For nine minutes, I was smug and self-satisfied, as well as disappointed. My pre-match predictions were being played out in front of my eyes; the men in all-white were on top, and the Catalans were struggling to adapt to the intensity of their play.
Victor Valdes had taken just thirty seconds to nervously prod a backpass from Gerard Piqué out of play, and Cristiano Ronaldo had already hit three shots at goal, one of which had drawn a less than authoritative stop from Valdes’ legs, with only Piqué preventing Park from burying the rebound.
Ronaldo, playing as he did against Arsenal in the semi-final as the focal point of Manchester United’s attack, seemed hell-bent on winning this game alone. Twice he shunned the option of Park on the right and went for glory- first with a speculative thirty yard strike that whistled well wide, and then with a driving run at goal which yielded a free kick for an untidy barge from Piqué.
When the Portuguese star had dragged another presentable chance past Valdes’ left hand post on eight minutes, United looked in almost total control, with Barcelona’s key men starved of possession and their makeshift defence–albeit one which contained more than a hundred international caps–was looking as porous as expected, with Valdes doing little to calm things down behind them.
And then, some possession for Barcelona. Andres Iniesta’s fitness was the topic of fevered debate in the run up to this final, and with one change of pace and crisp pass, he showed exactly why. His United contemporary, Anderson, had given the ball away with uncharacteristic haste in midfield, and Iniesta simply stepped through the gears to leave the Brazilian for dead, before slipping a simple pass to Samuel Eto’o in the inside right channel.
Nemanja Vidic appeared to have closed off the shooting angle but the Cameroonian striker, hopelessly out of sorts in front of goal of late, cut inside adroitly and poked low and hard inside Edwin Van der Sar’s near post as Carrick attempted to rescue the situation. Sucker punch.
The goal had a profound effect on the flow of the game. At no point from this moment on would United be in the ascendancy, even when controlled aggression was forced to turn to desperation in the second half. Wayne Rooney looked isolated and irritated stationed out wide, Park’s endeavour was matched by that of the former Arsenal left back, Sylvinho, limiting his influence hugely, whilst the midfield trio of Carrick, Anderson & Ryan Giggs, were simply starved of possession, meaning that when they did get the ball, often their only option was an ambitious pass for the pace of Ronaldo to chase.
Barcelona by contrast were slicking neatly into gear, Xavi & Iniesta, so quiet for the opening exchanges, began to run the game as if carrying a conductor’s baton, whilst the rookie Sergio Busquets alongside them displayed a maturity that belied his 20 years and 40 senior appearances to direct proceedings alongside them. In front of them Thierry Henry–another whose fitness had been a major issue in the Spanish (and English) press ahead of the game–was drifting all over the pitch, whilst Eto’o had switched from his starting position on the right, giving the imperious Lionel Messi freedom to roam infield at will.
It was from one of these increasingly-regular incursions that the Argentine almost doubled Barca’s lead with a 25 yarder of ferocious power that whistled inches over the crossbar. Xavi would go similarly close soon after with a free kick aimed for the postage stamp space of Van der Sar’s top right hand corner, which drifted wide.
For United, it looked as if only Ronaldo could provide any kind of spark, although it is also arguable that his determination to do things alone and constant demands for possession may well have affected the (in)efficiency of some of his colleagues. He was given plenty of space in the penalty area to meet Giggs’ left wing corner, but headed well over, before sending another effort wide of Valdes’ post with Rooney screaming for a ball inside.
Sir Alex Ferguson is not usually a man to emit fear with his tactical alterations, yet he opted to thrust Carlos Tevez into the action at half time for the ineffective, and perhaps overwrought, Anderson. Ferguson would have been hoping that the Argentine’s introduction may have sparked the kind of revival seen at Old Trafford last month when a two-goal first half deficit against Tottenham was wiped out with five goals in twenty second half minutes, but with Barcelona in buoyant mood such an episode was unlikely. Tevez joined Rooney in the anonymous corner within minutes of his entrance, and rarely ventured into enemy territory throughout a palpably flat second half.
Barcelona on the other hand were full of life, their passing was as clean and varied as we had come to expect, and they found gaps in United’s defensive setup almost at will. Henry gave Ferdinand twisted blood with one run down the left, which drew a smothering save from Van der Sar, whilst Iniesta’s carrying of the ball from deep worried Vidic sufficiently into the concession of a free kick which Xavi whipped against the base of the post.
It was one way stuff, Giggs & Carrick unable to get anywhere close enough to Barca’s midfield trio to impose any sort of authority on the game, whilst the raids of Puyol and even Sylvinho from full back were increasing in regularity and threat as the minutes ticked on, with neither John O’Shea nor Patrice Evra able to a) cope with the danger they were presented with, nor b) offer any sort of counter-threat of their own. The introduction of Dimitar Berbatov for Park was needed, but failed to inject the required composure and quality into their play.
In the event, it was Evra’s snatched and unnecessary clearance which gave Barcelona the possession from which eventually Xavi would clip in a beautifully flighted cross from the right onto the forehead of Messi. The Argentine, having drifted effortlessly in behind Ferdinand to meet the ball, guided a superb header back across Van der Sar and into his top left hand corner from ten yards, to all but seal the win. Much has been made of the little man’s failure to score against English opposition; little will be heard in that respect from now on.
United did manage to muster a couple of openings, Ronaldo thwarted by a brave block from Valdes after Tevez’s cut back had rolled across the six yard box invitingly, and Berbatov volleying the resultant corner well over, but their late contributions were of a more frustrated ilk as first Ronaldo, after a running battle with Puyol in which the Barça skipper produced some play-acting of his own, and then Scholes, who was lucky to avoid dismissal for a knee-jarring challenge on Busquets, entered Massimo Busacca’s notebook. In between, Puyol had been given two chances to add some extra lustre to the scoreline, first heading Xavi’s free kick straight at Van der Sar, and then seeing the Dutchman block at his feet as Xavi, Messi & Iniesta had opened up an increasingly under-populated defence with ease.
It would have been the cherry on the icing on the cake for the skipper, as fierce a Catalan as imaginable, to have put the seal on the club’s third European Cup success, and an unprecedented treble-winning season (in Spain at least), but alas Barca’s supporters were forced to settle for the most cosy of two goal margins, with United’s attack stifled so comprehensively you could have filed missing persons reports for Rooney. Or Tevez. Or Berbatov.
For Pep Guardiola it was the vindication, if ever it were needed, that his footballing idealisms should be treasured and revered and passed down. Barcelona played United off the park last night, just as they had done to pretty much every team they had faced this season (Chelsea fans outside Tom-Henning Ovrebo’s door will of course contest this). Just as they had done Numancia & Racing Santander in the opening two weeks of the season when they had picked up just a single point and people were daring to question whether they needed to find an alternative way of playing.
In Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, they had not only three of the top ten players in world football–according to FIFA–but three players schooled exclusively at the iconic La Masia training complex next to the Camp Nou, and brought up drenched in the Barcelona way. Pass, move, pass, move, pass, move. When you consider that Puyol, Piqué, Valdes, Busquets and even late substitute Pedro Rodriguez and the unused Bojan Krkic & Marc Muniesa, as well as Guardiola himself, have all come through this way, it makes the accomplishments even more remarkable. A Catalan success in Europe, at the end of a season in which Guardiola’s men really have been THE dream team.
For United, it is important to keep things in some kind of perspective. Ferguson was right in that Barcelona’s first goal was a sucker punch at the end of a first ten minutes that United had bossed, but he was also right to concede that his side were beaten by a superior team on the night. Of his players, only Ronaldo could have any real claim to having even approached his best form last night and, for all the Portuguese’s brilliance, that was never going to be sufficient against a Barcelona side in top form. The absence of harrying midfielders in Darren Fletcher, and the forgotten man Owen Hargreaves, may have played some role, but to talk up such absentees is to detract from the quality of their replacements.
It is easy to criticise tactics in the aftermath of a defeat, and Ferguson had used the same system to great effect against another pass and move side in the semi final, but Ronaldo may have had a point when he noted after the game that “our tactics were wrong”. In particular, the way in which Wayne Rooney was denied the chance to influence proceedings throughout. Marginalised almost from minute one last night, the natural move would have been to shift him infield, even to the head of the midfield trio perhaps, in order to get him on the ball. Instead he was left isolated out wide, caught offside when he attempted to get into the box, and sufficiently frustrated to have perhaps his most ineffectual European night in a United shirt. It was a sad sight to see.
Back to perspective however, it should not be lost that no side has managed to successfully defend the trophy since the inception of the Champions League format in 1992, and that United are the new owners of the record for most games undefeated in the competition (25), as well as being World Club champions, League Cup winners, and, of course, Champions of England for the eighteenth (grr) time. One defeat does not call for wholesale changes, those calling for the head of Berbatov, writing obituaries for Giggs & Scholes, and dissecting the praise handed out to the defence, would do well to remember this. And anyway, is there really any shame in losing to a side which played the way Barcelona have played this season?