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I will never curse black clouds on the horizon again.  If not for rainfall, Chelsea, and not United, are champions of Europe today.  If not for a sodden pitch and an unplanted plant foot, and I’m writing a very different column today.  A penalty shootout is the worst possible way to end a long Champions League season, but I will say the drama of the finale kept my heart thudding like the kick pedal on my Rock Band drum kit.  Rivalry aside, my sympathy goes out to John Terry, a great captain and a class player who doesn’t deserve to live the rest of his life wondering if longer cleats or a slower approach could have made him a European champion. 

     United was outplayed for the majority of the match.  Consider they could easily have been up 3-0 at the half.  Ronaldo’s precision header found the net, but United missed opportunities on Rooney’s dead-on pass into the box that skidded by Carlos Tevez, and Cech’s brilliant double stop of a Tevez header and Carrick’s follow-up. Tevez, playing a head game of anticipatory football, had come off stride, expecting his defender to reach the ball before him on Rooney’s cross, but he fooled himself and came up short.  Running on to that ball, it’s a near guarantee that Tevez slides it into the back of the net.  Of course, only a fortuitous bounce off of Rio Ferdinand’s turned back allows Lampard a tap-in goal just before the whistle, but that’s the nature of the beautiful game. 

     In the second half and extra time, Chelsea were clearly the better side.  Outshooting United nearly two to one, they deserved to be in the lead at the end of regulation.  John Terry in particular was huge in this game, making a number of plays in the first half and a game-saving body-moving-one-way-head-moving-another save on Ryan Giggs left-footed extra time shot.  Chelsea’s defenders can be proud today.  They held Rooney and Tevez in check admirably, and aside from Ronaldo’s headed goal, managed to continually frustrate the best player in the world.  Offensively, only two shots that clanged off the post prevented Manchester United from failing in their quest for the double.

     Penalty shootouts are desperately un-American.  Even the rest of the world can agree they are no way to conclude a grueling season or tournament.  How ironic that the last World Cup in America was decided on kicks!  After playing an entire season, to have the competition come down to what is largely a matter of luck—guessing correctly—undersells the athletes and the competition itself.  I don’t care if it was one-thirty in the morning.  It’s the last game of the season.  Play until someone scores a legitimate goal!  I also don’t understand why so many tournaments eschew the golden goal.  Nothing is more infuriating than having a team go ahead in extra time and for there to be an equalizer, and then the game goes to penalties anyway.  Golden goal should always be in effect, with the referee’s discretion to determine adequate possession.  As far as I’m concerned, if both sides touch the ball in extra time, a golden goal stands up, and the tourney ends.  The inherent drama in that and the instant celebration that would ensue are just as dramatic as a penalty kick finale.  As far as player fatigue and substitutions, allow an additional sub for every fifteen minutes of extra time, and if the game goes deep enough—here’s a revolutionary idea—allow now-rested players to retake the field.  Every football pundit I read writes the same thing about penalties deciding a final—it’s always the least desirable way to end a match.

     Un-American or not, the penalty shootout did contain a great deal of drama, from Cristiano Ronaldo’s stutter-step miss to Terry’s unfortunate hydroplane.  That’s the nature of the PK—the tide turns in a matter of moments, and the horns of the goat grow freshly on a new forehead.  As much as I hate Chelsea, it’s hard to despise a competitor like John Terry, who kept Chelsea in the game in the first half with several interceptions of dangerous crosses, and outright saved Chelsea’s hash with his outrageously athletic header to deflect Giggs’ open net finisher.  At the end of the match, the poignant scene between Terry and his manager, Avram Grant, was enough to soften even the most staunch United supporter’s rancor.  Terry, looking the very definition of the horse in the joke (Aside—A horse walks into a bar.  The bartender says, “Why the long face?”), was comforted not only by his own teammates, but by classy rivals like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, veterans who surely recognize the cruelty of fate, the assiduous dedication needed to win silver, and the pain of watching limited opportunities pass by.  Equally moving was the empathetic shows from members of the same national team.  Ronaldo and Nani went out of their ways to offer a pat on the back to Carvalho, and the audience can surely recognize that no player wished for this ending to the season.  Cruelty, thy name is penalties.    
    
     For there to be any doubt of Avram Grant’s future at Chelsea is wretched. Surely the gentleman deserves a shot at bringing this team back to contending for the top spot in the Premier League.  Surely he has proven himself in European play.  There is absolutely no shame in losing a Champions League final on penalties, especially when he was within a few slippery blades of grass of winning!  There is a holdover of European anti-Semitism at work, especially with the Eastern European Roman Abramovich sitting in the owner’s box.  It’s hard to call any anti-Semitism a “holdover”, especially when it occurs in that area of the world, where hating Jews has such a long and bloody history.  I might be being unfair, but given Chelsea’s history of incidents involving Chelsea supporters, I suspect that Grant’s lack of favor is at least partly related to his Judaism.  I have been extremely impressed by the man since he took over for Jose Mourinho.  He took out of form/out of favor players like Michael Ballack and got the most out of them late in the season.  Didier Drogba, too, after missing much of the season with injuries and the African Cup of Nations, found the better side of his mercurial nature and contributed in making the Premiership title race more than just a formality.  If Grant does not return, another club would be wise to snap him up quickly.
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