Separated by a hair, twice

It took all 38 matches of the English Premier League, minus about ten minutes, to determine that Manchester United, not Chelsea, is the best soccer team in England. Today, it took 90 minutes, plus 30 minutes of overtime, plus 14 penalty kicks to determine that Man U, not Chelsea, is the champion of Europe.

Penalty kicks are a cruel way to determine a champion and the cruelty seems magnified when, as is so often the case, the absolute best players are the ones who miss their spot kicks. Christiano Ronaldo is Manchester United’s best player, both in general and on the day; he may in fact be the best player in the world. He scored the Mancs only goal and set up what should have been two others. Yet he missed his penalty kick. John Terry is Chelsea’s best player, both in general and on the day; he may be the best central defender in the world. His athletic headed clearance denied Ryan Giggs what would have been the winning goal late in regulation time. But Terry missed a penalty kick that would have ended the match in Chelsea’s favor.

With the teams instead level with four “goals” out of five, the “shoot out” went into sudden death. There, Erwin Van der Sar finally killed Chelsea with a fine save from a reasonably well struck kick by French star Nicolas Anelka. It was Van der Sar who, as a young keeper for Ajax, could only wave at all four penalty kicks taken by Juventus in their 4-2 shoot-out victory in the 1996 Champions League final.

Chelsea thus ends the season narrowly deprived of the English crown, the European crown, and the Carling Cup (it lost that final by one goal to Tottenham, after defeating Everton in the semi-finals). Yet Chelsea indisputably is the second best team in Europe and, if there is any justice in soccer, their oft-maligned Israeli coach Avram Grant will be back at the helm next season. After all, Chelsea dominated the second half of the match and twice had shots hit the post (Man U hit no posts). In other words, on two occasions Chelsea was about six inches of woodwork away from being champions of Europe.

Yet I think Grant made a mistake when he inserted Anelka into the match in place of Joe Cole. Not because Anelka missed his PK — that’s usually a crap-shoot – but because of the apparent effect of the substitution on the flow of the match. Grant may have figured that replacing a midfielder with a forward might convert Chelsea’s territorial domination into a goal. Instead, the absence of an extra midfielder seemed to produce the end of the territorial domination, and Anelka made no discernible contribution.

For Manchester United, the victory comes fifty years after the Munich air disaster. It’s the third European crown for Man U and the second in the modern, Sir Alex Ferguson era. Man U is thus confimed, I think, as a European superpower of the top order.

I’m especially happy for two classy, long-serving English stars, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. Scholes played 87 minutes, most coming after a very nasty blow to his face. When the match finally ended, he eschewed his club’s celebration and headed directly to the Chelsea bench to console the opposition. Neville missed out today due to injury, as he has virtually all year. But when Ronaldo missed his PK, Neville (suit and all) came down from the stands to console the man who had tormented him and the rest of the English national team when Portugal eliminated England in the last World Cup.

I’m also happy for Wayne Rooney, who ran like a fiend until being replaced after 102 minutes. The ex-Everton starlet nearly set up two goals, the first of which would have been one for the ages. After tracking back on defense to the shadow of Van der Saar’s goal to take the ball from Chelsea’s Malouda (I think), Rooney ran half the length of the field before delivering an inch-perfect 50 yard cross-field pass to Ronaldo. But for a brilliant save by Peter Cech, Ronaldo’s cross would have produced a goal,

So now it’s on to the European nation’s championship. Ronaldo, certainly, and Anelka, probably, will have opportunities to put their PK misery behind them. But with England having failed to qualify for the tournament, its former captain Terry has a long summer ahead of him. Let’s hope he recalls that, but for his brilliant late clearance, there would have been no overtime for Chelsea.

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