28 May, 2009

Final justice

The Champions League final was over before it began. Going into the game Manchester United were, for better or for worse, red-hot favourites, with critics pointing to the semi-final dismantling of an Arsenal team who, like Barce, know only one way to play. To make matters worse for the Catalans, they were missing three out of their four first-choice defenders and as such, were forced into incorporating midfielder Yaya Toure and the aging Carlos Puyol in unfamiliar defensive roles. Targeting this perceived weakness, Ferguson deployed a hardworking and determined midfield four of Giggs, Carrick, Anderson, and Park Ji-Sung to close down the deadly Barce midfield, and then pick a pass to get Rooney and Ronaldo running at the make-shift backline. It was a grave mistake.

The first ten minutes were an unfortunate microcosm of Ronaldo’s out of control ego. Following a confidence-inspiring freekick on target, his quick and predictably direct, runs followed by a fleeting long-range shots, simply frustrated the United players around him. Following this early pressure, United allowed Barce to start playing that dangerous brand of football they’ve showcased all season, exemplified by perhaps the most impressive goal-scoring ratio of the modern era. The creativity that fostered such an unprecedented dominance in the Spanish domestic league slowly started to dominate the English Champions.

Ultimately, the first half was epitomised by a Barcelona side enjoying their predisposition to possession, a characteristic United seemed to indulge by not getting tight to their men or attacking the loose ball with the conviction expected. The Manchester midfield was slow, both mentally and physically, when Barce were in possession or chasing the ball. Ronaldo continued to run head-down and aimlessly for ten minutes before Barce opened the scoring, a mistake from which no lessons were learned. The precise, metronomic passing of the Barce midfield disoriented United, before Eto’o floored Vidic with a simple dummy and toe-poked an early shot past Van der Sar. From then on Barce were quite simply on another plain, strolling every inch of the Stadio Olimpico with the pomp expected from a team of this composite talent. Every Barce pass was quick and sharp, every United pass was under-hit and panicked. In short, Barce were everything United were not: driven, calm, accurate and, more importantly, onside. The first half was played out with increasingly predictable regularity as Barce mesmeric superstars flexed their muscles, buoyed on by the biggest stage imaginable.

While in many ways United limped over the line to a third consecutive Premier League title, Barce romped to La Liga glory with a 6 – 2 demolition of rivals Real Madrid. The second half of the Final simply consolidated and realised this difference in group ability and determination. United continued frustrating each other with misplaced passes and unexpected errors, while Barcelona were relaxed in possession, commanding the respect often forgotten by pampered Premier League footballers, used to an easy win. Tevez was brought on for the ineffective and blundersome Anderson before Berbatov replaced Giggs to give United a 4-2-4 formation. Yet, with Ronaldo neutralised by the excellent Puyol, in new territory at right back, and Rooney increasingly hugging the touchline, United failed to produce any inspiration. By definition inspiration cannot be produced, simply witnessed, and United’s second half was another example of failed attempts, off-side runs and vacant defending. From an innocuous string of passes down the right side Xavi whipped in an inch-perfect cross that Messi was able to meet with what can only be described as grace. It was one of those moments where time seemed to stand still, and from the moment the ball left Xavi’s foot, the die was cast. The remainder of the match was simply a formality.

While the result might not have surprised too many people, the manner of Barce’s victory certainly might have done. Barcelona’s domination of the Spanish League was dismissed by the arrogance of the English, because after all, we’re told week-after-week that La Liga and Serie A are nothing compared to the full-blooded, break-neck Premier League. Pre-match, the Spanish were as self-assured as the English, yet ultimately the truth shone through. Barcelona made Manchester United look like a pub team. Outshone in every position on the park, United deferred to hard tackles and long balls within twenty minutes, and it was this lack of imagination and submission to superior ability that destroyed United in the end.

It seems a little self-defeating to highlight particular players for praise, but even amongst the other stars on display, three men in blue and red stood out. They are Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and of course Lionel Messi. Ferguson spoke before the game of Xavi and Iniesta’s ability to put opponents on a “carousel” with their passing, and if anything, they actually superseded the Scotsman’s hyperbole. The ‘pass, move, offer’ school of football was on display for all to see last night, and any doubts that the two Spaniards are currently the world’s two best midfielders evaporated before half-time. And little Lio Messi? Unplayable from start to finish, bouncing off tackles, running at defenders, and constantly on the lookout for that moment of innovation to unlock the Premier League’s meanest defense.

Put short, the self-congratulatory and onanistic undertones of English football were ultimately undone this year, and every minor or major battle was won by the Spanish champions. The evening was billed as Manchester United vs Barcelona, Ronaldo vs Messi, Ferguson vs Guardiola. The representatives of the English League were undermined in every respect by their own arrogance, laziness and lack of imagination. A club owned by a supporters collective and sponsored by UNICEF destroyed the ultimate symbol of global footballing business. It was the final the world had been waiting for.

Last year, a moment of individual brilliance from Paul Scholes put United above Barca in a second. A year on, 93 minutes of footballing perfection undid everything. The gulf, if you’re a United fan, was terrifying.