Following the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final, Sir Alex Ferguson soberly spoke to the media after the match. The legendary manager spoke on behalf of a team who had just defeated Manchester United 3-1 in the final of Europe’s premier club competition. The date was May 28, 2011.
The team was FC Barcelona. “They’re the best team in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced.” Ferguson went on to lament, “No one,” he exclaimed, “has ever given us a hiding like that.”
It was Barcelona’s second UEFA Champions League title in three years, both victories coming at the expense of the Manchester club.
Barcelona in 2011 were as mesmerizing and unstoppable as any team in the history of the sport. In my opinion, they were the greatest team of the 21st Century.
In order to truly quantify the greatness of this side, we need to look at three matches that identify the absolute greatness of this team.
Three matches that defined a Barcelona era
November 29, 2010
For two days a year, the footballing world comes to a standstill and shifts their gaze towards the Iberian Peninsula. For one of the greatest football spectacles on earth: El Clásico. When Barcelona and Real Madrid clash, everything else seems unimportant.
This match, however, spawned a sense of shock and awe that seemed incomparable.
It was only ten minutes before Barcelona took the lead. Andres Iniesta, just four months removed from scoring the winning goal at the 2010 World Cup, sliced a picture perfect ball in between five Real Madrid defenders. Xavi was on the other end of the pass and delightfully tapped the ball over a helpless Iker Casillas. The hosts led, 1-0.
Not 8 minutes later, it was 2-0. David Villa, joint top scorer at that same World Cup, got to the byline and sent a cross that was perfectly deflected to Pedro. He had the entire goal at his mercy.
Villa got his due, scoring twice in the second half. One of them courtesy of an inch perfect ball from near midfield by Messi. Villa latched onto it and slipped it past an onrushing Iker Casillas.
Even young substitute Jeffren contributed with a goal in the 92nd minute.
When the dust settled, Barcelona had won 5-0. It was the most lopsided Clásico in years. And Messi, who racked up 50+ goals for the season, didn’t even score once.
April 27, 2011
There was a beautiful three week period in April 2011. Barcelona and Real Madrid would meet four times. Once in the league, once in the Copa del Rey Final, and twice in the Champions League semifinals.
The first Leg of the semifinals was held at the Santiago Bernebeu.
Real Madrid was unlucky having to host the first leg. The strategy was to get a lead and make Barcelona chase in the second leg. For 75 minutes, the match was a stalemate.
Until a 75th minute Ibrahim Affelay cross from the right hand side found Messi. Darting towards the near post, he slapped the ball midair past Casillas. Barcelona had a crucial away goal.
This put Real Madrid at a disadvantage, chasing the game to salvage a result.
That played perfectly into Messi’s hands. In what can only be described as one of the defining goals of Messi’s career. The Argentine picked up the ball from Sergio Busquets, and made one of the runs of his life. A slalom toward the Real Madrid goal. Dragging four defenders with him and coolly tapping a shot across the goal to make it 2-0.
At that point, despite an entire 90 minutes remaining, the tie was over.
Barcelona won the first leg 2-0, and a 1-1 draw in the second leg sent Barcelona to the final.
But the match in Madrid is really when Messi announced himself as the world’s greatest player.
May 28, 2011
For the match that announced Barcelona as the world’s best team we go back to where we started: Wembley.
The 2011 UEFA Champions League final pitted the champions of England versus the champions of Spain.
Manchester United and Barcelona had persevered throughout a grueling 38 game league campaign. Both fighting through tough draws to reach the Final.
United had a staunch defense, led by Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, and Patrice Evra. The latter two were selected to the UEFA Team of the Year. The midfield was full of experience, and the front line of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez was quite potent.
Of course, it was all about Sir Alex.
This was his last trip to the Champions League Final with United, a chance to avenge the 2009 setback against Barcelona in Rome.
It was supposed to be a clash of the titans. It wasn’t.
United didn’t deserve to be on the same field as Barcelona, who were undoubtably at their brilliant best. For 90 minutes, they played as perfect a game of football as you’ll ever see.
Pedro opened the scoring on 27 minutes, taking a Xavi through ball in stride and squeezing an inch perfect shot in between legendary keeper Edwin van der Sar. He was playing in his final match for United but let one in from the near post to give Barcelona the lead.
United would strike back 7 minutes later, as Wayne Rooney leathered a strike past a helpless Victor Valdes to level the score.
At halftime, United had a glimmer of hope
Then in the 54th minute, Messi had another career defining goal. Taking the ball from 20 yards out and smashing it past van der Sar. Messi went wild. Running towards the crowd with unrestrained jubilation. You’ll be hard pressed to find a goal where Messi had more emotion in his celebration.
Villa completed the scoring 15 minutes later with an exquisite shot in the upper right corner. All three of Barcelona’s front line had scored.
When the dust settled, Barcelona won 3-1. The score line flattered United.
Barcelona outshot them 19-4. 12 of Barca’s shots were on target. United’s only shot on target was their lone goal. They out possessed them 63% to 37%. United committed 16 fouls, and were caught offside 5 times.
Their stoic midfield, anchored by Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, never stood a chance against Iniesta, Xavi, and Busquets, who dictated the game without breaking a sweat.
Ferguson knew it at the end
After the game, Sir Alex Ferguson proclaimed how Barcelona mesmerized his team with their passing ability. “Great teams do go in cycles and they’re at the peak of the cycle they’re in at the moment,” he said. Simply put, “they’re the greatest team in Europe, that’s for sure.”
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