his old role as director of football in order to accommodate a new coach before the start of next season.

Even Grant himself has been forced to concede that his future is clouded in uncertainty, although he naturally insists that has not proved a distraction from his efforts to turn the tables on Sir Alex Ferguson after being so narrowly beaten in the battle for the Premier League title.

At the heart of the tactical battle between the two managers will be the extent to which United can cope with the threat posed by Lampard and Ballack's late runs from midfield.

As a result, Ferguson will be tempted to field Owen Hargreaves as an additional defensive shield alongside Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes in central midfield, which would probably mean Carlos Tevez being consigned to the bench and Rooney operating alone up front.

Having missed United's last-gasp win over Bayern Munich in the 1999 final through suspension, Scholes has been promised a place in the starting line-up here.

His fellow veteran of the homegrown treble-winning class of 99, Ryan Giggs, seems unlikely to be indulged in similar fashion however. If Giggs plays any part in the match he will pass Charlton's record of 758 appearances for the club but it is likely he will have to wait until late in the game to do it with South Korea's Park Ji-Sung expected to start ahead of him.


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