Manchester United lost to FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Final for the second time in three seasons. Barcelona won 3-1 on the night with goals coming from each of their forward three; Pedro, Lionel Messi and David Villa. United’s goal was scored completely against the run of play by Wayne Rooney, but Barcelona’s irresistibility proved too much for The Reds as Josep Guardiola’s men won their fourth European Cup.
In much the same manner as the Rome Final two years ago, United started on the front foot and were closing down well, penning the Barca players into situations they didn’t want to be in and forcing the Catalans into making silly errors, but – as with Rome, after ten minutes had passed Barcelona began to get in the ascendency and from thereon in delivered a masterful performance.
It took until the 27th minute for Barcelona to finally break United’s resistance, when Xavi played in an unmarked Pedro who had the time to compose himself and send Edwin van der Sar the wrong way. Fingers will be pointed at the defence for allowing Pedro the room, but sometimes you have to give credit where it’s due, the movement of Messi caused confusion and led Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic to get pulled out of position and give Xavi the option to do what he does best.
With Barca 1-0 up they didn’t press for a second, but rather kept possession in the peerless way they do to try and not only wear United down, but shake their concentration. That’s the beauty of the way this Barcelona team perform; not once do they try and force the play, the players are constantly moving into space to try and create an opening. Many teams get frustrated when trying to break through against stubborn opposition, but not Guardiola’s Barcelona, they wait and wait for their chance because they know that it will eventually come.
United needed to get a goal and quickly, and with their first attempt of the game drew level in the 34th minute. As United looked to muster the energy they’d shown in the opening exchanges, Fabio da Silva pressed up to dispossess Villa. He then played the ball to Wayne Rooney, whose neat one-two with Michael Carrick gave him the space to bring the ball forward. His pass to Ryan Giggs – who was arguably in an offside position, was a poor one, but Giggs controlled it well with his thigh and rolled it into the on-running Rooney to curl home a lovely strike and give United an unexpected equaliser.
With the goal coming so against the run of play you’d expect it to affect the Barcelona players and put United on the front foot, but it wasn’t to be. Barca stayed composed and – were it not for a great piece of tracking by Carrick, Lionel Messi would surely have given them the lead just before half-time as Villa’s cross agonisingly missed the onrushing Argentine.
With the scores level at half-time, many were left wondering how United would approach the second-half. They’d shown far too much respect to Barcelona in the first and given them too much time on the ball in dangerous areas. While it’s easy to say that when it’s so hard to regain possession from Barca, United’s centre-backs were sitting too deep and it was affording Iniesta, Xavi and Messi too much time on the ball, and it was this that was exploited by the World’s best player as he scored to regive Barca the lead.
Carrick was isolated in the centre of United’s midfield. The midfielder was much maligned for his performance against Barca in Rome but he gave a good account of himself on the Wembley pitch against three of the best players in the World. Giggs as his central midfield partner worked extremely well against Chelsea in both the Quarter-final and League games, but was ineffectual last night. Giggs had his worst game in a United shirt for a long time and it was clear before Messi made it 2-1 in the 54th minute that he should have been swapped with Park and withdrawn for Nani if United were to remain 4-4-2.
Barcelona had chances to go ahead before Messi’s 20-yard effort and a good save from van der Sar and headed clearance of a goal-bound David Villa effort by Patrice Evra minutes earlier showed that United were only just hanging on.
Some will say it happened much earlier, but the game was over as a contest in the 69th minute when Villa bent a lovely shot into the top corner of the net. United will feel that they could’ve done much more in the build-up to the goal to stop it from happening. Evra cleared poorly and when attempting to win the bounce was tackled which set Messi free to go on a majestic run. His pass was cut out well by Carrick who hit a careless pass to Nani – on for Fabio who was injured making a last ditch tackle, who failed to control the ball which allowed Sergio Busquets to tee-up Villa in bags of space to make it 3-1.
A lot can be said of United’s performance on the night but- as hard as it is, sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say that you were well and truly beaten by one of the finest teams to ever play the game. There is always a feeling amongst United fans that regardless of deficiencies when compared to Barcelona that there was a chance that United could have done it, and what’s more could have gave more effort. The fact is the players gave their all and did so trying to play the attacking, United way.
Going 4-4-2 against Barca was always going to be risky, but attack was thought to be the best form of defence and it might have been, had The Reds not come up against the Kings of possession football. It’s impossible to attack when you don’t have possession, and for nearly 70% of the 90 minutes, that’s exactly what United didn’t.
United should have been awarded a penalty with the clock ticking down when Giggs’ attempt to cut inside was stopped by the arm of Villa. However, that and a Nani chance created by a great run and good off the ball movement were the only times United looked like conjuring up anything in the second-half and in fairness, a second United goal would’ve been undeserved. Not for United’s effort, but rather Barca’s.
All the hype surrounding this Barcelona team is fully justified, they’re footballing machines. People point to their defence as a weak spot, but given that they’re so rarely called upon it’s hardly a necessity for Guardiola to change things. Every time they attacked, they had more men than United and every time United attacked, they had more men around the ball. Their work-ethic is phenomenal and a single passage of play can sum it up. In the 92nd minute at 3-1 up United were attempting to get the ball up the field through passing, but the pressing of Pedro and Messi restricted United to playing it along the back-line, and when the ball finally got to midfield, Busquets was tracking and put in an excellent sliding tackle to win the ball back.
Busquets is key to the Barcelona team, and some say what an underrated player he is. It’s true that people may not see how important he is, but his status as being “underrated” stems not from his surrounding players but by his abhorrent behaviour. It’s a shame that such a talented player feels the need to persistently act the way he does and – until he changes his ways, it’s this that will see people continue to overlook his outstanding abilities as a footballer.
So United have lost a European Cup Final for the second time, but when considering the aftermath of Rome 2009 it’s incredible the team were even at Wembley to contest it. Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez left the club and were replaced – not by big names, but by players that fit and understand what it is to be part of a team.
At the start of this campaign, United were being predicted to finish well behind teams like Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool by all and sundry as a team on the decline who’ve spent next to no money on players that you’ve never heard of. They’ve finished it as FA Cup Semi-finalists, European Cup finalists and English League Champions for a record nineteenth time. As hard as it is to take at the moment, and as much as the Final will be a regret for years to come; if someone had offered you that at the start of the season you’d have snapped their hands off.
We’ll never die.
The starting line-up
1. van der Sar 6; 20. Fabio 6(17. Nani 69), 5. Ferdinand 6, 15. Vidic 7, 3. Evra 5; 25. Valencia 4, 16. Carrick 7(18. Scholes 76), 11. Giggs 4, 13. Park 5; 10. Rooney 8, 14. Hernandez 5.
Referee: Viktor Kassai