Barcelona proved to be the best squad in the world by beating Manchester United 2-0 and conquering the most wanted trophy in Europe: the Champions League
The blaugranas controlled the ball for long stretches with its unhurried and clever passing, attacked incessantly, held tight with a patchwork defense and made a tactical switch at forward, placing Lionel Messi as a central striker and shifting Samuel Eto’o to the right wing. Eventually, Messi drifted into midfield to secure possession. Both he and Eto’o delivered goals as Barcelona won its third European title and second in four years.
It will be left to Barcelona’s supporters to gleefully debate whether this is the Catalans’ greatest team, now that the first-year boss Pep Guardiola has guided his team to the Spanish League title, the Spanish Cup and now the European Cup with a style that is familiarly elegant and ebullient. For a night, it was enough for Barcelona supporters — seemingly the vast majority among 72,000 at Olympic Stadium of Rome — to celebrate with cameras that flashed like fireflies as the trophy was held aloft in a shower of confetti.
“We are not the best team of history, but we have played the best season in history to win three titles and the way we won,” expressedGuardiola, 38, who has won a European championship both as a Barcelona player and boss.
The Red Devils, meanwhile, lost for the first time in 26 Champions League matches and failed to defend its 2008 title. Even with four attackers in the second half, the English Premier League champions often seemed lethargic, uninvolved — at times unrecognizable — after missing several chances in the early minutes of the match.
So strong and constrictive on most nights, the Manchester United defense was unable to subdue the organized and creative Barcelona attack, which flowed with the inevitability of water through any available crease. Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester manager, dismissed his defense as “shoddy.”
Pep had urged his Barcelona footballers to be daring, and after the victory said, “We wanted to say we played and were not being cowards.” He added, “There’s nothing more dangerous than not taking risks.”
Barcelona’s one apparent weakness, a depleted defense, never became a liability. Dani Alves and Éric Abidal were suspended and Rafa Márquez was shelved with injury. But Guardiola found a reliable solution, placing Carles Puyol at right back, Yaya Touré in central defense alongside Gerard Piqué and Sylvinho at left back. They remained impenetrable.
Guardiola made another adroit move up front. Last year in the Champions League semifinals, Manchester United’s left back, Patrice Evra, had handcuffed Messi on the right wing. On Wednesday, Guardiola countered with Messi as a central striker, moving Eto’o outside. Later, Leo Messi retreated into midfield and, along with Xavi Hernández, helped Barcelona control the ball as if it were tethered to his foot. Sometimes, it seemed minutes passed before Manchester United could regain possession from the smaller, more dexterous Barcelona footballers.
“If they get in front of you, they’re very difficult to beat,” Ferguson stated. “They can keep the ball in areas of the field where it is difficult to protect.”
Early on, it was Manchester United that threatened to dominate. After missing several inviting opportunities, though, the team deflated, never regaining its spirit and vigor.
In the second minute, superstar Cristiano Ronaldo drove a low, hard free kick that bounced and could not be smothered by Victor Valdés, the Barcelona goalkeeper. Park Ji-sung, Manchester United’s tireless winger and the first Asian player to participate in a Champions League final, pounced on the rebound, but a Barcelona defender slid across his path. The shot deflected high over the crossbar. Ronaldo later lashed two shots wide, unfulfilled chances that Manchester United could not afford.
“Losing that first goal was decisive for us,” Sir Alex Ferguson stated. “We couldn’t recover from that.”
Barcelona quickly struck back. In the 10th minute, midfielder Andrés Iniesta, recovered from a thigh injury, played the ball to Eto’o on the right flank. Eto’o, a Cameroonian forward, cut sharply inside, turning the defender Nemanja Vidic, leaving him corkscrewed and helpless. Eto’o punched the ball into the net off the left hand of Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, giving Barcelona the only goal it would need.
After halftime, Manchester United clearly required of an infusion of energy, but neither the replacement forwards Carlos Tévez nor Dimitar Barbatov could kick-start a somnolent engine.
In the 70th minute, Puyol stole a pass for Barcelona, beginning a magical sequence that finished with Xavi chipping a superb pass from outside the area to a waiting Messi, six yards from the goal, unattended by two defenders. He headed the ball over van der Sar’s head and Barcelona took an insurmountable 2-0 lead. Now it is Messi, not Ronaldo, who is certain to gain favor as the world’s greatest player.
“We didn’t have to win to know he’s the best,” Guardiola stated.
In the end, though, Barcelona did win, primarily by getting the ball and refusing to give it back. “For us, we are a horrible team, a disaster team, when we don’t have the ball,” Guardiola admitted. “We need the ball. We got it” he concluded