It is the day that Roman Abramovich has been waiting for since he watched Manchester United and Real Madrid play one of the classic European Cup ties at Old Trafford five years ago and decided he would like a football club; not just any old club, of course, but one with the potential to reach that sort of level, and quickly. He would certainlynot have envisaged taking five years to progress as far as a Champions' League final, least of all when Claudio Ranieri's team made the last four against Monaco within nine months ofthe spectacular takeover in July 2003.
Poor Ranieri blew his chance by throwing away the tie – though club officials had been turning against him long before that – and Jose Mourinho twice suffered the humiliation of defeat at the same stage by Liverpool. When Chelsea were deservedly 1-0 down with a minute to play at Anfield in this season's semi-final, Abramovich must have been musing on the Russian equivalent of "always the bridesmaid, never the bride". But John Arne Riise's subsequent own goal tipped the balance, and so it is Chelsea, frequently rem-inded by Liverpool fans that "you ain't got no history", who will take on United on Wednesday with an opportunity to make some at last.
"It was a dream of the club more than anything to be in the final," said Avram Grant, the much-ridiculed manager gradually and grudgingly earning some of the respect due to him. "Every final of the Champions' League is something special. It's the most important game in European, probably world, football."
Speculation that only becoming champions of Europe or England this season could save him from the sack has been modified to suggestions that a "glorious failure" might suffice. Had neither Wigan nor Bolton brought anti-climax to the Premier League pursuit of United with late equalisers at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea would already be celebrating a glorious success. The consolation is they still have the chance of beating United over a 90-minute sprint instead of the seven-month chase that Grant began with a 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford last September.
United claim a psychological advantage from having held off that challenge, albeit thanks to their North-west neighbours; Chelsea claim the extra motivation is theirs, strengthened by a 2-1 win over the eventual champions last month, when Sir Alex Ferguson rested half-a-dozen players.
Chelsea's goalkeeper,Petr Cech, says: "They have already got one trophy and we don't want to see them celebrating again, so this is extra motivation. It took a lot of energy and hard work to go to the final and we go to win, because you don't just want to be part of it. Something I was taught as a kid whenever we played in a final was that his-tory remembers only the winners, which is true for me. If you don't win the final then in the end you've got the same asthe people who lose in the group stage."
From his vantage point behind everyone else, Cech was able to observe how United were pressured into defeat at Stamford Bridge: "We put them under pressure and they couldn't play because we didn't allow them to. It was not the case in [United's] other games, maybe some teams came to Old Trafford really aware of their attacking threat and triedto defend. But we put them under pressure because they are not used to playing under pressure from an opponent. That was a good tactic."
It would be nice to think Chelsea will approach Wednesday's game in the same way, though at least one of their players is more cautious. John Obi Mikel, the object of a bewildering and undignified tug-of-war between the two clubs three years ago after claiming he was forced against his will into signing for United, said: "It's going to be a very tactical game. Trust me, it's not going to be as exciting as people think it's going to be. Neither team is going to come out too hard. You have to sit and wait for your opportunity. In a Champions' League final, any mistake can cost you the game."
Evidence from previous finals involving teams from the same country is contradictory. Milan's grim goalless draw against Juv-entus in Manchester five years ago was one extreme; three years before, Real Madrid and Steve McManaman were masterful in beating Valencia 3-0. Grant, reflect-ing his new confidence, remains optimistic: "There are two good teams. Our last game against United and our semi-final against Liverpool were good games. I think it will be a good game, but you never know."
Glorious failure or inglorious victory? As in last year's FA Cup final, everyone who believes blue is the colour – even Abramovich himself – will surely settle for the latter.