By Shane Thomas
BARCELONA 3-1 MANCHESTER UNITED (Barcelona win the 2011 Champions League)
Wembley saw a coronation as Barcelona won their fourth European Cup, putting on a display of football befitting a side who are undoubtedly now the finest on the planet.
Unlike most finals, this was a wonderful game. However, for United it was a worrying repeat of the Champions League final in Rome in 2009. Like in Rome, United made the better start, and like in Rome, they were placed onto Barcelona's passing carousel & spun dizzy while the Catalans took the spoils.
But this is not to denigrate United. There is not a team that could have lived with Barcelona on this night. Head coach Pep Guardiola proclaimed this as his team's finest performance. While I beg to differ - let's not forget their coruscating display in defeating Real Madrid 5-0 earlier in the season - the comment does show how important this game was to Barca. While many have endowed this side with the mantle of "the greatest ever", Guardiola is not an aesthete for its own sake. His priority is winning, and winning the Barcelona way. While their mes que un club moralising can be hypocritical, what is clear is that being a part of Barcelona means that not only must you be the best, but you must play the best.
And there's no longer any doubt over who Europe's best are. After securing their third successive Spanish league title, Guardiola knew that his side were running on empty. He ordered them to take time off, recharge, even allowing them to let off some steam in some of the area's local nightspots.
This almost backfired as United made much the stronger start. They were primed and played a high-tempo, pressing game causing a sluggish Barcelona to give the ball away. However, United failed to make the most of the early possession they had and Barcelona were always likely to rouse themselves. By the 15 minute mark, United's dominance was over and Barca controlled the match from there.
Xavi - who was magnificent - broke out the carousel, and directed some of the most glorious football one could wish to see. Their control was such that at times it was like watching someone play FIFA 11.
When Xavi played Pedro clear to give Barcelona the lead, I personally thought the game was over. So let's give United credit for finding an equaliser when lesser teams would have folded. Wayne Rooney played two sharp one-twos with Michael Carrick & Ryan Giggs. The linesman failed to spot Giggs in an offside position, but Rooney's finish was superb. Once United held out to half-time, it was fair to think that the game was anyone's.
But Barcelona continued to pass their way around Wembley and eventually, United were passed to death. Lionel Messi - who was the game's star performer - continued to drop in between United's defence & midfield and caused danger whenever he had the ball. Sure enough, Messi fired past Edwin Van Der Sar from outside the box. It was his 53rd goal of the season and one of his best.
But if Messi's goal was special, his part in the third goal was even better. The Argentine whizzed past substitute Nani as if he wasn't even there before going past Nemanja Vidic. Eventually he ran into a wall of white shirts, but it created space for his teammates. A combination of Nani & Carrick gave the ball away and Sergio Busquets laid a pass to David Villa, who set himself before curling a delightful shot into the top corner of the goal. It was football from the heavens and the contest was over with more than 20 minutes left.
This was simply an "I was there" occasion. United were soundly beaten and Barcelona showed class not only in their on-pitch display but post-game as they afforded United a guard of honour as they went to collect their runners-up medals.
Also, in what maybe was the finest moment of the occasion, club captain Carles Puyol let Eric Abidal lift the Champions League trophy. Only 71 days ago, Abidal was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour on his liver. The Frenchman's recovery to play has been the most heartwarming story in football this season.
What Barcelona have done is not only win their third Champions League in five seasons, but they have left an indelible imprint on the sport in club football's most prestigious game. This performance will be recounted down the generations. The way that people talk about Real Madrid 7 Eintracht Frankfurt 3 in 1960, or AC Milan 4 Barcelona 0 in 1994, you can add Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1 to the list.
No-one will ever forget what they witnessed at Wembley. It was the day Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Pep Guardiola and Barcelona wrote themsleves into the pages of the game's immortals.
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