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So near and yet so far

Rome has long treasured its Spanish Steps. Now the Italian capital is notable, too, for a Catalan leap. Barcelona have propelled themselves to the summit of European and world football and to a new peak.

Twice winners in four years, they have supplanted Manchester United as the Champions League's foremost side. Twice rewarded for their ethos, the incorrigible idealists can parade their principles with pride. Pep Guardiola's side have prizes to accompany the plaudits, Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi's goals completing a treble and, perhaps, indicating a shift in the balance of power.

Thoughts that Manchester United might establish an era of continental supremacy have receded, replaced by the impression that the most gifted group of players on the planet are found rather nearer the Mediterranean than the Manchester Ship Canal.

England has provided nine semi-finalists in three seasons, but just the one winner. Barcelona may stand virtually alone against the Premier League artillery, but theirs is an elegant and effective defiance. To win the Champions League deprived of a quartet of defenders is an immense achievement, but it is one made possible by the philosophy of Guardiola's side. A mastery of passing rendered defending an irrelevance for large swathes of the match. A game-plan in keeping with the club's traditions and executed by the men tutored by Guardiola in his days as Barcelona captain, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, was their type of triumph.

They can be accused of taking the moral high ground when discussing their style of play, but beauty is not just in the eye of the beholders; it is in the feet of the creators and Barcelona boast a surfeit of them. Brian Clough's famous reasoning why there isn't grass in the sky applied. Barca played the ball where it belongs - on the floor, rarely hoisting it high.

The magnificent Iniesta proved as influential as Xavi had been in Vienna 10 months before in a similarly eloquent display of supremacy. Much like Spain's triumph in Euro 2008, this was a reminder that size isn't everything. The high fives in the warm-up weren't all that high, with Yaya Toure, Gerard Pique and Thierry Henry towering over their team-mates. Not, of course, that a lack of inches prevented Messi from heading in Barcelona's second goal, though the quality of Xavi's cross helped account for it.

Similarly, Iniesta's beautifully weighted ball preceded Eto'o's strike. In contrast, even United's most accomplished distributors, such as Michael Carrick, over-hit passes after the seismic shock of the early concession. Nine minutes of engaging attacking was ended by Eto'o's opener and thereafter Barcelona brought a rhythm to their play, a confidence in their technique and a surplus of options lending an enviable ease to many of their moves.

In the process, they displayed the difficulty of retaining the Champions League. Domestic dominance is a specialist subject, but AC Milan remain the last team to conquer Europe in successive seasons. Though their left-back in those halcyon days, Paolo Maldini, is yet to retire, they are distant days, before a young Catalan debuted for Barcelona.

But this completed a staggering first year at the helm for Guardiola. He was three years old when his United counterpart began his remarkable managerial career; his contemporary is Darren, not Sir Alex, Ferguson. The senior Scot always has something to spur him on, and this should provide another.

Notions of invincibility have been cruelly dashed. Like 1999, 2009 brought a treble, but the most important component of the earlier trio was lacking: the Champions League. And eventually United's season became a microcosm of Ferguson's career, one of extraordinary longevity, with historic achievements and where every setback prompts a stronger response and the feeling persists that, no matter how much he has achieved, there is still more to accomplish.

After a 66-game season, the 67-year-old remains one European Cup behind Bob Paisley and must retain his view his side could have achieved more on the continental stage.

They could have mustered more in the final third. An adventurer to the last, Ferguson finished the game with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez and Paul Scholes in harness without threatening to emulate Barcelona. The Portuguese, spearhead and showman, began with five efforts at goal in the first quarter. He ended it part of a strangely incoherent performance, with frustration the common denominator among the supposed Fab Four.

Neither Tevez nor Berbatov proved the catalyst for a comeback. When judgments are made on the basis of the very biggest games, that might prompt a rethink. Results suggest this has been a vintage season, but varying conclusions can be drawn from the performances. Ferguson's three greatest teams, those of 1994, 1999 and 2008 - the last, of course, very similar in personnel to the current crop - all produced more free-flowing displays over the course of the entire campaign.

There have been a cluster of outstanding displays, including both legs of the semi-final against Arsenal and the Premier League demolition of Chelsea, but they were vastly outnumbered by wins of admirable professionalism and defensive proficiency.

When their excellence at the back deserted them on the biggest stage, Barcelona benefited. When Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic floundered, Eto'o and co. capitalised. Manchester United's record 25-game unbeaten run in the Champions League followed one defeat in Italy, against AC Milan; a second ended their reign as champions.

Deserving winners and delightful passers, Barcelona displaced them. For a perfectionist such as Ferguson, they now represent the ultimate.


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