Analysis: A tactical review of the 2008 Champions League Final, Manchester United’s Moscow triumph

Rewind: A look back on one night in Moscow.

If the 2019 Champions League final, the last between two English clubs was something of a let down, it may have something to do with just how good the previous one was.

The irony of one of the greatest Champions League seasons in history having such a flat ending should not be lost on football fans, not that Liverpool supporter’s cared one jot in Madrid.

As a spectacle it was never likely to match the last all-English final. A game full of drama, incredible technical skill, and intriguing tactical battles across the pitch, an even a little ‘game theory’.

The 2008 final at the Luzhniki stadium between Chelsea and Manchester United is one of the most underrated matches in modern football history.

Most only remember John Terry slipping on the wet turf and the European Cup slipping through his fingers, but it was far more nuanced than that.  

This was a contest between the two best sides not only in England, but in Europe for the previous two seasons. They were going toe-to-toe at the peak of their powers.

Earlier in the season Jose Mourinho had departed Stamford Bridge, being replaced by Avram Grant on interim basis.

It may have been the Israeli in the Moscow dugout but it was very much still the team Mourinho built that faced Alex Ferguson’s United.

The two sides had already been involved in a domestic title race that went down to the final day of the season, the Red Devils confirming a 10th Premier League crown after a 2-0 win at Wigan Athletic.

These were the two best teams on the planet competing in a game that from the off had the tempo of a British league tussle rather than a cagey continental final.

Ferguson, who is still not given the true credit he deserves as a big game tactician, fielded the fabled attacking trio of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney.

Paul Scholes, who had missed the Manchester clubs last European Cup final, was guaranteed a start in midfield. This left two spots open between Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung.

Incredibly despite Ferguson often selecting the South Korean for big European fixtures, Park was left out of the matchday squad all together. Carrick was chosen to partner Scholes, with Hargreaves also included.

Indeed the Scot had said in the build-up to the game that picking the bench was his hardest decision.

In terms of formation, he ignored he obvious selection of 4-3-3, instead starting with a lopsided 4-4-2 with Ronaldo high on the left and Hargreaves deployed deep on the right.

He did this for two reasons. Firstly, he wanted to avoid Ronaldo been shackled by Ashley Cole.

Cole had performed brilliantly against Ronaldo in both England-Portugal quarter finals of the mid noughties, keeping Cristiano quiet for the vast majority of both games.

Secondly, he could have merely shifted Ronaldo centrally to play as a ‘true 9’. However, Chelsea were fielding Michael Essien at right back, an out of position defensive midfielder. Ronaldo was fielded on the left and given strict instructions to stay high and put Essien on the back foot from the off.

Bar Essien, the Blues side virtually picked itself. The only other surprise came on the left wing where Grant opted for Flourent Malouda over either Saloman Kalou or Nicholas Anelka, but the Frenchmen had ended the season in good form and gave a more balanced look to the Chelsea formation.

United made the better start. Claude Makelele was fighting fires trying to contain the fluid movement of Rooney and Carlos Tevez. The Argentinian become a figure of hate in the Stretford End a year later for his controversial move to Manchester City, however his influence on the big games during this period for United, should not be forgotten.

The sacrifices made over the season to cover defensively when United lost the ball, was crucial in giving Ronaldo the freedom that turned him into a ruthless goalscoring machine.

The first sign of the front three working in tandem came in the 11th minute. Tevez beat Makelele to a 50/50 ball and charged forward before laying the ball right to Hargreaves. The English midfielder paused for a second before swinging in a cross.

Although John Terry headed the ball clear, the move is noticeable for Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez all charging into the box at breakneck speed an all ending up around the six yard box. United were going for it from the off.

By contrast Chelsea in this era, would build their way into games slowly but often with devastating effect. As games went on, they were able to push teams back towards their own goal with military precision. As a result Grant’s objective for the first half was simple. Just stay in the game.

It all made for the perfect old school contest. The irresistible force versus the immovable object.

The opening goal was perfect validation of Ferguson’s set up. Wes Brown played a quick 1-2 following with Paul Scholes. The classic clever movement and touch from Scholes opened up space for Brown to hang a deep cross to the back post.

BULLET: Ronaldo leaving his mark on an epic game.

Sure enough Ronaldo was right on que to magnificently tower above Essien and produce a powerful header into the corner of the goal. Petr Cech one of the best goalkeepers in the world, hardly moved.

It was what the Portuguese superstar had done all season. Finding the weakest defender, and pinning him into a one-on-one battle.

That goal seemed to spark some life back into the resilient London side, and Grant’s Chelsea were nearly level merely minutes later.

Frank Lampard showed magnificent physical strength to hold off Hargreaves in the channel, and lofted a ball towards Drogba in the penalty area.

The Ivorian headed back across goal where Michael Ballack was attacking the ball only yards from goal. The German midfielder built a career on intelligent third man runs. Unfortunately for him this time his path was blocked by Rio Ferdinand.

The pressure from Ballack force Ferdinand to make contact with the ball and drew a stunning save from Edwin Van Der Sar.

But the opening goal lit the touch paper. Now the contest had the feel of two heavyweight boxers at their peak, punching and counter-punching with equal force.

From the resulting corner the ball ended up with Ricardo Carvahlo in an unorthodox left-wing position with Wayne Rooney tracking him.

A short demonstration of what can only be described as “peak Rooney” followed. The English forward wrestling the ball back, skipping past and shrugging off Caravalho before sprinting out of the right-back position. He then played the most breath-taking inch perfect, 60-yard pass over to the other side of the pitch where Ronaldo was hurtling down the wing.

This small transition summed up everything brilliant about Rooney’s game in mere seconds, and also highlighted his under-rated athleticism.

Ronaldo didn’t need to break stride (again exploiting the out of position Essien) He charged down the left before playing a cross into Tevez.  

Carlos flung himself at the ball, connecting with a diving header that Cech miraculously kept out. Terry tried to clear but played the ball square into the path of onrushing Michael Carrick who pulled the trigger for the top corner. Cech sprung up to produce a wonder save.

The very best players producing outrageous quality. The tone was set.

It was a small but extraordinary passage of play that summed up just how high the quality of play was during that final. United’s raw aggression in the counter-attack, the Blues’ resilient defiance.

Just before half-time Chelsea landed a major blow. The energetic Lampard sent a loose ball out the Chelsea right-side.

Michael Essien had space to run into, remember with Ronaldo was told to stay high and wide, the Ghanaian could roam freely when Chelsea had possession.

He drove forward and shot across the box. The ball deflected twice and fell perfectly for the onrushing Lampard. In a scene that could have been taken from West Ham’s training ground a decade earlier Ferdinand tried to stop him with a full body lunge.

Lampard go to the ball first and tucked it into the net. Game on. As the goalscorer later recalled; “we started moving the ball about a bit and there was only one team on top. After my goal, I felt that only one team was going to win it.”

In the second half Chelsea got on top. Ballack came within inches of scoring from 25 yards, again exploiting the space behind Scholes and Carrick.

The closest the Blues came to taking the lead in the entirety of the final came with just 13 minutes of normal time left.

United had retreated further and further throughout, with Ferguson tucking Hargreaves inside for a more traditional 4-5-1 to stay compact.

Chelsea had slowly forced them into retreat.

Centre Forward Didier Drogba picked the ball up on the edge of the penalty area. Despite been crowded out by red shirts he managed to curl a wonderful shot which had Van Der Sar beaten, only to crash against the post.

The fact Man Utd had eight outfield players defending on the edge of the penalty area when Drogba shot, highlighted Chelsea’s style of the time. The Blues machine had squeezed their opponents into a narrow, defensive shape – albeit United still carried a threat with devastating counters.

Both sides though had to settle for extra time. The game was on a tactical knife edge.

Ryan Giggs had replaced Scholes just before full-time. While Anelka came on for the tiring Joe Cole, and Salomon Kalou replaced Florent Malouda.

It was Giggs who very nearly won it. Only a miraculous header off the line from Terry kept things level. Set up by a brilliant run overlapping run from Patrice Evra, this United team were energetic to the last, and the left channel was still proving to be a fruitful route.

Chelsea also came close. Kalou, sitting wider than Malouda had, threaded a ball to Ashley Cole heading into the United penalty area. He cut the ball back to Ballack who teed up Lampard. The Englishman swivelled and crash a shot against the bar.

Once again Chelsea came within inches of scoring. Once again despite Manchester United having 8 outfield players defending the penalty box area.

It wouldn’t be the last time the woodwork denied Chelsea that night.

The final few minutes of extra-time were disrupted with substitutions. Rooney was taken off for Nani and Anderson replaced Brown, purely for the looming penalty shootout. But one more defining moment was still to come.

On the infamous Luzhniki plastic pitch a number of players had been suffering with cramp. When both John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho appeared to be suffering Carlos Tevez refused to simply kick the ball back to Cech. In Tevez’s defence neither Chelsea player required attention from the physio.

As Tevez instructed United to press and box Chelsea into the corner all hell brooke loose. The Argentine had a clever knack for winding up opposition, and it never worked better than in Moscow.

A melee ensued. Didier Drogba and Nemanja Vidic were two players not shy of standing up for teammates. After Vidic accused Chelsea of gamesmanship, Didier lost his cool and raised his hand. It was more a slap than a whack, but it was violent conduct nonetheless.                                    

Vidic later claimed in an interview with The Athletic, that Drogba had wanted to punch him all game. Presumably the melee gave him a chance to do it unspotted and he even nearly got away with it.

Referee Lubos Michel was dealing with other brawling players. But United skipper Ferdinand saw the crime and immediately charged towards both officials demanding the red once Drogba committed the sin. Michel maintains that his assistant informed him of the slap, but no doubt watching the incident on video the influence of Ferdinand is easy to see.

Either way, correctly Drogba became the first outfield player to be sent off in a European Cup final (goalkeeper Jens Lehmahn was sent off for Arsenal in 2006).

That meant he missed the penalty shootout, the final act of a historic night. If anything though, the strategy and gamesmanship was only just starting.

Grant’s Chelsea clearly had an incline that their style of play, whilst hugely effective, could lead to penalties. So much so that they had some special help in case the game went the distance.

Brilliantly revealed by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Soccernomics, Basque economist Ignacio Palacios-Huerta was put in touch with Avram Grant weeks before the game. Having studied penalty kicks for years and having built up a considerable database, he produced a detailed report for Chelsea. It made a number of different points about Manchester United and penalties.

Amongst them being;

  • Van Der Sar tended to dive to the kicker’s natural side more often than most. This meant when facing a right footer he would dive to his own right and vice-versa. So Chelsea takers should shoot to their natural side of Van Der Sar’s left.
  • Ronaldo often stops in the run-up to the ball. If he stops he is 85% likely to kick to the right hand side of the goalkeeper. Therefore it was crucial for the opposing keeper not to move early, when they did Ronaldo always scored.

This only scratches the surface of Ignacio’s discoveries, and it led Chelsea to within an inch of lifting the European Cup.

Ferdinand won the all-important coin toss and despite Terry’s attempted influence decided to kick first, putting United at a statistical advantage from the off.

Yet in the in shootout it was United who blinked first. Tevez completed a wonderful performance by slotting home the opener, but with the score at 2-2 Cristiano Ronaldo stuttered.

As Ronaldo paused his run-up Cech followed the strategy to an inch. He didn’t blink let alone move a muscle. Cech sprung to his right and saved the kick. The best player in the world having the perfect season, looked to have blown his big moment.

SAVE: Cech foils Ronaldo in the shoot-out

Meanwhile Chelsea were having a perfect shoot-out. Ballack, Belletti and Lampard all kicked to their ‘unnatural side’ and Van Der Sar only got close to one – Lampard. At this point no-one at United had deduced the strategy.

Then came Ashley Cole. As a left-footer Cole should be kicked to the right of the Dutchman to follow the tactics from Ignacio. He didn’t. He also went left, and Van Der Sar very nearly saved it.

But Cole’s penalty was struck low (another point of advice from Ignacio) and by now the game was being played out in a downpour. The ball was just about wet enough to squeeze out of Edwin’s grasp.

That gave Chelsea match point and the celebrations from those in Blue on the halfway line said it all. They thought it was over.

Nani scored to keep the game alive, but that gave Chelsea captain Terry the chance to win the cup.

With the rain still pouring heavily, Terry slipped when the kicking and his shot hit the post and bounced away. What is often forgotten however, is that he should not have been in the first 5 kickers.

That place was meant for a certain Didier Drogba. Lampard later said “I would have put my house on John normally. He has the character and taking penalties in that situation needs character.”

He may have had character, but he didn’t have the luck. Even in a shootout dominated by careful strategy and meticulous detail, lady luck couldn’t leave well alone.

Now into sudden death the next three kicks were all converted. In this run Chelsea’s Kalou took the best penalty on the night. Again he kicked to his unnatural side, and put it high in the top corner. Van Der Sar, who dived completely the wrong way, could not have felt further away from a save.

Giggs scored to give United match-point, but on the bench Ferguson was growing frustrated with his goalkeeper. “Edwin kept diving to right on nearly every penalty. I was thinking go to your left”.

Substitute Nicholas Anelka stepped up although hardly looking delighted by the prospect. A few years after the Frenchmen revealed he had been asked to take on the first five penalties, but refused – upset at not starting the final. Another small twist of fate that led to Terry’s slip.

At this point Ferdinand and a number of United staff members urged Edwin to dive to his left, presumably where Anelka had planned to put his penalty originally. At this point Van Der Sar started to point towards that exact corner. He essentially told Anelka he knew which way he was going.

The French forward paused after the whistle was blown. His run-up was short, unable to disguise the shape of his kick. Had he kicked high or low (as the report recommended) he may have kept Chelsea in it. Unfortunately he kicked it mid-height. Exactly the height Ignacio had recommended against.

Van Der Sar saved and Manchester United were European champions for a third time.

Who knows if Anelka had ever planned to go with Ignacio’s advice. He is well-known as one of the most individualistic footballers in the modern era. He was evidently aggrieved about only being a substitute for the biggest club game on the planet.

His body language when walking up to take the kick was disengaged, to put it politely.

But either way, his decision to ignore the advice provided by Ignacio cost Grant and Chelsea the shootout and becoming European champions for the first time.

The newspapers the next day carried the story of Van Der Sar as the hero, despite only saving one of the seven kicks he faced, and he was awarded the Uefa man of the match.

Terry and Anelka were painted as the losers, although if Drogba had avoided his red card who knows if either would have taken a kick.

Ferguson claimed a second European title, vowing to go again next season and also focus on retaining Ronaldo’s services. It was the least this particular team deserved, one of the strongest club sides Britain has produced.

The game was the high-point of English club football. Two incredible teams slugging out a real scrap to the end.

What is brilliantly poetic about it though is for all the tactical shifts, strategic planning and world-class athletic performances, fortune was probably the deciding factor.

As the winning captain Rio Ferdinand later summed up. “Fate seemed to play a big part. Giggsy broke Bobby’s record in the European Cup final and it was 50 years since Munich – so maybe it was written in the stars.”

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