The match started on Wednesday and ended on Thursday: an all-English end-game, transposed to Moscow, the home town of Roman Abramovich, whose splurge on a west London football club jerked Manchester United back into full competitive life.
Two men wept that night: Cristiano Ronaldo, overcome by relief and joy, and John Terry, out of a hopeless surrender to the boy inside, a child seldom seen. Ronaldo was to become the world's most expensive footballer, joining Real Madrid for £80m, and Terry, the hard-man thespian, had found the real red heart of melodrama. "Every morning I wake up and it's the first thing on my mind," he said months later, with theatrical precision.
It was the 53rd European Cup final, recast as the Champions League showdown, in the distant Luzhniki Stadium, between the top two Premier League sides. A classically intense (or overwrought) English spectacle kicked off late to accommodate continental time lags and rumbled past midnight into extra-time and penalties. Just about every man played his part in presenting a distillation of the English game for Moscovite consumption. In a Russian doll of a game, Ronaldo scored in regular time and missed his penalty; trusty Frank Lampard equalised; Didier Drogba was sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidic and Terry slipped and missed his spot-kick when an accurate dispatch would have made Chelsea champions of Europe for the first time.
Nicolas Anelka's dud, which sealed United's victory in the sudden-death denouement, is a postscript in most reports, because Terry's tears offered a more piercing image of Chelsea's agonies. Spectators on both sides staggered back to their hotels at 3am or later reflecting on an immortal Premier League encounter that might have been designed as a prime-time advertisement for the kind of football we go in for on these isles. It was mono-national but thrillingly multi-dimensional.
The greater emotional resonance for United was that the finale fell in the 50th anniversary year of the Munich air disaster. The presence of Abramovich, in a city where he started making money selling plastic ducks out of a high-rise flat, was probably not conducive to calm in the Chelsea ranks.
The next day brought an impossible question: how would the outcome shape both clubs for the next five years? Was this the end of Chelsea's European expedition or was it the near-miss before the inevitable conquest? Plenty has changed at both institutions since that two-day epic, which prompted one reporter to point out that United won the Wednesday regular-time game while Chelsea were superior in the Thursday match.
Threads remain visible. United are uniquely inconvenienced by Chelsea in domestic competition. Since Abramovich swooped on Stamford Bridge in 2003, the pair have met 19 times (excluding the Community Shield) and United have won only three of those games, outside of the Moscow shoot-out. In nine fixtures at the Bridge, Chelsea have prevailed in six and drawn three. While Sir Alex Ferguson may point to a pattern of vexing refereeing decisions in that part of London it is also true that Chelsea's power and midfield strength have tended to frustrate United's lighter touch.
The real banner fact is that they have won the past seven Premier League titles between them and are seldom far apart. José Mourinho forced United's strategy rethink from 2004-06, then Ferguson won three titles in a row (2006-09) before Chelsea retaliated with a league and FA Cup Double last season.
In the years since Anelka's penalty was saved by Edwin van der Sar and Ronaldo hit the deck, weeping (Terry cried and walked at the same time), Chelsea have been through four managers: Avram Grant, who effectively lost his job that night, Luiz Felipe Scolari, the caretaker Guus Hiddink and now Carlo Ancelotti, who is widely expected to stand down in the summer.
The Chelsea squad, then, could be called a monument to resilience in the face of constant owner-meddling, while United have stuck to the task of greenhousing players in the 18-24 age range. Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo, Nani, Javier Hernández, Chris Smalling and Rafael da Silva all fit this bill. Since Moscow, Ferguson has lost Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez but replaced them with Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov, who, with Rooney, overwhelmed West Ham on Saturday.
Three years on from his second Champions League triumph, Ferguson is still gathering up international talent at a young age and feeding it through the Carrington university with all the right parts in place: technique, spirit, conviction, personal discipline (with the odd Rooney-esque exception). Chelsea, on the other hand, remain in a cycle of false starts in the field of home cultivation, and have returned to the old method of buying their way out of trouble – though Fernando Torres (26) and David Luiz (24), who cost £70m-plus in January, are at an age where they could fairly be called investments and not quick-fixes, as could Ramires.
United, to be accurate, have employed both tactics. Berbatov was ready-made aristocracy while Hernández was the fruit of assiduous scouting in central and South America. If there is regression in the United ranks it is in midfield, where industry has filled the void left by artistry.
All Chelsea's emotional luggage is loaded on to this one bus. Their Premier League title defence is broken, which creates an advantage over United, who are busy on three fronts. But a look back to May 2008 will encourage Ferguson and his staff. The two sides were much closer then, and United still managed to silence Chelsea when it mattered.
They advanced into the last round of league games joined on 84 points, with United ahead on goal difference. Chelsea drew at home to Bolton and United won at Wigan (plus ça change), where Ryan Giggs came on to equal Sir Bobby Charlton's appearance record of 758 games.
Then the goliaths entered Russia and contested a final that proved how close they really were. Abramovich is still waiting for the one collector's piece that eludes his money. He's still in Moscow.