Every Barcelona team aspires to Cruyff’s Dream Team, which won the Champions League with Pep Guardiola in the side in 1992 at Wembley Stadium. Aspire with very little hope of fully emulating. Except now, this Barcelona generation has gone one better by winning two Champions Leagues, both against Manchester United, the second fittingly enough in Wembley.
With a 3-1 win over Manchester United, Barca has won three consecutive La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues, one Copa Del Rey, and the FIFA Club World Cup since Guardiola became coach three years ago.
The match to cap off the European season didn’t disappoint. The first half was tense, poised on knife-edge, as both sides displayed the quality and verve expected of Champions League finalists. It was some of the most compelling football seen all season.
Manchester United, eager to press high, even dominated the opening 10 minutes. Slowly, however, Barcelona slipped back into the passing groove and dominated possession, finishing with 68% of possession.
Barca made the first breakthrough. Xavi (who else?) found Pedro with the outside of his boot, threading the pass through a sea of United jerseys. Pedro sent Edwin van der Sar – making his last professional appearance – left while tucking the ball right.
Unlike two years ago, when these sides met in Rome, Manchester United didn’t lose heart. Wayne Rooney hit back nearly immediately with a sumptuous blast after a neat one-two with Ryan Giggs.
The sides played out a thrilling rest of the half, before heading down to the dressing rooms without any injury time. No one knew what to expect in the second half. Except maybe Guardiola.
Javier Mascherano of all people made a run into the United box from the get-go, and Barca hardly gave up the ball for the next quarter hour. Slowly they suffocated Man Utd, asphyxiating the play around the United box. There was a cruel, smothering nature to it.
Lionel Messi, whose runs had been ripping through United’s backline, scored the eventual winner, thumping a long-range shot home after no one closed him down in time. It was Messi’s first goal in England, and well worth the wait, given its impact.
Then, Messi’s mazy run into the box wasn’t dealt with by substitute Nani, who coughed up the ball in his own 18 to Sergio Busquets. Busquets laid the ball back to David Villa, who sent a curling shot into the top right corner. 3-1 and the game was iced.
Manchester United threw on Paul Scholes and chased the game, but it was beyond them. A few half-chances hardly compared with the shots Barca were creating on the break, and eventually the referee blew the final whistle.
Despite Carles Puyol wearing the armband (Xavi had started with it) for the last few minutes of the game, Eric Abidal lifted the Champions League trophy following the match. Barcelona, always a club to make the sentimental choice, has rallied around the Frenchman, who underwent liver surgery just a few short weeks ago, and had been questionable to start the match.
Gerard Pique bizarrely cut down the goal net for a peculiar souvenir. But the lasting gift to football fans is a dynasty which will certainly rate among the top five club sides of all time, having overtaken the Dream Team. We won’t see anyone as good for a very long time.