Sometimes, you have to wonder. Levels of fitness and skill have no doubt improved in football over the last couple of decades, but perhaps today was the day during which we started to lose grip with reality. Every British newspaper had a pull-out section, many choosing to lavish extravagant praise on a match that hadn’t even been played yet. But anyone that knows anything about football knows that the sums on the pitch don’t necessarily equal the parts. You can, on any weekend, turn up at a park pitch and there is a chance that you will see a more entertaining match played out between two sweaty teams of forty year-olds with beer guts than you might see on a Saturday afternoon in the Premier League. It’s part of the intrinsic beauty of football.
For all of that, I can understand why the press got so excited. For all of the cynicism brought about by three decades of watching the game, Manchester United against Barcelona in the Champions League final was always going to release our inner eight year old and make most of us go, “Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Foooootball!”. I suspect that it’s part of the reason why we still watch it when we’re old enough to know better. Tonight, though, Alex Ferguson – who has ridden his luck in all three of his previous European Cup finals – finally saw providence shine elsewhere. Tonight, the doubts over Barcelona washed away like ink running off the pages of the newspapers that had even suggested that there had a conspiracy that put them in the final. Tonight, Barcelona ruled Europe.
How long did it take for the mask to fall from Manchester United’s face? They started as confidently and swaggeringly as might have expected, taking pot-shots and stroking the ball around, and Barcelona momentarily looked as if they were blinded by the bright lights of the biggest stage in world football. This, though, was merely opening night nerves, and after ten minutes Manchester United were sliced apart. Andres Iniesta surged forward from an anonymous position in midfield and passed to Samuel Eto’o. Eto’o span inside Nemanja Vidic and drove the ball under Edwin Van Der Saar to give Barcelona the lead.
Within ten minutes, the tempo of the match had been spun entirely on its head. Barcelona were pushing United back into corrners, plugging every gap and reducing the defending champions into long, aimless balls towards Rooney when such balls didn’t make any sense. The rest of the first did half did present chances, of sorts. Xavi shot just wide from twenty-five yards whilst, at the other end, Park Ji-Sung chased down a thirty/seventy ball with the Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes and almost took his kneecap off with this slightly late challenge. On the whole, though, it remained like a sparring match, in no small part because Barcelona were so completely in control of the centre of the pitch.
If Barcelona had been sparring in the first half, they came out in the second half like a world heavyweight champion seeking a quick knock-out. Henry forces a good save from Van Der Saar, and then Xavi’s free kick is deflected onto the post. Alex Ferguson’s reaction to Manchester United being so overrun in midfield was, it has to be said, a somewhat radical one. He removed the Manchester United midfield. Park was replaced by Dimitar Berbatov, meaning that United were effectively playing a 4-2-4 formation with just over of a quarter of the match still to play. It was a rare smack of desperation from the Manchester United manager, but any optimism didn’t last very long. With twenty minutes to play came another flurry of quick passing from Barcelona that fed Xavi on the right. Xavi’s cross looked momentarily as if it was too high for Lionel Messi, but Messi rose remarkably to plant a perfect header over Van Der Saar to kill the game off.
Or, at least, it almost did. Within a minute, Manchester United almost worked a route back into the game. Tevez’s cross fell for Ronaldo, but the World Player of The Year dillied and dallied, and the ball was smothered to safety by a combination of goalkeeper and defenders. From here on, the only answer that Manchester United’s frustrated players had was anger. Either of both of Paul Scholes and Nemanja Vidic could have been sent off for bad tackles on Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi respectively. By the final five minutes, the Barcelona supporters were already celebrating their win, and the full-time whistle was almost a relief. There could be no question that the better team had won by a mile.
Alex Ferguson has been out-thought and out-played this evening. Pep Guardiola, terrifyingly for someone of my age, is thirty-eight years old. Guardiola’s triumph is an extraordinary one, a team necessarily patched up because of injury and suspension brought to life through sheer tactical acumen. Manchester United can ponder the what if of Darren Fletcher. He was much, much missed this evening, but the question remains of how much of a difference he might have made. Manchester United, for all of the attacking options that they had at their fingertips, were stymied by a team that simply cut off the supply line and refused to allow them to dominate the crucial middle third of the pitch. This match may not have reached the unrealistic expectations that we built up for it, but there can be no doubt that Barcelona are the best football team in Europe tonight, at least.