I think it’s fair to say that the Barcelona ‘passing carousel’ was out in force last night. Even fairer to say that the United midfield wasn’t really out in any force.
After a bright start, where Anderson looked to have the energy that could light up United’s midfield, the Champions capitulated. Whereas Barca were looking nervous – Pique in particular looking decidedly shaky in the early stages – at the beginning, once Eto’o had turned Vidic, cut inside and slotted home United seemed bereft of ideas, especially in a lacklustre first half. Barcelona started to create a rhythm that United couldn’t break, and on a large Olimpico surface, this meant lots and lots of running. It was a scorching night in Rome, and so when United got the ball, they knew that they had to use it wisely, and with their energy being drained by chasing shadows, they didn’t have the zest to do something with it and expose Barcelona’s defence.
Barcelona, for their part, grew in confidence and dominated the game – whenever they lost the ball Xavi and Iniesta would press Carrick, O’Shea and Vidic in particular, forcing them to lose it or give it away time after time. Carrick got used to it after a while to his credit, but the latter two (among others) looked flustered in possession and were always prone to a slack pass upfield – meaning that the passing carousel could start again in earnest. For about twenty minutes.
It’s easy to say with hindsight that United should have approached it like Chelsea did the semi finals, but Chelsea’s midfield has the physicality to pull it off and outlet up front (Drogba) that could do the job of two or three men on his own, leaving more scope for leaving more men back for defnsive duties. United, on the other hand, were never going to be able to intimidate the Barcelona midfield in the same way – for all their merits, Giggs, Carrick, Anderson and Park are not as scary as Michael Essien and Michael Ballack coming to close you down. Ronaldo tried his best to the Drogba role (his histrionics were matching the Ivorian’s by the end) but he didn’t have the raw power to really scare Yaya Touré and Gerard Piqué into mistakes in the way that Drogba managed to at Stamford Bridge. Each attempted slapshot wide was emphasized by the fact that he had wasted the possession that the midfield had struggled so hard to get hold of.
Wayne Rooney was a marginalised figure, putting in only one cross of note all game, and the consensus is now that he shouldn’t be used in that wide role any more. Not true. In the latter part of the season he has excelled in that wide left role, with his ability to both cut inside and go down the flank being very effective going forward and his indefatigability being a crucial asset in protecting Patrice Evra. He was poor last night, and seemed intimidated by either the occassion (he didn’t have a great game in last year’s final) or the Barca midfield, who would capitalised on any mistake in the way – by keeping possession forever - that no other team in Europe would.
Carlos Tevez, introduced at half time, was full of energy but little end product, implying that perhaps the lazy genius of Dimitar Berbatov should have replaced the poor Anderson at half time – the Bulgarian’s ability to keep possession could’ve helped United build up momentum that their opponents managed to achieve early in the second half, Thierry Henry missing another good chance in a Champions League Final and Xavi hitting a post. United on the other hand could only see a good cross from Rooney evade every one. That was it.
Perhaps it was fatigue – this was the 66th game of United’s marathon season - but it was probably more mental tiredness: big games have been coming every three days for three months, and with emotionally draining comebacks needed against Porto, Wigan, Aston Villa and Tottenham, FA Cup ties at Fulham and at Wembley, as well as three meetings with Arsenal, a beating at the hands of Liverpool and a frustrating day at Fulham, perhaps they were a bit stale at the end of the season.
Either way, it was a fabulous performance from the new European Champions, and with the likes of Messi, Iniesta, Pique, Yaya Toure and Xavi hardly veterans, perhaps this can be the dawning of a dynasty threatened after the 2006 triumph. Hopefully, with theirs and Spain’s recent triumphs, there will be a new era of teams playing such beautiful possession football, as teams generally only copy the best.