Sunday, 29 May 2011

Barca Come To The Four

56th European Cup Final, Wembley – London: Barcelona 3, Manchester United 1

Abidal lifts the European Cup for Barcelona
Two years ago, Barcelona – shorn of 2/3rds of their defence through injury and suspension - won ‘against the odds’ against Manchester United by re-inventing the concept of possession and through their re-interpretation of Total Football.  Barcelona won tonight by essentially taking that concept and evolving it.  Because of that, Barcelona laid claim to be the best European team since the great AC Milan team of 1988 – 1991, the team of Gullit, Van Basten & Rijkard (ironically the Barcelona coach that took them to their second cup win in 2006).  Were it not for Inter Milan’s defensive display in their semi final last year, we could well have been talking about Barcelona’s third European Cup in a row.

That’s not to say that Manchester United were helpless.  They could have learned from two years ago and played a different formation, instead of the 4-4-1-1 formation they started with.  As it was, like two years ago, from ten minutes in Barcelona swamped the Manchester United midfield and kept a stranglehold on possession.  Vidic and Ferdenand were often left marking nothing as Barcelona’s forward Messi constantly dropped back, took passes from Xavi, Iniesta, Pique or anyone else.

Like 2 years ago, United started brightly before Barcelona hit their strides.  Unlike two years ago, a goal did not act as the spark for Barcelona’s dominance.  Merly Barcelona just shifted up a gear as their movement and passing range kicked in.  What was surprising was that it took so long such was the dominance of Barcelona.  Messi put Villa in but was denied by Ferdinand after 10 minutes, then Xavi put Pedro Rodriguez in for him to shoot wide.  Villa and Messi also had chances before finally breaking through on 27 minutes.  Breaking at the United defence, Xavi put a pass through to Pedro on the united right who sidefooted past Van Der Sar – who maybe though Pedro would shoot.

Barcelona then sort of retreated into their shell a bit, maybe they wanted to hold on to what they had.  What happened next though was completely against the run of play.  Six minutes after Barcelona scored United picked up the ball down Barcelonas right, Rooney picked up the ball, 1-2’s with with both Carrick and  Giggs before fired a curling shot into the top left hand side of goal.  United went in at half time level pegging with Barcelona, having weathered the storm.  Little knowing that they were about to be blown away.

Messi Goal (54")
Second half and Barcelona went straight for the jugular.  Mascherano had a cross blocked.  Alves had a shot blocked by Van Der Sar, with the follow-up shot from Messi blocked by Vidic.  Messi didn’t have to wait long before getting his first goal on British soil since bagging a brace against Celtic in the last 16 of this competition in 2008.  A passing move outside the box between Xavi and Inniesta ended when the ball went to Messi.  He took a touch before unleashing a shot that flew past an unsighted Van der Sar.  Now Barcelona were intent on inflicting the coup de grace.  Messi had a shot against Van Der Sars legs, while Fabio injured himself keeping out a Messi back-flick, had it gone in it surely would have been new Wembley’s own Zidane moment.  Messi then ran past a couple of United defenders before having the ball taken off of him.  The clearance was fluffed, Busquets regained possession and  layed off the ball to David Villa who curled his shot past Van Der Sar. Beaten.  All. Ends. Up (though it should be pointed out as well that this goal, more than any others scored in this game, is a great example of the Barcelona/Spain ethos of pressing).

Game over!

In truth, Manchester United were lucky that their defence performed or else they would have been on the wrong end of a real hiding.  Ferdinand & Vidic were good at scrambling.  The problems came when Messi dropped into midfield and ran at the United defence, such was the dominance of the Barcelona midfield.  Maybe Ferguson picked his best team, I suspect that he should have started with an extra midfielder (possiably Fletcher?).  With a resurgent Liverpool, a trophy winning Manchester City on top of Chelsea and Arsenal, Ferguson will need to give some thought about how to approach next season. 

Barcelona have now won their fourth European Cup, their eleventh European trophy in all.  Their performances over the past three seasons have seen them raise the standards of European football.  In winning in such a dominant fashion, they have staked a claim to become the next great European club side joining such greats as the Real Madrid team from 1955-60, The early 60’s Benfica team, The Ajax team of the early 70’s, the Bayern Munich team of the mid 70’s, The Liverpool sides from 1977-1985 and the AC Milan teams from 1988-94.  Indeed, this Barcelona side is the best European team since that AC Milan side that contained Gullit, Van basten & Rijkard.

In among the hype now surrounding this team, to reach that level of legendary status, they need to retain this trophy next season.  However, they must be aware of Guttman’s rule (named after the former Benfica coach Bela Guttman, who won 2 European Cups with them & went on to win the Coppa Liberatores with Penarol).  He believed that there is a natural lifespan for a successful team/manager.  Guttman put that lifespan at 3 seasons. Pep Guardiola has been Barcelona coach for 3 seasons, whether he will and what happens next will determine whether this side enters the pantheon of great European club sides.  Their performance last night suggests that they deserve to.

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