Sunday, 22 January 2012

Sports Picks of 2011, Part 1 - May 28th

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

"Barcelona delivered a masterclass to inflict another Champions League final defeat on Manchester United as Lionel Messi inspired an emphatic victory at Wembley.  Manchester United's hopes of emulating their first European Cup final success here against Benfica in 1968 foundered as Barcelona deservedly repeated their win against Sir Alex Ferguson's side in Rome two years ago.  The pattern of an entertaining game bore an uncanny resemblance to events in the Stadio Olimpico in 2009 as United started with optimism and intent before being swamped by Barcelona's brilliance."

The problem with modern sports reporting is that every win is instantly translated into hype and hyperbole.  Every once in a while though a performance comes along that makes it difficult to separate the hype from the truth.  It is true that Manchester United made exactly the same mistake that they did in the 2009 final, in going in with a 4-4-1-1 formation, it is also a possibility that Barcelona would still have won had Manchester United gone into the game with an extra midfielder.  However the hype surrounding Barcelona’s win does seem over the top.

What Barcelona did do was provide proof, if it were needed, that they are the dominant force in European football at the moment.  Both Vidic and Ferdinand, international defenders, looked lost trying to track Messi playing in what had been dubbed the “false 9” position (ie, a player who’s starting position is as a forward, who vacates that position to take up a separate position).  Once Barcelona took control of the midfield, Messi (below, celebrating his goal) dropped back to run at the United defence, providing space for Rodriguez and Villa to move into, from the flanks.  The problems come in trying to place this Barcelona side into the pantheon of great European sides.

On the one hand, they have won three European Cups in five years, and would have won three in a row were it not for Jose Mourinio’s tactics in the semi final last year.  The second win defined both the Barca tici-taka style and the Spanish national side’s tici-taka style that took them to their maiden World Cup win.  This Barcelona side, and the players who form the nucleus of the Spanish national side, have re-invented possession football for the 21st Century and re-defined the pressing game.

On the other, the best European sides have retained the European Cup.  The last side to achieve that feat was the AC Milan side that featured the Dutchmen of Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten.  Liverpool won back to back European Cups in 1977 and 1978, while Ajax and Bayern Munich dominated the early Seventies by winning 3 in a row each.  Going back further Inter Milan won back to back European Cups in the mid Sixties, as did Benfica, who supplanted 5 in a row champions Real Madrid.  The point is that to truly be considered one of the great European sides, this Barcelona side needs to retain the European Cup.  After all, good though the Juventus side that had David’s, Del Piero & Zidane was, the road-block to greatness was that habit of loosing at the final hurdle (twice, in 1997 and 1998).

Yes, Barcelona’s performance in winning their fourth European Cup was exceptional, which is why they are on this list.  Remember though they are still a wee bit to go until they can be considered one of the greats.  Assuming of course that Guardiola survives the three year rule that is.

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