A newly laid pitch and a rainy night in Moscow conspired to beat Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League final early Thursday morning.
Manchester United had a little something to do with it too. But the European champs almost certainly wouldn't be the champs now if captain John Terry hadn't slipped on Chelsea's fifth penalty kick. But then Chelsea might not have gotten to the shootout if United goalie Edwin van der Sar hadn't slipped and fallen in first half injury time as he tried to set up to stop Frank Lampard, who easily hit the open net.
Chelsea had a 4-3 lead after four kicks, the teams having reached the end of regulation and extra time still tied 1-1, the score following Lampard's goal.
After Nani booted home Manchester United's fifth kick for 4-4, Terry lined up for the Blues' fifth, a clincher if he scored. Van der Sar guessed wrong and dived to his right. Terry kicked right to the open side, but his plant foot slipped a bit, his ankle turned ever so slightly, throwing him just off-balance, and the ball spun wide, glancing off the outside of the goalpost.
He sat on the wet turf in the driving rain, his head buried between his knees. It was the kind of moment that dark novels get written about, the kind of crashing failure in a crucial moment on an international stage that would haunt most of us for a lifetime, but that most elite athletes forget by the end of the week, if not by breakfast.
Terry's miss opened the door for United, and two kicks later, with Nicolas Anelka trying to keep Chelsea even, van der Sar guessed right. That is, he guessed left and dived to his right, punching Anelka's shot away -- 6-5, and United had the European Cup.
It was a dramatic, bloody, sloshy final, with bouts of great end-to-end soccer mixed with long stretches of the unsure footing that would be decisive, the usual epidemic of feigned injuries and a growing tension that resulted in a red card for Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, who boneheadedly slapped Manchester's Nemanja Vidic right in front of the referee, and eight yellow cards. Drogba might have changed the outcome had he been around for the shootout.
Penalty kicks are no way to end a great international sporting event, but once you make your peace with the inevitability of the thing -- four of the last eight Champions Cup finals have been decided on penalty kicks, and in such a low-scoring game, more are surely over the horizon -- it's a nail-biting few minutes.
Playing on in sudden death until one exhausted side makes a mistake and lets in a goal is a more pure, more soulful, more real method, but also more likely to result in crushing boredom. Penalty kicks are the soccer equivalent of instant mashed potatoes, but they're kind of fun and they're instant.
United's Cristiano Ronaldo, who had given Terry his chance at a winner when his third-round penalty kick was turned away by Chelsea goalie Petr Cech, scored Manchester's goal in the 26th minute on a beautiful header. United controlled most of the first half and almost had a second goal when a long run and pass by Wayne Rooney set up a chance, but Cech made two brilliant saves.
Then Lampard tied it up in injury time and Chelsea controlled the second half but missed the net on a couple of clean scoring chances. Drogpa, dribbling in traffic, turned nothing into something in the 78th minute and somehow got a shot off, but it hit the goalpost. In the first extra period, Lampard banged one off the crossbar after three sharp passes in the penalty area. That was the last best chance before the shootout.
Five rounds into that, Terry slipped on the would-be game-winner, and two rounds later van der Sar stoned Anelka, setting off the celebration.
For Manchester United, the wet ground took away, and then it gave.