No answer to Barca genius
Sir Alex's side left chasing shadows as brilliant Catalans boss Wembley showpiece
By Alex Dunn. Last Updated: 28/05/11 11:48pm
History repeated itself at Wembley as Manchester United were left chasing Barcelona's shadow in a European Cup final, with Pep Guardiola's side producing another masterclass in reclaiming the UEFA Champions League with a deserved 3-1 victory in the capital.
United went into half-time level after Wayne Rooney had exquisitely equalised Pedro's opener for Barcelona but after the interval had to concede to their opponent's collective and individual genius, as Lionel Messi and David Villa both etched their names on the scoresheet.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side were spirited throughout but in the end had no answer to a Barcelona team that plays a brand of football that is unparalleled in the modern game in terms of its majestic simplicity.
Before a ball had even been kicked, both coaches had demonstrated possessing backbones made of iron in making unsentimental and unflinching team selections. For United, top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov was afforded not even a place on the substitutes' bench, with Michael Owen surprisingly preferred to the 21-goal Bulgarian to provide striking back-up for Rooney and Javier Hernandez.
In resisting the urge to start with the fit-again Darren Fletcher, the Scot remained true to his promise of trading blows with Barca, when many had predicted he would box clever and utilise his compatriot in a tight midfield five designed to hustle as far up the field as possible.
Guardiola sprung an even bigger shock when leaving out the club's heartbeat and captain Carles Puyel, with the Caveman of Catalunya left to lick his wounds on the bench as Javier Mascherano was selected alongside Gerard Pique at centre-half.
As the atmosphere simmered inside a stadium that housed both clubs' first European Cup wins, in 1968 and 1992 respectively, the inclusion of Eric Abidal in Barcelona's starting XI despite only having recently returned to playing after a battle with liver cancer provided a human element to proceedings that put into perspective Bill Shankly's infamous quip about life, death and its relation to football.
The opening sparring almost held up a mirror to the game which ensued in Rome two years' ago as United snarled out of the traps with a collective curled lip. The omnipresent Park ji-Sung was like a dog with a bone in gnarling at the legs of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, while Hernandez's infectious workrate and clever movement in the lines between Pique and Mascherano gave Barcelona plenty to ponder.
Twice Victor Valdes was forced to race off his line after first Edwin van der Sar's huge clearance up field and then Ryan Giggs' more subtle threaded pass threatened to get United in behind.
As if bristled by United's brio, Barcelona soon awoke from their relative slumber to engineer chances of their own. Trademark pockets of pretty football had United at full stretch as Rio Ferdinand had to show immaculate timing on Villa to dispossess the Spaniard with his left boot cocked to strike, before Van der Sar gathered smartly as the same player looked to shoot across him from Xavi's cute pass.
Such is the precision of Xavi's passing it looks as though he has worked them out beforehand with a protractor and so it proved as Guardiola's on-field lieutenant began to dictate from the centre of the field.
It was, though, from the right that he fashioned Barca's first genuine chance as his low cross saw Pedro dart in front of Vidic before pulling the ball wide, while Villa set his sights from range before arching one a yard or so wide.
With United looking punch drunk if not quite on the ropes, Vidic had to pull off his finest Bobby Moore, circa '66 impersonation, with Messi in full flow on the edge of the box. Respite proved only to be momentary.
With rhythmic fluidity Barcelona forged ahead in the 27th minute of an engaging first half, which Guardiola's side very much bossed in terms of possession.
Iniesta found tormentor-in-chief Xavi in the peripheral space between defence and midfield and with United's back four uncertain whether to go to the ball or back off, Barcelona struck with the clinical precision of a Mafioso hit-man.
Pedro's darting run into the space vacated by Patrice Evra's decision to track Messi was expertly found by Xavi's slide-rule pass and after wrong footing Van der Sar with his eyes, the finish was beautiful in its simplicity.
With Messi, The Flea, dropping his shoulder at will and ghosting into dangerous areas United's players looked as though they might have to resort to using a rolled-up newspaper to stop him.
If United were to exorcise the spectre of Rome an immediate response was required. Rooney had the answer.
After dropping deep close to Barcelona's left touchline he exchanged short passes with Carrick before making inroads towards Barca's box. There was a suspicion of off-side when he stabbed the ball into the path of Hernandez but when the Mexican found his team-mate with a return pass there was nothing uncertain about Rooney's finish as he empathically wrapped his boot around the ball to send it high beyond Valdes from the penalty spot.
Barcelona were right to be shocked such was their ascendancy at that stage but still they kept playing their football as the effervescent Messi eased past Vidic with a gorgeous nutmeg before just failing to meet Villa's return pass on the stretch.
If United were happy to hear the half-time whistle to regroup the words of their manager proved fruitless, as after the interval Barcelona set about living up to their mantle as one of the world's greatest ever club sides.
Like an express train they made United look like a more prosaic steam model in comparison, as a buccaneering Dani Alves forced Van der Sar to save with his feet after Messi's pass had carved United open again.
As if hypnotised by Barcelona's almost abstract understanding of space and how to find it, United had no answers to their incessant forward forays.
Messi's 53rd goal in the 53rd minute of the final game of a most remarkable of seasons owed little to their famed passing, but rather the Argentine's innate ability to conjure something from nothing. As United backed off, Messi made a yard before unleashing a rocket of a daisy-cutter from around 20-yards that beat Van der Sar all ends up.
There was to be no answer this time. Instead Barcelona treated the ball expertly, caressing it around the field - teasing United's players as an alley cat would a wounded field mouse.
Just shy of the 70-minute mark, Messi turned from goalscorer to architect as he laid on a stunning third for Villa. Bewitching Evra on the left flank he cut inside United's box at speed. As Nani failed to clear, Sergio Busquets was allowed to nudge into the path of Villa, whose curling finish into the top corner from the edge of the area was no less than a masterpiece.
United never let their heads drop as Rooney scooped onto the top of the net and Giggs cried penalty when striking the ball onto the hand of Villa but in truth, Ferguson must have known this was a bridge too far, even for a Manchester United side famed for its ability to conjure miracles in the face of adversity.Paul Scholes and Puyol were handed touching cameos but the likely last game in the Manchester United legend's career will be remembered for Barcelona's brilliance in claiming a fourth European crown. It was one they richly deserved.
|Barcelona||Team Statistics||Manchester United|
|1||1st Half Goals||1|
|12||Shots on Target||1|
|4||Shots off Target||2|
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|1||Paris St Germain||6||13|
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Kings of Europe
Eric Abidal expressed his gratitude after Barca gave him the honour of lifting the Champions League trophy.
Nani has urged Dimitar Berbatov not to turn his back on Manchester United despite his UEFA Champions League final snub.
Man United's Patrice Evra has admitted Barcelona have been the best side in the world for the past four years.