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 subplots as today’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 soccer’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 being 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,” he said.
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 today 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.