Wednesday May 21st, 2008

Five things we learned while watching Manchester United's win on penalty kicks over Chelsea (after a 1-1 tie) in Wednesday's Champions League final from our lair in Baltimore, aka Moscow-on-the-Patapsco:

Penalty kicks are a horrid way to decide championships, but they sure do pack the drama. As the great Alexander Wolff once wrote, determining a soccer title on penalties is like asking Lincoln and Douglas to settle their debates with a belching contest. So save a spot of compassion for John Terry, the classy Chelsea captain who would have clinched the Blues' first European title had he merely hit the target in the fifth round of penalties. Man United goalie Edwin van der Sar went left, and Terry went right -- too far right by a matter of inches. In one instant the goat mantle switched to Terry from Man U star Cristiano Ronaldo, whose ridiculous stop-motion attempt was stoned by Petr Cech. All credit, though, to van der Sar, who denied Nicolas Anelka in Round 7 to seal it for United.

Cristiano Ronaldo is on track to have a storybook 2008. Despite his penalty failure, United would never have been in the position to raise its first Champions League trophy since 1999 had Ronaldo not scored his remarkable 42nd goal of the season, an unstoppable header off a Wes Brown cross midway through the first half. Not only did the goal mark Ronaldo's first-ever against Chelsea, but it also answered any lingering questions about his ability to perform in big games. Ronaldo has now led United to the English Premier League and Champions League titles, and if he can do the same with Euro 2008 favorite Portugal next month it would be a crowning trifecta for the 23-year-old who's now the consensus Best Player on the Planet.

Didier Drogba choked. We'll never know what might have happened if the Chelsea forward hadn't been red-carded in the dying minutes of extra-time for his silly face-slap of United's Nemanja Vidic. Would Drogba have taken a Chelsea penalty? Almost certainly. Now it's possible that the final memory Chelsea fans will have of Drogs will be of his slow, lonely walk through the rain to the tunnel. Come to think of it, if you're going to draw a red card in that position, Didier, you might as well get your money's worth Zidane-style instead of on a wussy face-tap like that one. Too bad. Drogba has given Chelsea too many good memories to go out on such a down note.

Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs can go out on top. I have no idea if the ancient Scholes and Giggs will call it quits, but it wouldn't be a bad idea after winning their second European Cup. Playing in his first Champions League final, Scholes had an up-and-down game: his brilliant one-touch pass in tight quarters gave Brown the space to send the cross for Ronaldo's goal, but Scholes was also a step slow for much of the game on defense, giving Michael Essien the space he needed to fire the shot that led to Chelsea's equalizer by Frank Lampard. As for Giggs, he came on as a late sub and should have given United the lead in extra-time, only to have Terry make an amazing clear off the line with his head. Pity. It would have been fun to see Giggsy pull off his shirt and wave it around his head again just like in the '99 FA Cup semifinal.

Sir Alex Ferguson can feel better about his European legacy. It took a lot longer than anyone expected, but the legendary Scot finally bagged his followup to the '99 Champions League title. As he proved all season, Fergie still has his managing chops, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the 66-year-old stick around a few more years. Ferguson also happens to be a great interview, as I learned firsthand when we sat down in Manchester a while back. Fun Nugget No. 1: He loved David Maraniss' biography of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. "I saw myself," he told me. "Obsession. Commitment. Fanatacism. It was all there." Fun Nugget No. 2: Ferguson is a huge John Wayne fan. "I've got all the Duke's movies," Ferguson explained proudly. "I always pictured John Wayne as a man you could bring on if you needed a last-minute goal. Know what I mean? He's a battler. Always winning every fight, every shootout." Easily one of my favorite interview quotes of all time.

We're back on the soccer beat for SI and after taking a two-week post-college hoops vacation in Argentina. Check back next Wednesday for the start of my biweekly soccer column on And for an upcoming soccer Mailbag please send in your questions (see accompanying box) regarding U.S. soccer, MLS and any other soccer-related topics. ... Nice to finally see a Champions League game in HD. Maybe one of these days ESPN will figure out to move the score-bar higher on the screen so that it's not in the way of the action (it's even worse on MLS broadcasts). ... I know the temporary turf was bad in Luzhniki Stadium, and you could even argue that it Van der Sar's slip helped allow Lampard's goal, but I get a little tired of all the turf talk. Aren't these some of the same guys who grew up playing on rock-covered fields as kids? ... Man U's Rio Ferdinand had a brutal game in the back. ... Typical nice work by ESPN's Derek Rae, but Clarence Seedorf might want to do a little more preparation before the next time he takes the microphone. Calling Florent Malouda "whatshisname" in the sixth minute ain't gonna work. ... The center of Chelsea's defense -- centerbacks Terry and Ricardo Carvalho and 35-year-old midfielder Claude Makélélé -- was immense. If you had told Chelsea it would shut down Carlos Tévez and Wayne Rooney, the Blues would have thought their chances of winning were pretty good.

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