Manchester United and Barcelona at Wembley, then. These are two clubs whose European histories have become interwoven with each other as well as this venue. When Manchester United became the first English club to win the European Cup, they did so at Wembley in 1968. Twenty-four years later, Barcelona won it for the first time at the same venue. A year earlier, they had played each other in the final of the European Cup Winners Cup final, in a match that Manchester United won – another step in the rehabilitation of the club that, at the time, had not won its domestic league in over twenty years. With their place at the head of the Premier League hegemony established, confirmation of their ascendency in European football came at Camp Nou, and two years ago Barcelona swatted them aside in the final of this very competition.
The capital of England, then, is hosting the biggest club match of the season and no stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of a cliche to match the event. Guardsmen wearing busbys stomp from the pitch as the players come out, Barcelona in red and blue and Manchester United in that peculiar white and black change kit reminiscent of the sort of thing that a Sunday League team might have worn during the late 1990s. Appearances, however, can be deceptive, and Manchester United start brightly, a little as if Barcelona have not quite realised that the match has started. A long ball over the top in the direction of Wayne Rooney forces Valdes to meet him and clear. When Barcelona do wake up, though, a now-familiar sight starts to manifest itself in front of us – tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-shoot. Every time they move to pass, they have an option. Never crowded out, they play nothing complicated, merely simple football played brilliantly, excrutiatingly well.
There are chances prior to the opening goal, of course. David Villa tests Edwin Van Der Saar twice in the space of a minute. In the space of a shade over ten minutes, the match has spun upon its head and Barcelona are now in control. Lionel Messi bursts into the penalty area but is stopped in full flow by Nemanja Vidic. It’s getting closer to the extent that it feels if, if you cupped your ear, you could hear it squeaking. And with twenty-seven minutes, the dam breaks. Xavi bursts forward and rolls the ball back for Pedro, who thrashes the ball in at the near post. It feels at this stage as if this is a step too far for Manchester United, that Alex Ferguson has this time had the skill level for the match set a notch too high. But then, from thin air, United pull something out of the bag. Wayne Rooney surges forward and rolls the ball to the hitherto anonymous (hur hur) Ryan Giggs, who returns it, allowing Rooney to curl the ball beautifully around Valdes and in. With this goal, everything quietens down and chances are thin on the ground. Half-time arrives with the teams still level, but for how much longer can Manchester United stem this tide?
Nine minutes, is the answer. The warning signs are, again, clear. Dani Alves breaks into the penalty area and sees his shot blocked by Van Der Saar, and Messi’s rebound is cleared a couple of minutes. Then, it comes. Lionel Messi shuffles forward to twenty-five yards out and the Manchester United defence, inexplicably, doesn’t react quickly enough to close him down. His low, swerving shot curls into the net. From here on, the match is won. They move the ball around the pitch like a croupier pushing chips on a poker table. We all know how strong Manchester United are, but a football team is only as good as it can be when it has the ball. How they can get the ball and maintain possession of it, however, is not easily answerable. Barcelona are slipping from sight, and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. Messi breaks into the penalty area and is hustled from the ball. It falls to Busquets, who rolls the ball for David Villa, who takes one touch, composes himself and bends the ball around Van Der Saar for goal number three.
A second Manchester United goal may still set their nerves jangling, but we would probably have to wait quite a long time for it this evening. With the match effectively killed stone dead, they continue to push forward in the futile search for something to drag themselves back into the match, but the drawbridge has has been pulled up and there is no way back for them. They even have time to bring Carlos Puyol, missing from the first team tonight, on for a cameo five minues at the very end. When the full-time whistle blows, one is not wondering whether United might have been able to do differently to change the course of this evening, but how much worse for them it might have been. The icing on the cake comes as the team goes to collect the trophy at the end; it is Eric Abidal, seventy-two days after surgery to remove a tumor on his liver, who lifts it for them. He couldn’t be more deserving of the honour. His team couldn’t be more deserving of their trophy.
What solace can Manchester United take from this match? It’s slim pickings, but perhaps the best that can be said is that there is no football team in the world that could have lived with this performance tonight, and that it could have been considerably worse than it was. Barcelona, meanwhile, were unassailable this evening. They made one of the best teams in Europe look, as they have seemed to do with so many of their opponents this season, look like the seventy-third best team in Europe. There are no more superlatives. This was one of the defining performances of our generation. The question for the rest of European football is a simple, yet perhaps unanswerable one: what the hell will anybody be able to do about them next season?
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