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 sub-plots as Wednesday’s meeting between Manchester United and Chelsea at the Luzhniki Stadium here. Looming largest of all in the backdrop to the 2008 edition of club football’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 leading players, that has made the build-up to this final unlike any other.
There are many more questions that will have been answered before midnight in the Russian capital, chief among them 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 the listeners.
Inevitably there is a risk that the burden of delivering the required result will weigh heavily on them, but Wayne Rooney believes an awareness of the club’s past need not cramp the style of the United’s current generation.
Meetings between the two clubs 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.
With Chelsea set to line up with a midfield trio of Michael 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 on Wednesday as whether or not Ronaldo can add to the 41 goals he has plundered in all competitions in this campaign.