Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United

Deja vu?

May 29, 2011
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

Where shall we start? With a touch of French perhaps? Déjà vu? Plus ça change? Sir Alex Ferguson had claimed before the final at Wembley that his team were more mature, more versatile than the one so rudely pushed aside in Rome two years ago, but the reality that unfolded in London was that Barcelona's self-assurance and faith in their own approach was a step too far for any improvements that Manchester United might claim to have made.

Eric Abidal was given the honour of lifting the Champions League trophy
GettyImagesEric Abidal was given the honour of lifting the Champions League trophy

• Guardiola to stay at champions Barca
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• Jolly: The long hard goodbye

The game began as a spooky re-run of Rome, with United swarming all over the Catalan outfit, but the only difference this time was that it took Pedro 27 minutes to score, seventeen minutes later than Eto'o had managed the last time around. United equalised as well, but good though the goal was (we'll overlook Giggs' offside position) it always seemed like a misprint in the script, like a temporary and mildly interesting distraction in an otherwise predictable plot. And just in case Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and company required any official placing in the pantheon of the greats, Wembley provided the public endorsement, in front of a 300 million worldwide audience.

Barcelona's fourth Champions League title was won with probably their best performance in any of the finals, all the more impressive because of the opposition, whose confidence and morale were sky-high after yet another Premier League title, and who are stocked with players apparently capable of troubling Europe's best - on the evidence so far in this season's competition. And yet it all fizzled out again, as if Ferguson had no Plan 'B', other than buzz around for a bit and try to knock them off their stride. But what if they got into their stride? There has hardly been a game this season in which Barcelona haven't. So when United began to chase shadows, they were suddenly faced with a scenario that the safe haven of the Premier League rarely permits them to experience - a lack of possession, with the opposition swarming all over them for the best part of the ninety minutes. It looked demoralising from where I was sitting, but it must have been even worse down on the turf.

I watched both the English and Spanish TV coverage, and at half-time the former pundits were still convinced that United could win the game. It seemed a reasonable assessment, given the random nature of the universe, and the probability that anything, anywhere, can happen. But good though Barcelona were, and easy though it is to pick holes in United's inability to stem the tide, I nevertheless fond it odd that Dimitar Berbatov was not even one of the substitutes.

Since Javier Hernandez hardly got a touch, it seemed pointless to have an older and less confident version of him (Michael Owen) on the bench. What United needed was someone who could help Rooney in his valiant but fruitless attempts to get the ball under control and begin to cause the Catalan defence to think a little more. Owen was unlikely to do that, but the Bulgarian might have troubled them more, with his ability to hold the ball and bring players into the game. Park Ji-Sung huffed and puffed as he always does, but in the end it's futile against Barcelona. You need to fight quality with quality, and Anderson might have been a better bet, at least for the final half-hour. In similar retrospect, Nani might have been more useful too, but right from the start.

But any analysis of the game will always clutch at straws. Maybe the first two Barcelona goals could have been prevented, but when you're under constant pressure, when the opposition always appears to have multiple options to offer to the man with the ball, you're going to make a mistake sooner or later. Whilst on the subject, I thought Edwin Van de Saar's distribution was poor in his final game for United. It might not matter in the Premier League, but at this sort of level, building from the back is crucial. Nobody seemed to have told him that the big hoofs downfield would inevitably end up at Barcelona feet.

At one point in the second half, when Messi exchanged passes with Xavi and David Villa and emerged from what seemed an impossibly tight situation, Barcelona looked like a plague of tiny oompa loompas, swarming around the pitch and running through the legs of the giants Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. The Serbian actually played well, but made a telling point to the commentator who thrust a mike under his nose after the final whistle. "They don't play with a striker" he rued, almost quizzically, as if this were a sudden revelation. Bingo. They certainly don't. Which is why playing with two deep-lying centre-backs is always going to allow the Catalans even more freedom on the ball than they normally enjoy, and isolating your own striker (Hernandez) in the vain hope that he might get some scraps to feed on just takes another body out of the equation.

Meanwhile, Barcelona remain compact, with at least five oompa loompas always close to the ball, always stealing it back immediately on the rare occasions it goes astray. Unless you can match their shape, and to give United credit they tried, you will sink under the relentless tempo of this wonderful team.

At times this season, Barcelona have become almost boring in their tiki-taka tendencies, their obsessive possession game and their killing of the opposition in a sort of death-by-hypnosis. But here they were fantastic, combining the slow-slow stuff with sudden vertical pincer movements, pushing up their full-backs and flooding United's half with a myriad of perpetually-motioned options.

Sir Alex Ferguson looked lost at times
GettyImagesSir Alex Ferguson regularly takes his United squad to the United States pre-season

Sir Alex Ferguson, after David Villa's third goal, seemed to stop chewing his gum and just stared into space, as if paralysed by this sudden thing called inferiority. He was effusive and kind to Pep Guardiola afterwards, which was nice to see, but you could almost see him thinking 'Ok - this is the guy I hand the reins over to'. Or he might have just realised that the man 29 years his junior had just pushed him into finally contemplating retirement. We shall see. On this evidence, the best of La Liga is on a different planet from the best of the Premier League. But Barcelona would seem to be an historic exception, a one-off. The rest of La Liga can't cope either, so nobody should worry too much. The only question that remains is how long their reign can last.

Leo Messi finally scored on English soil, but it beggars belief that he is still only 23. He seems to have been around for ever, but it also beggars belief that he can still get better. It doesn't really matter if he fails to improve, since another five years at this level of performance will ensure his place on the very top of the pantheon of the greats, assuming he's not already there. With the Wembley goal, he equalled Ruud van Nistlerooy's record of twelve goals in a single Champions campaign and continued his rather useful tendency to score on important occasions, particularly against teams that begin with 'M'. Madrid is the other one - remember them?

Talking of 'M', the tabloid Marca, who normally accompany any Catalan achievement with the headline 'Mourinho walks his dog', were more effusive than is their wont, headlining the word 'Futbol' and continuing with 'Club Barcelona', in a surprisingly generous recognition of the truth. The only consolation is that Barcelona's achievement at drawing level on titles with Ajax and Bayern still leaves them five behind Real Madrid, but the new Dreamier Team has little intention of stopping here.

Finally, it only remains to say that the winners' spirit and togetherness cannot be overlooked as a factor in their success. The fact that Eric Abidal played the whole game, only 72 days after being operated on for a liver tumour was in itself a measure of Guardiola's man-management - (others might have preferred not to take the risk) but then handing Abidal the captain's armband to lift the trophy represented an enormous gesture of generosity on Carles Puyol's part, a player who has been the artifice, in many ways, of the development of this squad - the backbone that has held the other parts together. That he should deny himself the opportunity of the historic footage of first holding the cup says it all really. One day there'll be a statue of Puyol in the Plaça de Catalunya. One can only hope that he never gets a haircut, so that his heavy-metal locks will dance in the Catalan breeze for all time.