Most engrossing

The triumphant Manchester United team.-AP

The Luzhniki Stadium witnessed a spectacle to compare with the comeback in 1999 when Bayern Munich were overtaken at the close of the final, writes Kevin McCarra.

Manchester United are once more engulfed in the delirious joy of Champions League melodrama. They were on the verge of defeat in the shoot-out as the Chelsea captain, John Terry, came up to take the penalty that would have taken the trophy to Stamford Bridge. His standing foot slipped as he struck the ball and the effort flew wide. A failure by Cristiano Ronaldo had been cancelled out.

The momentum was irreversibly United's and, in the end, Edwin van der Sar ensured that the trophy would come to Old Trafford for the third time by saving the spot kick from the substitute Nicolas Anelka. This is a club that cannot come by glory in this tournament until it has scared itself senseless.

The Luzhniki Stadium witnessed a spectacle to compare with the comeback in 1999 when Bayern Munich were overtaken at the close of the final. The memorability of such a moment depends as well on the images of the losers' pain. Terry had been magnificent and, 11 minutes into extra-time, had somehow twisted his neck to head away a shot by the substitute Ryan Giggs that was bound for the net. It seemed inconceivable then that such a character could be brought low.

He is no culprit. The single person meriting blame is Didier Drogba, sent off four minutes from the close of extra-time for aiming a slap at the United centre-half Nemanja Vidic following a melee after Chelsea had expected the ball to be returned to them at a throw-in. That folly by the Ivorian did not mar one of the most engrossing Champions League finals of modern times. Its main side effect was to promote Terry to taking the fifth penalty.

There is always a craving to consecrate winners as deserving of their prize. It is tempting to do that because, in the first-half particularly, they scored, wasted openings and were thwarted by the goalkeeper Petr Cech. That was an outstanding spell but Chelsea's self-belief was also imposing. At times they appeared ready to overpower Sir Alex Ferguson's team.

The Scot declared this to be the first major shoot-out to have gone his way, dismissing the bauble of the Community Shield that was won in just such a fashion, against Chelsea, at the start of this season. Ferguson has now conquered in all four of his European finals since the days with Aberdeen.

It might all have been different in Moscow. Drogba had struck the woodwork in the 78th minute and Lampard would do likewise in stoppage-time. Nothing, it appears, goes in favour of the Chelsea manager, Avram Grant, for long. The Israeli could well have imagined that his luck was turning when his team came through an initial bombardment. Now there will be more uncertainty and disquiet.

Terry's failure from the spot brought a gesture of wry exasperation from Roman Abramovich. The owner will ask himself if he is employing an unlucky manager or one who falls a little short of what is needed. Either way the Russian cannot ignore the fact that Chelsea have failed to take a trophy for the first time in four seasons. Nor would he have liked the way in which United initially took his side by surprise.

To Chelsea's regret it turned out that it is possible for one of these teams to surprise the other. United did more still, disconcerting the opposition with tactics that helped Ronaldo score against these adversaries for the first time in his career. United had been sent out in a 4-4-2 formation that some might have supposed had been stashed in the Old Trafford museum. The purpose of it was to exploit the narrowness of Chelsea's 4-3-3 system and bedevil the full-backs. Michael Essien was the principal target. Accustomed as the midfielder is to operating on the right of the defence, he has no experience of the suffering to which Ronaldo subjected him. The winger had left him utterly stranded in one incident and then embarrassed him more severely with the opener in the 27th minute. Paul Scholes exchanged passes with Wes Brown on the right and the latter stroked an unexpectedly good inswinging cross with his left foot. Ronaldo skipped in front of a static Essien to glide a perfect header low into the net.

It was a bruising encounter, with Scholes, for instance, requiring attention to a bloodied nose after a crash between himself and Claude Makelele that led to a yellow card for each of them. All the same United were not diverted from performing with freedom. Owen Hargreaves brought his running power to bear from right midfield, the position in which he got his earlier Champions League winners' medal with Bayern Munich in 2001.

Ten minutes before half-time United should have been in a virtually unassailable position but Petr Cech parried Carlos Tevez's header and then reached Michael Carrick's shot from that rebound. There was a further opportunity nine minutes later when Tevez could not quite get to the low ball by Wayne Rooney that had eluded Makelele. Nonetheless United by then had been given a clue as to Chelsea's powers of recovery. When Drogba headed a deep cross into the centre after 34 minutes Rio Ferdinand, under pressure from Michael Ballack, knocked it towards his own net, only for Van der Sar to tip the ball on to the bar.

Chelsea had their fortune when pulling level. Essien's 25-yarder cannoned of Vidic and then Ferdinand to set up Lampard for a coolly taken goal. Though Chelsea had been rallying, their feelings much have contained a measure of relief. It invigorated the team thereafter. Each side took the other to its limits.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008