By Rob Hughes

May 22, International Herald Tribune

The Champions League, Europe's most coveted trophy, is back in the hands of Manchester United. It was won at 1.34 a.m. in Moscow in the cruellest way a sporting contest can end -- on the penalty shoot out that many of us have compared to Russian Roulette.

At 90 minutes, the final against Chelsea stood all square, one goal apiece and nothing to decree that one side or the other deserved defeat. After 30 minutes overtime, and a total of almost 10 minutes more for various injuries and stoppages, the two teams were like exhausted prize fighters.

They were still on their feet, those that hadn't fallen with cramp. They were pawing instinctively at one another in torrential rain, neither having the energy to land a knock out blow. So to penalties, to the lottery that tests the nerve of men paid millions to be soccer players not men praying for a lucky break in a sequence of kicks on goal.

The shootout was like the game itself, the teams were inseparable over the first 10 penalty kicks. Of all people, the first man whose nerve failed was Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the finest player in the world at the moment.

He had already scored a proper goal, rising in the area after 26 minutes, escaping his marker Michael Essien and, tall man that Ronaldo is, guiding the cross from Wes Brown with consummate power and precision into the top of the net.

United should then have consolidated because its game flowed with movement and passing that Chelsea could not compete with. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes were the pass-masters, and twice Carlos Tevez, his aim not a match for his energy, failed to capitalise on chances.

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photo: Edwin van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka's penalty to seal the victory by diving correctly to his right. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)