Manchester United defeated but not disgraced
Barcelona are synonymous with everything good. As they went to collect their winners’ medal, there was a shot of United’s players clapping as if they were resigned to defeat, as if this were an event of inevitability. Perhaps, it was. Indeed, they were outclassed – as many observers had predicted – by a team that are not destined for greatness, for they are already there. ‘Greatness’ is not on the agenda; ‘perfection’ is more apt for this side.
After Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Chelsea which virtually sealed their 19th league title, Jonathan Wilson wrote: “This was an annihilation, and in the rigor of its pressing, the pace and directness of its attacking, the intelligence of its movement, particularly in the opening half-hour, United looked a team that might perhaps be able to challenge Barcelona in the Champions league final.” But Wilson’s words could not reflect better on United’s opponents at Wembley, who themselves ‘annihilated’ the Red Devils, who themselves displayed pressing of the rigorous kind and whose movement dissected the United defence and with it, the very life of Sir Alex’s men. They witnessed a masterclass and were made to taste Barcelona’s humble paella. It was not a taste to savour.
It feels almost wrong to say Barcelona are invincible, but the gap between them and the second best team in Europe, which is United, is huge. While the standards of European football appears to be declining (look at the Serie A), Barca have emerged as the greatest team in living memory; even better than the Dream Team of Johan Cruyff or Brazil’s all-conquering side of the Seventies. Pep Guardiola, under the tutelage of Cruyff, has gone and done something unprecedented – overtake his mentor not by trophies won, (statistically, he has a trophy less than the Dutchman) but by infusing his ideology into his side and has appeared to have bettered everything he has done.
This is not to say Manchester United played badly; much like the final in Rome 2009, they started encouragingly and again Barcelona seemed to have been starstruck almost. However, the Catalan Giants are perennial slow-starters and this was nothing new; like an experienced batsman who sees off the swinging, new ball they gradually found their rhythm and punished the opposition.
Park ji-Sung started brightly, but perhaps overrun himself; even the man they call ‘three lungs’ cut an exhausted figure after 20 minutes. By then Barcelona were in the ascendancy. Xavi and Iniesta were playing pinball, while Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets formed a defensive barrier that required more than a spirited Wayne Rooney to breach. In fact, their only weakness appeared to be Victor Valdes, who was visibly shaken in the first quarter, huffing and puffing after a few instances of lapses in concentration. But creating chances to trouble him thereafter proved far too difficult. Javier Hernandez was isolated and suddenly the exclusion of Dimitar Berbatov seemed a mistake. However, even the delightful Bulgarian would not have prevented defeat.
When Pedro put Barcelona ahead, it was difficult to foresee an equaliser. Yet, it happened anyway. It was a moment of beauty and disbelief; Wayne Rooney scoring a goal that was even more magical than that acrobatic finish against City earlier this season. Rooney dispelled the myth that he wasn’t a big-game player and his goal, an excellent finish which saw intricate interplay beforehand, allowed United to go into half time with much belief. The Englishman has had somewhat of the clichéd rollercoaster season. After the intense media scrutiny in the first part of the season, Rooney has since come out and displayed the type of football that he is renown for; and again at Wembley, he tracked back and dropped deep trying his utmost to link up play. Make no mistake; Rooney is committed to Manchester United.
Hope was restored. 1-1, the scoreline read. Arsenal had already done the impossible and doggedly fought back in the first leg from 1-0 to win 2-1 in the last 16 of this competition. With all due respect, these were entirely different circumstances. Lionel Messi was the protagonist, as if there was going to be anybody else, and dribbled in such limited space, evoking memories of the great Garrincha and Maradona. He is a legend in the making. His goal, Barca’s second, typified and epitomised the Argentine wonder. A neat finish was followed by more dazzling with the ball, helping David Villa score the third and final goal which sealed United’s fate.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will certainly look back and rue this night; but both had showed great determination and character. Edwin van der Sar, in his final game, was blameless – he might have been able to prevent the first goal when he was wrongfooted by Pedro’s strike, but made a string of saves that kept the scoreline at respectability. Old Trafford will be without him next year; and the trophy that all of Europe desire. However, La Orejas is with its rightful owners. Barcelona will dominate the continent for years to come, but who’s to say this Manchester United side, passionate, spirited and with the potential to get better, will not cross their path once more in the near future?