Football is often at its best when it revels in simplicity. And Barcelona used a simple principle to win yesterday’s final: if you never give your opponent the ball, he cannot beat you. Sounds like something out of the Art of War. Maybe it was. United did have some time on the ball, but it came in such short supply, they couldn’t develop any serious attacks after the opening minutes.
Proceedings began with United looking dominant. Barca could not find a rhythm and one wondered if they’d be able to dig their feet into the match. It looked like their defensive gaps (Marquez and Milito out injured; Abidal and Alves suspended) would allow Manchester to keep the heat on. But after ten minutes, Samuel Eto’o wove his way through the statuesque United defenders and fired the ball past van der Sar who was still guessing the direction of the shot as it sailed past him.
From then on, miserly ball control and crisp passing allowed Barca to dominate in possession, keeping the United players on their heels. Carrick was boxed in. Rooney was invisible. Ferdinand wasn’t completely fit. And Cristiano Ronaldo looked like the only one with any hope of sparking a response to the Eto’o goal, but the Barca players must have recognized him as the only real threat and crowded him out repeatedly.
Barca spent the first half dancing around the United players, letting them smell the ball, but denying them any serious time on it.
In the second half, Sir Alex injected Carlos Tevez into the match for Anderson. Moving Rooney to the right had promise and the striker looked like he might reward the move with a successful charge on goal, but former United defender Gerard Pique was there to shut him down. Pique played out of his skin against his old club. He kept Rooney at bay throughout the second half and took much of the defensive responsibility in breaking up United’s few attacks.
Sir Alex decided to go with even more attack, putting Berbatov on for Park in the 66th. But another striker couldn’t really create anything extra as Barca kept United too deep to mount any real threats on goal.
Despite the close scoreline, United never really looked like coming back into it, and on 70 minutes Barcelona doubled their advantage. Barca created some intense pressure from an attack sparked by Puyol. They forced United to try to clear quickly and the ball fell to Barcelona again just outside the attacking third. Soon Xavi was down the right side and his perfect cross sailed in for Lionel Messi to head home.
With memories of 1999, United might have felt they could still come back, but nobody seemed to have the spark of Sheringham or Solskjaer.
Scholes came on for Giggs in the 75th, but his only real contribution was a late scissor tackle to earn himself a booking as frustration took over for the United players. Ronaldo, tired of feeling like the only United player who came to play, started fouling Carles Puyol repeatedly. Perhaps he wanted a change of scenery. But he could only earn a yellow.
Before the match everybody who wasn’t a Barcelona supporter seemed convinced United were going to win. They were to dominate the midfield with five men and play the injury ridden Spanish side off the park. Theirry Henry and Andres Iniesta were doubtfuls coming into the match and when they both started one wondered if they were being rushed back too soon. While Henry may not have been his usual carnivorous self, Iniesta played beautifully. He set up Eto’o for scoring and along with Xavi absolutely controlled the match from the middle. Only when Iniesta was subbed off in stoppage time did he look like a man who needed a rest.
I admit, long before Barca faced Chelsea, I didn’t think the Spanish giants could work their magic against the English teams. There wouldn’t be enough space, I said. But every time United painted Barca into a corner, all it took was a deft touch and a sly pass and each cul de sac became an open road. Barca don’t need space. They just enjoy a lot of it in La Liga. They are just as brilliant in heavy traffic.
Yesterday was a lesson in beautiful football. It can survive and thrive in any and all conditions. Barcelona played the game their way as United practically stood and watched. It was a perfect exercise in simplicity. Well done, Barca.