Barca machine tear United to shreds
"We're Man United, we do what we want," sing their fans.
It is possible that Barcelona have their own anthem of a similar message. And if they do not, then they should get one. The Catalan magicians have confirmed their greatness by despatching Manchester United in untouchable style. Just as they did two years ago, England's finest team were pulled apart, and an even harsher footballing lesson was received. They can offer no excuses, and did not offer them. To be beaten by a team of this quality will register as no disgrace once the pain has healed.
Sir Alex Ferguson has usually refused to speak of that night in Rome in 2009. Wembley is likely to be given the same treatment. Their game plan may have been carefully constructed but United again could not convert a good first ten minutes into their fourth European title. Instead, Barcelona climb above them to that total. Their first European Cup came here in 1992, in the old Empire Stadium, an extra-time winner from Ronald Koeman supplied after a night of jagged fingernails and blessed relief. No danger of that here, despite a Wayne Rooney goal that had United level at half-time. To reach the break at parity registered as a victory in itself for United, though cold comfort on a night when Ferguson sat dumbfounded for much of the game.
In contrast, Pep Guardiola prowled the touchline in constant animation while the sedentary Scot's tactics and team were blunted and eventually dissolved. Guardiola needn't have worried. Lionel Messi reconfirmed his primacy with a match-winning performance to equal Wembley's finest in its long history. At times, five men in white shirts surrounded the Argentine, yet the ball would usually reach its intended target. And Messi's supporting cast kept their end up in the fashion we have become used to: Xavi and Iniesta prompted and probed, while Pedro and David Villa scored their goals either side of their kingpin's.
Barcelona are a chance-creating machine; unlike the Spain team that won the World Cup featuring many of the same components, they do not settle for just one goal and then pass their opposition into submission. Chances arrive in droves. Pedro's opener arrived with an air of inevitability. Once Barcelona had grown into the game, United's last-ditch tackling, from the likes of Park Ji-Sung, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, could not last out.
Xavi's pass to Pedro and the winger's finish for the opening goal had a United defeat already looking most likely. Yet Rooney's equaliser supplied hope. To say it went against the run of play was a clear understatement, and the look on Sir Alex's face showed a disbelief shared by almost all in the stadium.
The goal could have come from the Pep Guardiola playbook. Rooney's one-twos with Carrick and Giggs supplied the Liverpudlian with the chance to deliver for his club on the grandest of occasions. He alone of Manchester United's players impressed himself on this match, his determination showing throughout, the quality that had looked lost earlier this season restored. By contrast, Javier Hernandez had a horrible night, clearly overawed, and too often offside. Had Darren Fletcher been near fitness, then perhaps the Mexican may have been spared his embarrassment, though the Scot's absence can never be used as the excuse it often has been for defeat in 2009.
It is difficult to see what United could have done to halt the waves of Barcelona attacks. The Red Devils' bench provided few clues. There was no place for Dimitar Berbatov, as Michael Owen, very few Manchester United fans' idea of a favourite, was a substitute in his stead. Berbatov has many defenders among the United diaspora, but it seems that his omission is confirmation that Ferguson is no longer among them. The Bulgarian joins Jim Leighton, Louis Saha, Park and more surprisingly Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson as being given the Ferguson axe for a big occasion. Berbatov may now find the decision easier to accept, though an exit door must beckon now.
United had tried to play a pressing game, but the best team at such a tactic is Barcelona. Once the Catalans had weathered what could barely be described as a storm, more a Manchester drizzle, they showed how it was done, their retention of possession always frustrating United, whose use of the ball was too often wasteful, usually as a result of a lack of options as Barca defended in numbers and high up the field.
"We tried to play as close as we could to how we normally play," said Ferguson, his face a picture of resignation, rather than the sourness he often displays in defeat. "It's alien for us to man-mark. But we never closed the midfield off to counter them. They do mesmerise you with their passing. We never controlled Messi, but many people have said that anyway."
"Lionel is the best player, I have seen," said Guardiola, perhaps unnecessarily confirming what was clear for all to see before stating his immediate future lies with Barcelona. "I am so happy to be here, but it is not an easy job. Now I have the intention to continue for one more year."
It perhaps suits Ferguson to accept defeat to a great team, and he was quick to pass on his admiration. "In my time, they're the best team we have faced," he enthused, though his voice also betrayed his disappointment. "Everyone acknowledges that. I accept that. No-one has given us a hiding like that. They deserve it because they play the right way. And they enjoy their football."
Few could disagree with such a summation coming from one of the game's greatest figures. "Next season, we all have a challenge with Barcelona," said Ferguson. "But it's no consolation to say you are a second-best team." In a footballing lifetime of challenges met and conquered, perhaps knocking Barcelona off, yes, their perch may represent the impossible for even Ferguson. For Europe's champions, the same again next year looks more than likely. Who can stop them?
FACES IN THE CROWD: Retired cricketer Andrew Flintoff could be seen availing himself of the delights Club Wembley had to offer. Shakira looked on at boyfriend Gerard Pique. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was in the Royal Box, to the usual indifference, and one spot from these eyes was former NME rock journo Charles Shaar Murray - one for the kids there.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Lionel Messi: A trite selection? Too easy to hand him the plaudits? Of course, but we are able to enjoy a player who has delivered twice in Champions League finals, though last time Iniesta bested him. This time, the runs were truly destructive, the ball stuck to his feet, as United faded in his wake. His goal owed much to an Edwin Van der Sar mistake, yet could only serve as just reward.
BARCELONA VERDICT: Tina Turner's 'Simply The Best' was played at Old Trafford last weekend. It has a better home at Camp Nou, where a team to match AC Milan of '89, '90, Ajax in the 70s, Bayern just after that, and the Real Madrid of the competition's early years is playing a brand of unstoppable football. A makeshift defence played well enough, but midfield and attack were far, far too good for United.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: This was hailed earlier in the season as the worst United team in a generation. They are certainly not that, and can rest on the laurels of a 19th title, but they could not impress on this match, despite Rooney's wonderful goal. Van der Sar and Hernandez had games to forget, while their team-mates worked hard and manfully but were unable to ever approach Barcelona's unearthly class.