At Old Trafford they believed that for the sheer edge-of-the-seat, heartstopping drama 1999 would never be beaten. And then at 1.35 Moscow time this morning, suddenly we had to reassess the definition of an extraordinary, stupendous way to win the Champions League, Manchester United-style.
It was a truly remarkable night, one that will live in the pantheon forever and quite possibly scar the psyche of every Chelsea fan who witnessed it. In the Russian roulette of the penalty shootout, John Terry had only to beat Edwin van der Sar with the last penalty of 10 to bring the European Cup to the club he been at his entire career. When Terry slipped and shot wide, Roman Abramovich slumped back into his chair. £578m does not buy a man immunity to the cruelties of this game.
The Russian billionaire had his head in his hands as United polished off Chelsea in sudden death, the decisive moment when Van der Sar stopped Nicolas Anelka's penalty. Within seconds, Sir Alex Ferguson was with his players on the pitch, wiping the rain from his eyes like an old gent caught in the garden when a storm struck. But Ferguson is no retiree. At 66 he is the 16th manager in history to win the European Cup more than once, he has done it in the 50th anniversary year of the Munich air disaster and as he embraced Cristiano Ronaldo you would not bet against the old boy equalling Bob Paisley's record of three.
Did someone mention Ronaldo? Incredibly the only United player to miss from the spot was the player of the year, the assassin from 12 yards and the man who, after a 42-goal season, came within a whisker of blowing his club's amazing double. Instead it was Terry who was left to weep on the shoulder of assistant manager Steve Clarke; the Chelsea captain broken into bits by his miss, standing in the drifting rain of a Moscow night wondering if he is destined to be remembered forever for one thing. The man who missed.
As his standing foot slipped as he struck his penalty, Terry was the victim of the piece. The victim but not the villain – that was Didier Drogba, needlessly sent off for flicking a hand into the face of Nemanja Vidic four minutes before the end of extra-time. Would he have taken that Terry penalty had he been on the pitch? As they stood stunned on the pitch at the end, sodden in the rain, brought to heel by the Ferguson-effect you had to wonder what this would mean for the Abramovich Chelsea project?
It was not a beautiful game, rather it was tense and utterly absorbing for the clash of styles of the titans of English football. Ronaldo's goal gave United the lead and for a period it looked that he, along with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, would sweep all before them. Then Chelsea came back remorselessly, exerting a grip on the game that had looked beyond them at times, and Frank Lampard scored the equaliser. Over 120 minutes, Chelsea had the better chances, perhaps shaded the victory on points, but this is not, as Bayern Munich would testify, enough to beat United.
As Abramovich clapped listlessly in the expensive seats and Ferguson leapt around in the rain with his players you had to wonder at the enduring quality of this man. Five years ago the Russian oligarch came to England and set out to undo the Ferguson dynasty. Five years on and both United and Chelsea have two Premier League titles in that period but it was Ferguson in Abramovich's hometown who carried off the prize they both really wanted. He just will not be stopped.
As Sir Bobby Charlton led United up to collect the trophy it was worth remembering that the game that had started one day earlier had finished on 22 May, the date which, 62 years earlier, George Best had been born. There was meaning and significance everywhere you looked. Ronaldo stood with his arm around Charlton as they waited for Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand to be presented with the trophy. Later the Portuguese winger said that he wanted to stay. The answer to that was: who would want to leave this club?
Ferguson made the hard decision and picked Tevez, as well as his two dashing blades Rooney and Ronaldo and when United slipped gloriously into their stride after the first 20 minutes you were bound to agree. Once United had become accustomed to the dimensions of this large pitch, and the cluttered early exchanges had ceased, there was a period when Ferguson's team were out of Chelsea's control.
His nose bloodied from a challenge with Claude Makelele, Paul Scholes took charge of the game for 10 crucial minutes and United seized the lead. Their goal, on 26 minutes, was beautifully worked. Out on the right wing, Scholes and Wes Brown worked the ball around Lampard and the right-back flighted a ball to the back post which caught Michael Essien out. The Ghanaian is a formidable athlete but he does not have the instincts of a full-back and he allowed Ronaldo the space to head the ball down past Petr Cech.
United could have won the game in the next 15 minutes before, at last, Chelsea contained them again. It would have been an astonishing goal if they had pulled it off on 35 minutes, Rooney breaking away from Ashley Cole in the United half, taking half a dozen strides and hitting a peach of a ball crossfield to Ronaldo. Two touches from him and a low cross into the box that Tevez headed at Cech. Terry cleared and the Chelsea goalkeeper then hauled himself to his feet and stopped Michael Carrick's follow-up.
Breathless stuff and United going straight for the jugular. Three minutes before the break Rooney crossed from the right, his ball eluding Makelele and then, by inches, the outstretched boot of Tevez, too. The faces of Ferguson and the rest of the United bench told their story – they could have had this game won. But already Chelsea were stopping the tide and on 45 minutes, they equalised.
A weak clearance from Ferdinand was picked up by Essien marauding in from the right and he hit a shot that took two deflections on its passage through the United box. As Van der Sar came to get the ball, his foot slipped beneath him and he was fractionally late to prevent Lampard, whose run had taken him deep into the United area, from lifting the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net.
United had only themselves to blame: Carrick should have scored, so too Tevez and now they were back level with a team that were gaining momentum by the second. After the break Chelsea poured forward remorselessly. Essien shot over having held off Ronaldo's challenge; Michael Ballack shot a fraction wide. There was bad feeling: Owen Hargreaves against Makelele; Joe Cole and Patrice Evra, and you could see the Drogba incident coming.
He had hit the post 12 minutes from time and then lost his head in extra-time after Tevez had kicked the ball away. It took Drogba too long to get off the pitch and it may be the last Chelsea see of him. Rooney was substituted before the penalties, it was a flat evening from him and he ripped off his shirt in frustration as he reached the dugout. As for the penalties, Van der Sar said he knew which way Anelka was going to shoot which meant that by then he was the only calm head in the place.
Manchester United (4-1-4-1): Van der Sar; Brown (Anderson, 120), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick; Ronaldo, Scholes (Giggs, 88), Hargreaves, Rooney (Nani, 101); Tevez. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), O'Shea, Fletcher, Silvestre.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Essien, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Makelele (Belletti, 120); J Cole (Anelka, 98), Lampard, Ballack, Malouda (Kalou, 92); Drogba. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Shevchenko, Mikel, Alex.
Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).