In the first few minutes of play in the most anticipated Champions League final in recent memory, Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to make the game his own. The Manchester United man, playing through the middle, turned the Barcelona defence inside out in the early going; it was because of him that the shot tally read 5-0 to the English after eight minutes.
Then Samuel Eto’o latched onto the end of the Blaugrana’s first attack of the night, dummied around Michael Carrick and bundled the ball into Edwin van der Sar’s net. The game was never the same from then on.
And as Ronaldo was ushered off centre stage, into the spotlight stepped Lionel Messi.
Also removed from his customary right-wing station to play up top, the Argentine was simply a menace for the remainder of the match. Deployed by Pep Guardiola to do what he did in the 6-2 drubbing of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, ‘Little Leo’ cruelly exposed the United rearguard’s inability to deal with genuine pace and trickery.
Messi’s knack for keeping possession in tight spaces and wending his way through crowded corridors far outstripped that of the man who beat him to the FIFA World Player of the Year award. And his off-the-ball work paid off when he drifted in to head home the second-half sealer at the far post.
In the end, it was as one-sided an affair in the Messi-Ronaldo battle as it was throughout the contest as a whole. Yet ‘El Mesias’ was not necessarily on top of his game – he hit his fair share of dead ends – and it was at the core of the Barca setup that the damage was truly done.
Such was the dominance of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, one could be forgiven for thinking that Sir Alex Ferguson had forgotten to include any central midfielders in his starting XI. The trio of Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Anderson were simply nonexistent; and barring one trademark 50-yard diagonal pass, Paul Scholes’ only contribution after coming on was to maul Sergi Busquets with similarly Scholes-esque tackle.
There was an undeniable beauty in the Spanish side’s midfield play. The quiet but controlling Xavi typified the club’s pass-and-move ethos with his tidy, inventive, one-touch football, dovetailing brilliantly with the energetic jinking of his forward-thinking partner. Between them, these two were responsible for both goals (and many more other chances): Iniesta set up the first with a muscular burst from the middle, while it was Xavi’s sublime cross that allowed Messi to nod home the second.
Truly, these two were a class apart at the Stadio Olimpico; one might even argue that this display cements them as the world’s premier playmaking pair. But credit must be given to the rest of Guardiola’s treble-winning team – in particular, the key men in their makeshift defence.
With Dani Alves and Eric Abidal suspended, Carles Puyol reverted to right-back while Yaya Toure filled in at centre-half. Both performed admirably, the captain even venturing forward during the second half and almost sliding home what would have been a well-deserved goal.
Sylvinho also executed his role with aplomb – Ji-sung Park hardly had a touch – but the star man at the back was, appropriately, Gerard Pique. Sold by United last year, the youngster has grown immeasurably since returning to Camp Nou and capped off a fine season with a rock-solid showing in Rome. One must think that Ferguson would gladly have swapped Nemanja Vidic for his former charge on the night.
All in all, it was a supreme all-round performance from Barcelona: they comfortably outplayed their opposition, and Guardiola out-thought his vastly more experienced counterpart. If ever there has been a deserving winner of the European Cup, it is Barca.
Mike Maguire, Goal.com