It was a tale of two superstars and it was always destined to become for one of them the best of times and for the other the worst. In the end the winner was Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro and the unlucky loser, in a team of them, was Didier Drogba.
Chelsea's moody talisman, who snatched the FA Cup away from United right at the death in extra-time a year ago, found himself a central figure again. Involved all night in a predictably physical battle with Rio Ferdinand and principally Nemanja Vidic – none of the trio giving an inch while all took bumps and bruises – he hit a post, then hit Vidic, much less forcefully, but paid a heavy penalty with a red card.
So the Ivorian was not around for the penalties that eventually went United's way after Ronaldo, having missed one in the Nou Camp semi-final, was denied by Petr Cech.
The Portuguese double Footballer of the Year has been forced to confront the question of whether he can impose himself on the biggest matches, as opposed to an Old Trafford romp against a West Ham or Wigan. Once again the evidence was not entirely convincing either way. Playing on the left in the absence of Park Ji Sung he gave Michael Essien – not a natural right-back – a torrid hour, threatening from early on to take the game and mould it in a manner he never managed on occasions like semi-finals against Milan last season and Barcelona this, plus the FA Cup final. If he was less of an influence in the latter stages, that reflected the way Chelsea, and Drogba, recovered in pursuit of their quest to become London's first European champions.
The night had begun with the two potential match-winners bringing up the rear as their teams filed out, aware that the last needed to be first in commitment and accomplishment. Each of them was prominent once the earliest sparring was over, though the first television close-up of Ronaldo was a familiar plaintive look up at the referee from a grounded position, where Essien had dumped him as a little welcome note.
It was clear that the deterrent had failed when Ronaldo – regularly praised by Sir Alex Ferguson for his courage in coming back for more – bewitched Essien and put in a cross just too high for Owen Hargreaves.
In a number of key games, starting when United salvaged a last-minute draw at Tottenham this season, Ferguson has used him through the middle to capitalise on the height and heading ability inevitably lacking in Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. Last night the manager was rewarded with the best of both worlds when after 25 minutes of taunting Essien he left the Ghanaian flat-footed to head his first goal against Chelsea and 42nd of the season.
Drogba's role in the equaliser 18 minutes later was that of a decoy as Frank Lampard initiated and finished the move. He had shed blood early on, taking a bang to the mouth from Vidic that left him with a cut tongue, but already he had won a couple of headers, and continued to do so as Wednesday in Moscow became Thursday and Chelsea used him to good effect without ever quite falling into the occasional trap of simply hoofing balls forward.
The 78th minute might have provided his golden moment. Knocked to the ground he still succeeded in slipping the ball out to Florent Malouda, then taking the return and curling his shot from outside the penalty area against a post. In extra-time he took control of a free-kick in a promising position – no arguments with Michael Ballack on this occasion – but clipped it wide. Then, unwisely, he clipped Vidic on the jaw and was forced to take the long walk past the corner flag in front of Chelsea's supporters to the dressing room.
Ronaldo had been involved in a double threat to Cech in between the goals, setting up Tevez for the first effort. In the second half he remained as potentially dangerous as anyone in red, though his team were being pushed backwards.
With his penalty in the shootout, however, Ronaldo ran up to the spot before then pausing for far too long before making his kick. He failed completely to tempt Cech into committing himself and the striker turned away in despair as the shot was saved by Edwin van der Sar. But five minutes later came tears of joy as the striker lay flat in the sodden centre circle.
So to the future. Whether Drogba's will be spent as a Chelsea player is a matter of some doubt. Ronaldo, having signed a five-year deal with United last April, was a little naughty in his ambiguous remarks last week, but seems much the more likely to stay at his club and keep Real Madrid waiting and scheming for another year or so.