2008 review: One small slip for John Terry, one giant leap for Manchester United.
Just one slip from history
One small slip for John Terry, one giant leap for Manchester United. The difference between being a prince or a pauper in the unruly world of football in 2008 was narrow, but noticeable. This is a sport played on a large pitch, but a field of smallish margins. A sense of chaos appeared to govern the ultimate events of the year. United won the English Premier League and the Champions League amid some general bedlam in May, but it could easily have been Chelsea.
In the twilight zone of a final that kicked off at midnight in Moscow, the haunted Chelsea captain Terry was visited by some grisly happenings - his club by the ghost of Champions League failures past. Terry missed the chance to convert the winning penalty in a shoot-out of a final that finished 1-1, and veered and swerved before falling in favour of United. The rain in Russia helped Terry discover an unfortunate kink in his gait as he approached the ball. In slipping like a befuddled ice skater, he shelled his effort wide. Chelsea's chance of a first European Cup had gone. When Nicolas Anelka's limp penalty was stopped by Edwin van der Sar minutes later, so too had Avram Grant's job as the Chelsea manager.
Sir Alex Ferguson was applauded in his 22nd year running United, Grant was replaced by Luiz Felipe Scolari. Attempting to win the Champions League has become something akin to the holy grail for Chelsea's Russian owner Roman Abramovich, but no matter the reserves of finance, money cannot buy you love, nor luck. As the year draws to a close, Chelsea, Liverpool and perhaps even Martin O'Neill's flourishing Aston Villa side are making bold representations in England, but the spectre of United looms large. They have lurked with intent all year.
The old mantra dictating that it is better to be lucky than good in life also applied to the nature of the tribal warfare which saw United and Chelsea joust until the bitter end in the Premier League. Chelsea floored United on the penultimate day of an elongated season, but that could not get them home in the longer race. United enjoyed a cushy goal difference before a visit to Wigan, and the evergreen Ryan Giggs scored one of their goals in a 2-0 win. Chelsea drew 1-1 with Bolton as United claimed the title by a couple of points.
Cristiano Ronaldo made a few points of his own. The Portuguese winger plundered 42 goals in a season that saw him and United make huge advances. He sported a mahogany tan after Euro 2008, and has wallowed in a banquet of personal silverware, including the Ballon d'Or for the European football player of the year. It was worth visiting Milan in May. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the world's oldest and grandest shopping mall, at the Piazza del Duomo is architecture of real beauty, but Inter's expedition to the Serie A prize became a frightful business. Watching them almost spill the league in the club's centenary season made for compulsive viewing, but only if you were not a frayed fan.
A wayward Marco Materazzi missed a late penalty in a 2-2 home draw with Siena that left the San Siro straining under the groans of 70,000 fans, and wondering if their side's chance of the championship had evaporated. The beaky Zlatan Ibrahimovic has a nose for a goal, and rescued them at Parma a week later. He recovered from a knee injury to net twice in a 2-0 win to fend off the late rally by Roma.
Inter won the title by three points but having held an 11-point advantage in February, it was a desperate end to the season. Relief more than self-admiration was the general emotion. Inter's manager Roberto Mancini departed as Jose Mourinho's snappy suits and cosy overcoats returned to football. So too did his high jinks. The self-proclaimed "Special One" remains as audible in Italy as he was in Portugal and England. Some may say this larger than life figure, and at times larger than Porto and Chelsea, talked himself out of a job at Stamford Bridge, but he has hardly pressed the mute button in his latest venture. His lyrics remain the same, namely to provoke a response.
Censoring one's self has never been a Mourinho trait. He has been involved in various forms of verbal sparring with the Juventus coach Claudio Ranieri, the man Mourinho replaced as Chelsea head coach. Inter will end the year on top of Serie A, a sight which is as natural to Mourinho as being mouthy. Time finally caught up with Frank Rijkaard and his mostly joyous era as the Barcelona head coach. Ronaldinho made off for AC Milan, and Deco joined Chelsea as Barca caved in. Real Madrid reeled in the Spanish title. Barcelona's loss to United in the Champions League semi-final condemned Rijkaard to the sport's version of the guillotine.
Josep Guardiola has made a vibrant start at the Nou Camp after his promotion to head coach. They spanked Atletico Madrid 6-1 in La Liga and are well placed to recover the flag. Juande Ramos ended a barmy year in charge of Real. He started it by helping Tottenham beat Chelsea to win the English league cup, but their form nose dived. After a galling start to the new season, Harry Redknapp, an FA Cup winner and alchemist with Portsmouth, was brought in for cover.
The Uefa Cup final was hardly a quiet footnote. The Russian side Zenit St Petersburg rampaged through the tournament and outfoxed Glasgow Rangers 2-0 in the final. Hundreds of fans of Rangers rampaged through the streets of Manchester. Rangers were on course for a quartet of trophies, but the exhaustive nature of a season that saw them play over 70 matches allowed Celtic to recover in time to retain the Scottish Premier League on the final day.
Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga in Germany, while Lyon collected the French championship for a seventh straight season. At the end of the year, David Beckham was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin in Italy. He proved he can still prompt a media carnival when he announced he was joining AC Milan on loan from the LA Galaxy, but all the fun of the fair was at his former haunt. It is difficult to escape from the conclusion that Manchester United are the best side in world football. As if to justify such a point, they enjoyed a jaunt to Japan to down the holders of the Copa Libertadores, LDU Quito, in the final of the Fifa Club World Cup. They were good enough to get the job done with 10 men. United have one Club World Cup to go with three European Cups.
Three years into his tenure at United in 1989 and with United without a league title for 22 years, Ferguson was asked about his relationship with the club's rank and file. "At Manchester United, you become one of them," he said. "You think like a supporter, suffer like a supporter." How times change. The ditty around Old Trafford this year had been "Champions of England, champions of Europe." At the climax of a hectic 12 months, they reserve the right to be boastful.