Pass masters Xavi and Iniesta make it a dream night for Barcelona

After all the talk of destiny and all those claims that a fourth European Cup would only begin to reflect Manchester United’s size and ambition, a balmy night in Rome brought anticlimax and regret. They were outclassed by an outstanding Barcelona team — a group of players who showed what grace, elegance and class of the highest order still exist far beyond the Elysian fields of the Barclays Premier League.

If Sir Alex Ferguson felt beforehand that United are a club who deserve to have more than three European Cups to their name, he could hardly begrudge Barcelona their third success after a performance that was embellished by goals from Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi, and illuminated by the midfield artistry of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández, two wonderful players, who enhanced their reputations further on a night when no United player came close to living up to his.

It was a night of regrets for Ferguson and his players, for whom this proved a game too far in a season in which they have spent the final weeks battling against fatigue. Strength of character helped them to survive wobbles in the closing stages of the Premier League campaign, but that trait was missing last night when they failed to recover from the shock of conceding to Eto’o in the tenth minute.

It is debatable whether character would have been enough against a Barcelona team who elevate the game to the realms of high art, but it was nonetheless a night when they lacked the resolve that has been the foundation for their best Champions League performances in recent years.

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If there was further source of regret, it was that Barcelona had seemed to be there for the taking in the opening ten minutes, when United had them up against the ropes, carrying the game to them in a manner that defied predictions of conservatism on Ferguson’s part. Pep Guardiola, Ferguson’s opposite number, might have feared a repeat of the 1994 final, when he was a member of the Barcelona “Dream Team” who were torn apart by Fabio Capello’s AC Milan in Athens, a night that sums up the disappointment that European football’s showpiece event has often brought upon his club.

Had United scored in that opening period of pressure, as Barcelona’s patched-up defence was stretched and Cristiano Ronaldo flashed three shots at goal, it might have been a very different outcome. But what is certain is that Guardiola’s team would not have changed their approach.

Their belief is in their football — Guardiola had promised unreservedly that they would be daring and beautiful in their approach — and, while such a slavish devotion to a passing game did not serve Arsenal well in their semi-final against United, Arsène Wenger’s team, with the greatest respect to Samir Nasri and Cesc Fàbregas, do not have two players quite like Xavi and Iniesta.

It was Iniesta who provided the inspiration behind the opening goal. Barcelona had barely had the ball to that point, but after the midfield player drifted away from the half-hearted challenges of Anderson and Michael Carrick, the pitch opened up. Iniesta slipped the ball to Eto’o, who darted inside another highly unconvincing challenge, this time from Nemanja Vidic, and flicked a right-foot shot that beat a surprised Edwin van der Sar at the near post.

United were knocked sideways, but the expectation was that they would recover; that, eventually, Ronaldo would get back to troubling the Barcelona defence. But they were unrecognisable after that, with Carrick and Anderson chasing shadows in midfield, Wayne Rooney marginalised, first on the left wing and then on the right, and Vidic, their player of the year, enduring the kind of evening that brought to mind his torrid afternoon at the hands of Fernando Torres back in March, when Liverpool romped to a 4-1 victory at Old Trafford.

Barcelona, by contrast, had their tails up, with Xavi and Iniesta pulling the strings and bypassing the United midfield with disconcerting ease. As they did so, it was hard not to be drawn into the belief that Darren Fletcher’s absence because of suspension, after he was sent off for a professional foul on Fàbregas with his team leading Arsenal 4-0 on aggregate in the semi-final, second leg, was far more than the mere personal disappointment that was portrayed at the time.

Fletcher is a more mobile, more tenacious and, most importantly, a more intelligent footballer than Anderson, who, for all that he has the spirit of a Brazilian maestro, has rarely played like one since the middle of his first season at United.

Anderson made way for Carlos Tévez at half-time, the latter sent on for what his advisers maintain will be his valedictory appearance in a United shirt, but he made little or no impact. Nor did Dimitar Berbatov, reduced to a cameo appearance at the end of what has been a disappointing season since his club-record £30.75 million transfer from Tottenham Hotspur. As for Rooney and Ronaldo, this was not their night, though, perhaps surprisingly, it was the latter who became agitated, booked for the second of two bites at Carles Puyol.

Thierry Henry was enjoying himself against his old adversaries, cutting inside Ferdinand to have a shot saved by Van der Sar early in the second half, but it was Messi, emerging triumphant from his much-hyped duel with Ronaldo, who used his head to administer the coup de grâce. He does not have as prodigious a leap as the United player, but, when Xavi crossed from the right with 20 minutes remaining, he had the intelligence to pull away from Ferdinand and the poise to steer a header beyond Van der Sar. Game over.

It takes a special team to make United look ordinary, let alone ugly, but Barcelona, a truly beautiful team, had done so and no one, not least Ferguson, denied the best side had won.

manchester united played badly in this final. they started aggresively but didn’t score. and after eto’o scored they didn’t recover. the team selection was a bit questionable. perhaps fergie thought that the game would go into extra time. nevertheless, the game is over. barcelona won 2-0. they didn’t play their best football either but they were the better team. congratulations to pep guardiola on their treble this season. article from TimesOnline.

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