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.