2008 Champions League Final Preview
by Trevor Whenham - 05/20/2008
For North American sports fans European soccer can be incredibly confusing. Not only do teams play in their regular league, but they also play in ongoing tournaments like the Champions League that seem to never end. On top of it all, the players on the teams regularly go to join their national squads to play in friendly matches or to qualify for the World Cup or regional championships. It seems like keeping on top of it all could be a full time job.
Even if you can't make sense of it all, though, you can probably appreciate the real highlights. One of those goes down on Wednesday in Moscow when English soccer powers Manchester United and Chelsea meet in the Champions League final. These teams have a long history, they are the elite of the Premiership, and they really don't like each other. It should be a true classic. Man U has a historical edge - the teams have played 150 times, with Man U winning 65 to Chelsea's 41. 44 were draws.
Manchester United is favored to win, but the odds are close. Both teams have had good seasons, but Manchester is coming in on a roll after recently clinching the Premier League title over Chelsea for the second-straight year. The two teams met in a final just last year. Chelsea was victorious in that match for the FA Cup, but it was an ugly game. Man U was very tired and Chelsea had coaching turmoil, so the game was far from a gem. Chelsea is seeking its first Champions League title while Manchester United beat Bayern Munich for a title in 1999.
There are so many intriguing aspects of this match, but perhaps chief among them is the contrast in the coaches. Man U's Alex Ferguson is a coaching legend. He has been at the helm for 22 years, and he has won more than two dozen different titles over that time including finishing atop the Premiership standings 10 times. He's seen it all before, and he is masterful at getting his team to play at a high level when it matters. Chelsea's Avram Grant is an entirely different story. He is in his first year with the team, replacing the controversial Jose Mourinho. Grant brings a much more interesting style to the game than his predecessor, but it's as yet unproven at the highest levels. He's had a great deal of success, but that has all come in Israel, so this is a whole new ballgame. Few doubt his ability, but if it comes down to the last moments, most would rather have Ferguson and his experience on their sideline than the promise of Grant.
The amount of talent on the field for the game will be truly staggering. Chelsea has never played in a final, but they have several star players who have. Michael Ballack, the captain of the German national team, lost the final in 2002 when he was with Bayer Leverkusen. He's been as far as the Champions League quarterfinals with four different teams - a feat no other player can claim. Ballack has been playing very well in recent months and should be a big factor in this game. Juliano Belletti scored the winning goal in 2006 when Barcelona won the title, and Ashley Cole was with the losing Arsenal side. Andriy Shevchenko played for the title with AC Milan twice, winning in 2003 and losing in 2005.
Other Chelsea players don't have the same Champions League experience, but they are exceptionally talented. Didier Drogba is a scoring machine and is perhaps the best player in Africa. He had two goals in the Champions League semifinals. Joe Cole is an English national team star who was Chelsea's player of the year this season. Captain (of both Chelsea and the English team) John Terry is a ferocious defender and one tough dude - He dislocated his elbow when he collided with an opposing goalkeeper on May 11. It was put back in place in the ambulance and he'll be ready to play on Wednesday.
Manchester United has a roster with even more talent. It starts right at the back with 37-year-old goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, the captain of the Dutch team. He's struggled with a groin injury at times this year, but his experience is a huge asset in this game. Canadian born Owen Hargreaves is an outstanding defender who was named England player of the year in 2006. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo has been named the English PFA Player of the year two straight years, and is on a very short list of the best players in the world despite only being 23. Wayne Rooney is a year younger and perhaps just a little less talented. His short career has been haunted by injury problems, but he is reasonably healthy and in fine form now.
At this point in a long season both teams are banged up. Neither side can use injuries as an excuse here, though, as their stars are active, and soreness will be forgotten on such an important stage. Man U has another way to grab history here as well - they have gone undefeated in Champions League action this year - nine wins and three draws in 12 games. Only seven teams out of the 400 that have tried have not lost a game in a Champions League campaign. If I was forced to make a pick I would guess that Man U would become the eighth undefeated Champions League winner. They score more goals than Chelsea, and they play very stingy defense. That should be enough to win, but it should be close.