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Saturday, May 24, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Terry's miss took Ronaldo off the hook in Moscow


LONDON — For a few minutes Cristiano Ronaldo's CV had a new, ignominious entry. The player who lost the 2008 Champions League final for Manchester United.

Christopher Davies

Forget that Ronaldo's 42nd goal of a magnificent season had given United the lead against Chelsea; that the Portugal winger has been the best player in the Premier League and probably the world this season.

Ronaldo was in line to be remembered as much for his miss as his 42 hits, his ill-advised stop-start runup to the penalty which Petr Cech easily saved.

What was going through his mind as Frank Lampard, Owen Hargreaves, Ashley Cole and Nani converted their spot-kicks is impossible to imagine.

Maybe a prayer?

Please . . . please . . . a Chelsea player misses.

The penalty god smiled on Ronaldo when, with Champions League glory one kick away, Chelsea captain John Terry struck an upright with his effort.

For Ronaldo, a reprieve. For Terry and Nicolas Anelka, whose penalty was saved by Edwin van der Sar, the tattoo for life of missing decisive penalties with the Champions League at their mercy.

In years to come, few will remember who scored what proved to be United's decisive penalty (fittingly it was Ryan Giggs on the night he broke Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time United appearance record in his 759th, but they will recall Terry and Anelka were the villains.

When van der Sar parried Anelka's penalty the United players ran to the Dutch goalkeeper, their faces showing the uncontrolled joy of triumph. One player, however, did not immediately join in the celebrations.

Ronaldo lay on the sodden turf in the center of Luzhniki Stadium perhaps grateful that the rain disguised his tears. He knew that there but for the grace . . .

His world . . . how he would be remembered . . . what he would forever be associated with . . . had undergone a dramatic turnaround.

From being the man who lost United the final, Ronaldo's spot-miss was consigned to a minor detail of an unforgettable 2008 Champions League final.

Football can be as cruel as it is rewarding and for every winner there was a loser in European football's premier final.

The player left wearing the L-plates was Terry rather than Anelka. Credit to the Chelsea captain for stepping up when it should have been Didier Drogba, whose popularity is at an all-time low after his sending-off three minutes before the end, when he slapped Nameja Vidic in the face.

Maybe, just maybe, Drogba would have succeeded where Terry failed from 11 meters. The Ivorian watched his hapless replacement write his name in the history books for all the wrong reasons.

The striker, who talks about leaving Chelsea and then denies it, will be missed like a toothache. You would be hard pushed to find a Chelsea supporter who wants Drogba to ever wear the shirt again.

Terry epitomizes the best and worst of Chelsea. He leads by example, has courage to spare, pain is a challenge to him and he was Chelsea's best player in Moscow in the view of many observers.

Yet Terry loses the sympathy vote because of his lack of respect for referees, and once again he was the head of the snarling pack when Slovakian referee Lubos Michel made a decision Chelsea did not like.

The public is becoming fed up with Chelsea's arrogant attitude, while Terry has also been the subject of less-than-flattering headlines for some off-the-field activities.

The defeat could cost manager Avram Grant his job, but the Israeli's popularity rating has soared in recent weeks because of the way he has conducted himself.

Finishing second to United in the Premier League and Champions League, plus reaching the League Cup final can hardly be called failure, but the suspicion remains that Roman Abramovich wants a "big name" manager (which, of course, he had, but the Russian billionaire showed Jose Mourinho the door).

Sir Alex Ferguson is not only a good manager, he is a lucky one.

Outplayed by Bayern Munich in 1999, United won the Champions League final with stoppage-time strikes by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

In Moscow, Lampard and Drogba hit the woodwork, Chelsea had the better of the second half plus extra time, and when Terry stepped up with the Champions League on the line United feared the worst.

As Ferguson says, football — bloody hell.

Fifty years after the Munich Air Disaster, United was king of Europe again. It had underachieved at the highest level, and in 1999 United looked on the verge of greatness when it capped its treble-winning season with the Champions League, and yet it has taken the club another nine years to win it again.

The foundations laid by Ferguson, along with the evidence of its performances this season, suggest it will not be another nine years before United records its fourth triumph.

The experience of Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and the underrated Wes Brown combines with outstanding young talent such as Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez to make United the best of British and European football.

And you can bet that Ferguson will strengthen the best team in Europe this summer.

The Premier League is now firmly established as the best in the world — why on earth would Ronaldo want to leave United for Real Madrid?

* * * * *

KEITH McNIFFE was ordered to repay £9,233 after pocketing benefits following a thyroid operation that saw his weight rocket by 76 kg. But Department of Work and Pensions officials filmed him refereeing a local game forcing McNiffe to stand down as mayor of Pembroke after admitting two offenses of failing to notify the authorities of a change in his condition — meaning he illegally obtained benefits.

All fairly boring, perhaps, but read on.

Prosecutor Alex Ferguson told Haverfordwest JPs that inquiries showed McNiffe officiated at 67 local games in two years. He was given a four-month suspended sentence and ordered to repay all falsely-claimed cash.

Marvelous . . . an Alex Ferguson prosecuting a referee. Wonder if the legal Fergie gave his victim the famous hair dryer treatment?

Christopher Davies is author of the recently released book"Behind The Back Page."


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