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The Champions League Final: or how Manchester United gave Barcelona a helping hand



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Stephen O’Sullivan points out that if you’re playing the best team in the world, it’s never a good idea to make it easy for them.

The Manchester United players and staff queued up last night to hail Barcelona as, amongst other things, the best team they’d ever seen; Rio Ferdinand (“they were the deserving winners”), Nemanja Vidic (“we have never played against a team like Barcelona”), even Alex Ferguson himself (“I think it is the best team we have ever played”), all going on record praising their conquerors. It’s little wonder Dani Alves repeatedly called United “caballeros” (gentlemen)  on Spanish TV afterwards. Of course it’s all true, to an extent, but it would be a huge mistake for United to completely free themselves of responsibility for what happened last night. What you would hope will haunt United’s players over their summer holidays, will be that they gave Barca all the help they possibly could.

All three goals came from individual errors. Patrice Evra and Antonio Valencia didn’t even look like professional footballers. Edwin Van Der Sar was strangely panicky from kick off, and seemingly some heads were gone before the game even began –  maybe even Alex Ferguson’s. Like the disastrous Bayern Munich game in Old Trafford last season, Ferguson froze when things started going wrong. The image that night, of him and Mike Phelan staring silently at the match after Robben had made it 3-2, was a powerful one. As heads were going at 2-1 last night, Ferguson cut a similar figure, and brought on Nani and Paul Scholes far too late to make a difference. The worst of all their failings last night, was that United essentially gave up after the third goal, a shocking reaction from a team whose self-belief so often defines them.

That all said, nothing happens on a football pitch without a reason. United gave up because they were mesmerised, rocked and depressed; not just by Barcelona’s ball retention, but their constant threat. Valencia was dreadful presumably because the occasion got to him, but it’s not his fault Ferguson left him on the pitch. As for the goals, Evra was unforgivably out of position for Barcelona’s first because he’s been like that all season and needs to get his head together. Van Der Sar got his feet dreadfully wrong and was beaten by a shot straight down the middle of his goal, because his defence froze and gifted Lionel Messi a shot the Dutchman wouldn’t have expected. For the third, United won the ball back and then helpfully returned it inside their own box because their heads were gone, Barca had reduced them to panic.

So, yes, all individual errors, but largely caused by being faced with a team of genius. Under near constant mental stress, individual United players cracked. I’ve written before about the myth that United were taken apart in Rome two years ago. This time there’s no doubt: Barcelona controlled, dominated, mesmerised, whereas the English champions were awful.

In a way we should be grateful for Barcelona. We’re all getting to see a truly great team, likely the best ever, and despite their occasionally nefarious tactics, they play football in the right way. Remember, it was less than ten years ago that the likes of Porto and Liverpool were winning the Champions League, Greece winning the Euros, a desperately poor Brazil team winning the 2002 World Cup. The game was crying out for a real team to step forward, and now it’s happened with Barcelona and Barcelona B (or the Spain national team as it’s also known).

Greatness in sport should be admired, and we should always feel privileged to witness it. It’s also pleasing that Barca’s complete dominance has nothing to do with tactics, a topic that is getting increasing and ridiculous emphasis in modern football analysis: Barca are the best because they work harder than everyone else and are better on the ball than everyone else. It’s that simple and that complicated.

Still, I can’t help feel like I did when Roger Federer was dominating tennis a few years ago: he was so much better than everyone else, it removed all interest from the sport for me. I think everyone, probably even an ABU, would be happier this morning if United hadn’t gifted Barcelona so much and had given them more of a match.

The question turns to how exactly someone is going to stop them. For United, who along with Real Madrid are the team with most chance of doing it, it seems simply a matter of players. Carrick did the best he could last night, but United (and almost every other team in the Premiership for that matter) don’t have a midfielder with the moral courage to keep showing for the ball and take the responsibility for moving his team up the pitch. United dominated the first ten minutes, also had a lot of half-opportunities in the final twenty minutes, but that’s all they were: half-opportunities. They didn’t have the aforementioned midfielder or the guy with enough cuteness in the final third to hurt a Barcelona defence clearly uncomfortable under pressure.

Unfortunately, Alex Ferguson mused after the game about whether it was possible to find players like Messi, Iniesta (who was nothing short of astonishing) and Xavi and concluded wearily, “Probably not.” That’s the issue for everyone else. There aren’t players like those three anywhere. He also acknowledged Barcelona as the best team he’s ever faced with the proviso that “success goes in cycles”. Frank Rijkaard’s superb Barcelona team caught Galactico disease a few years back, it’s possible this one will too. Though, I somehow doubt it.

So what’s there to conclude? Certainly, we should celebrate Barcelona and all the good things they represent, but there were two sides to the equation last night: United’s poor things, Barca’s good things. United couldn’t get the ball because Barcelona play with telepathic precision and the calmest heads in world football, but United didn’t work hard enough or track their players. United couldn’t hurt them in possession because Barcelona worked and pressed constantly, but then again United were careless and panicky. Barcelona scored because of individual mistakes as much as their own precise finishing.

In fact, United’s only source of solace is that Wayne Rooney’s goal was the best of the night, caused by incision and ruthlessness; thinking and acting faster than their opponents. Also, the most astonishing moment of the match, for me, was Vidic’s near-impossible dispossession of Messi in the United box first half when a goal seemed certain.

Football’s a beautiful, simple game: control the ball when you have it, work hard when you don’t. That’s what Barcelona do. And if someone wants to beat them, they’ll have to start by removing all the poor things from the equation.