The long hard goodbye
Parting is supposed to be sweet sorrow, not an evening of perennial pain. Edwin van der Sar's career concluded with a final removal of the gloves that have thwarted strikers aplenty and a long, lonely trudge to join his suffering team-mates. The choruses of "one more year" had spread from terraces to dressing-room, expressing an emotion that was shared by fans and friends alike. Unheard at Wembley, the chant will now disappear from the repertoire, just as Van der Sar vacates his place in the Manchester United goal.
Barcelona's elegant executioners ensured the curtain came down ingloriously on one of the great goalkeeping careers. They are a leaving do's least appropriate guests. If the intention was to take his leave at the height of his powers, United's mighty Dutchman misjudged his exit by a week. Beaten at his near post by Pedro Rodriguez and conceding to a Lionel Messi shot that nestled tellingly near the middle of his goal, his was a day to suggest a footballing life ends at 40. At least he was blameless for David Villa's vicious curler.
Few can orchestrate their farewell to perfection. Some come within a match of departing on top, but France captain Zinedine Zidane's send-off came with an infamous sending off in the 2006 World Cup final. Four years later, Dutchman Giovanni van Bronckhorst's departure was dominated by the Spanish passers in a one-sided final. So, now, Van der Sar's can be added to the list.
Eras end, sometimes cruelly. Transition is a tradition at Manchester United, one often handled seamlessly, but this seemed an abrupt end. For Van der Sar, certainly, and Paul Scholes, probably; it is a measure of the 36-year-old's stature as a footballer, and it seemed altogether fitting, that he left the field with a shirt swapped with Andres Iniesta. His lap of honour was taken alone, a monosyllabic man looking deep in thought.
Scholes' cameo appeared a valedictory gesture granted by Sir Alex Ferguson. But the contradictions in the Scot's character go hand in hand: sentimentality was accompanied by brutality, with United's top scorer Dimitar Berbatov unceremoniously dumped from the squad. Indeed, when Michael Owen is preferred as a substitute for a match of this magnitude, it is hard to imagine a future at Old Trafford for the Bulgarian. The goodbyes, some public, some private, were handled differently but each ended in anguish.
So, too, did United's night. In Rome in 2009, and at Wembley on Saturday evening, they have enshrined the legend of Barcelona, affording their opponents greatness with an utter inability to disrupt the flow of their passing game (for most teams, distribution is a means to an end; for them it is an end in itself). Technically, Barcelona are terrific. Tactically, United were found wanting. Perhaps omitting Javier Hernandez and flooding the midfield would have sent out the wrong signal: that United could not win, that they harbour an inferiority complex where the iconoclastic Catalans are concerned.
So Ferguson went for the bold option, the comforting familiarity of 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1, the formation he has deployed in each of the four European finals he has won. With Hernandez seeming to spend his night offside, perhaps the pessimistic prognosis would have been the correct one, however, and a damage-limitation strategy would have spared them a mismatch. Instead, somehow level after a moment of buccaneering brilliance from Wayne Rooney, a change in tack was pondered, with Darren Fletcher preparing to come on, when Messi found Van der Sar wanting.
It was a belated first strike on English soil but a barely credible 138th goal in three seasons of club football. He is a mathematical marvel, a flair player who, despite the inevitable comparisons with Diego Maradona, mimics Gerd Muller's return in the penalty area.
The man of the match award was part of his reward for a coruscating display. Yet United were complicit in his dominance. Barcelona play between the lines, the space where Xavi flicked the ball through to Pedro for the opening goal and where a criminally unchallenged Messi was allowed to shoot for the second. That is a holding midfielder's domain, and Michael Carrick has often been given such a brief. Yet in a department where United were short-staffed by design, he is not the sole culprit.
Where United lacked an anchorman, Barcelona had two: Sergio Busquets in the midfield and Pep Guardiola in the technical area. Less than three years into a managerial career, he has already equalled a feat that has taken Ferguson 37 years: winning two Champions Leagues. He joins a band of 17 coaches with that distinction, along with all-time greats like Ernst Happel and Helenio Herrera and more overlooked figures such as Dettmar Cramer and Luis Carniglia.
Ferguson, of course, had the chance to emulate Bob Paisley with a personal hat-trick. The look of resignation on his face as he sat deep in his seat, leaving only Mike Phelan on the touchline, indicated he knew his chance had gone long before Eric Abidal was afforded the opportunity to raise the famously big-eared cup.
Barcelona, not United, completed a Wembley double in Europe. In its original incarnation, the twin towers witnessed Sir Matt Busby's crowning glory in 1968. Wembley was the beginning of the end for Busby, who retired (for the first time) 12 months later. Ferguson is unlikely to follow suit. He is a man who, no matter how much he has accomplished, always appears to have unfinished business. Perversely, a defeat as comprehensive as this will mean if not 'one more year', then several.