Thank You, Barcelona, For The Performance Of A Decade

The European Cup is heading back to Catalonia after a fantastic 3-1 win at Wembley. salutes Pep Guardiola's men for raising the bar yet again
Sir Alex Ferguson promised us the final of the decade as his Manchester United side prepared to meet Barcelona in the Champions League final. Come 10pm on Saturday, it was clear that he'd been as good as his word. His United side had showed sufficient spirit that they could leave the pitch proud. Yet such was their opponents' brilliance that all too often they appeared as mere props in a piece of footballing theatre directed and played out by the Spanish giants. It was Barcelona's performance that made this final what it was. They made it a timeless classic - again.

It was timeless not in that it was unique, but rather in the sense that it was a beautiful, archetypal example of the Barcelona style. Passing, possession, the odd flash of genius - we know it by now and we could recognise it anywhere. But to pull it off in a final against a side led by one of the game's greatest ever coaches - for the second time in three years - is something bound to live long in the memory, too.

And they did it with the pressure well and truly on. You could argue that in the past - even in recent months, against Real Madrid - they have played better football, but the circumstances were really quite different. In a country long since unfriendly to them - 1992 aside, Barcelona's record on English soil is really quite mixed - with the weight of the favourites mantle weighing them down, with Carles Puyol consigned to the bench, with the regular players rusty after an anti-climactic end to the season, anything could have happened. Ninety minutes later, with United left wondering quite what had happened, it was clear that what actually did transpire was something very special indeed.

Lionel Messi's man of the match. His goal wasn't quite the world-class stunner we normally expect of him, but his overall performance was as important as that of 2009.

Pep Guardiola
Wherever his future takes him, be it now, next year, or beyond, there is no doubting that now Guardiola can be mentioned in the same breath as Cruyff and others like him. Whoever gains his services after Barcelona can look forward to the arrival of a world-class coach.

Eric Abidal
It sounds like something out of a story book, but as anyone who's weathered serious illness and surgery can tell you, in fact it's all too real. After recovering from his liver drama, Abidal donned the armband and lifted the trophy aloft. No less than he deserves.
A bitterly disappointing evening for the gifted Mexican. When left alone up front he could only be caught offside: when Rooney moved forward the Englishman stole the show with a great goal.
Edwin van der Sar
For such a long and storied career to end on this note is unjust. Edwin must carry with him to retirement a small amount of the blame for the margin of defeat, with the second goal looking especially suspect from his perspective.

Dimitar Berbatov
This one's going to run and run: left out of the matchday squad - failing even to make the bench - rumour has it that the Bulgarian left Wembley before kick-off, ensuring that any hope he had of remaining a United player was extinguished for good.
Worth Celebrating

But bizarrely, what was special was at the same time almost run-of-the-mill. It's simply the case that Barcelona's style of play has grown so regular, so 'theirs', that it doesn't need describing or recognising.

In this sense football viewers of the world are spoilt. That we can complain about "Barcelona overload", or grumble at the amount of fulsome praise on websites like these and in newspapers across the globe, sees the Blaugrana become a victim of their own success.

Take a step back from context, though, and simply watch the game on the pitch, and suddenly the beauty comes flooding back.

Barcelona weathered a difficult opening 10 minutes. They saw far less of the ball than they'd like, there were inklings that Fergie's early gambit of playing the long-ball percentage game might just pay off against an uncertain central pairing, and the likes of Pedro were still shaking the rust off their boots.

United must have dared to dream in these early exchanges, yet as Pedro's effort fizzed past the post after a quarter-hour it was already clear that the game was up. The midfield, packed as it was, could neutralise the odd threat but the idea of keeping Barcelona at bay for 90 minutes was simply impossible. Ji-Sung Park chased and harried admirably in the first half, for example, but one jink forward from Dani Alves set the wheels in motion for that chance; Michael Carrick's role of standing off and letting Lionel Messi run into trouble paid only limited dividends.

And, of course, it was Barcelona's individual quality that made the difference. Xavi's through ball was, well, Xavi-esque, Pedro's finish typically brash, and suddenly United - the English champions, one of football's finest units - had it all to do, with Barcelona not having done anything too far out of their ordinary.

The equalising goal - complete with a shade of offside for the otherwise ineffectual Ryan Giggs - showcased the talents of Wayne Rooney, but even the most ardent United fan knew that it couldn't last. Lionel Messi's typical audacity bore fruit with Barcelona's second: his shot wasn't the greatest, but the run forward was certainly exciting, and the fact that he took a blast rather than trying to walk the ball into the net proves that this team does have the predatory touch it's often accused of lacking.

David Villa's goal was the pick of the bunch - a masterful strike, reminiscent of happier times for a forward who has just issued a timely reminder of why he was so often spoken of as the world's best in his role. And, more tellingly, there was nothing, but nothing Manchester United could do about it. Because when Barcelona tick as a unit, they keep the ball; and when they keep the ball they give it to their gifted players; and when their gifted players have the ball it's only a matter of time until one of them does something jaw-dropping.

It really is that simple. The Barcelona style is the perfect combination of the collective and the individual. When it operates at its fullest capacity there is simply nothing to be done. Any progress against it is fleeting, any victory temporary, because it's always ready to start up again. It is to our benefit that its output is so beautiful, because unless something breaks this team up it's here to stay. And for that we have to thank everyone who's made it possible, because Barcelona are the greatest team in the world and one of the greatest to watch that there's ever been.

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