Barcelona Play United Off The Park, Cap Magnificent Season With Well Deserved Victory (Updated Below)
Well, then. That was something, wasn't it?
It's funny how many myths can die unpleasant deaths in just over two hours. "La Liga is shit, Barca wouldn't be top three in the Premier League, no one defends over there" for one. "Messi can't score against English teams, and bottles it in big games" is another (though how that one got started in spite of his 2006 performance at Stamford Bridge is quite beyond me). "Ronaldo is a more complete player than Messi" was perhaps my favorite one to get debunked (um, doesn't passing, pressing, and vision count toward being a "complete" player?).
Anyway, I'm here to appreciate and analyze, not gloat. I'm not going to say "I told you so" but I would ask people to watch more than 180 minutes of park-the-bus football before judging how capable a team really is. The English media's build-up to this game was quite astounding in the lack of perspective displayed.
Today was a footballing lesson, and I'm sorry, but there's no other way to put it. After their semi-final win against Arsenal, Patrice Evra said it was a case of men against boys. I wonder what he would say after today's performance? How would he describe this?
United were played off the park. They chased shadows the whole game. If you had to select a joint eleven from the teams on the basis of today's performance, I simply don't know which United player would make it. Maybe Rooney in midfield, but who would he replace? Busquets, perhaps, though the kid showed that he can more than handle himself at this level. Maybe Ronaldo, for he had some truly outstanding and threatening moments, and Henry was less than mobile on his return from injury. But Ronaldo would be such a misfit with these Barcelona players, because their mantra is "receive, pass, offer" and his mantra is "shoot, never pass under any circumstances, and try to win the game single-handedly". Evra had a goodish game (except for being caught out with the first goal) but didn't Sylvinho -- at age 36 no less -- have a better one? And let's not even get into discussions about the midfield (just yet anyway, maybe later in the post).
I thought Sir Alex Ferguson made a massive mistake, but it's a mistake, funnily enough, that we should all credit him for making. The mistake was thinking that United could play football with Barca. I have absolutely no idea why he thought this, but he did. So rather than replicate last year's tactics that worked so well, or indeed copying Guus Hiddink's tactics from the semis, United came out of their cage. This was quite silly. But we should be happy that he made this mistake, because for such an important game -- a Champions League final -- we really should not be subjected to snorefests of 10 men behind the ball. Let the two best teams in Europe go at it, and play football, and see which team wins. Why buy all those Ferraris if they're only going to be parked in the garage? Football fans all over the world owe Sir Alex Ferguson a debt of gratitude for that one, even if his team probably beg to differ.
It could, of course, have been slightly different. United absolutely bossed the first ten minutes. I don't think Barca strung together more than three passes during that time, while United had five shots, three of them pretty legitimate chances (the Ronaldo free kick, the Park follow up, and the Ronaldo long ranger). If they had scored there, they could have settled back and absorbed Barca's pressure better. But they didn't, were sucker-punched by Eto'o of all people -- if anyone has watched Barca over the last two months, they will know how surprising that is -- and from then one, were chasing the game. And frankly, United were not good enough to chase Barca.
But I did find United's going off the boil from minutes 11-90 quite puzzling. Were they outclassed? Sure. But they never tried anything different. Not in the sense of different players, but different tactics. One of the great strengths of this United team is the different looks they can give you. But they kept trying the same thing -- try to play through Carrick and Anderson in midfield -- when it was clear that such a gameplan was absolutely futile given the gulf in class between the central midfields. (Random challenge: if Spain play with 10 players in next year's World Cup, but three of them are Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso, will they still be able to win it?) United could have boofed it up Chelsea-and-Drogba style or Villareal-and-Llorente style and hoped for the best -- indeed, this is when they looked most threatening. But they did not try it nearly enough.
And let's be honest: Pique and Puyol played the games of their lives. I'm sure United fans are asking how it came to be that the the best CB on the pitch was Barcelona's, and moreover, was United's fifth-choice CB last year, if that. And Puyol kept Ronaldo and Rooney in check throughout the game, despite both those stars being much quicker and more agile. He played with so much heart, was all over the pitch, chased everything down, and was a captain's captain. He might not play more than 25 games next year, but if this game is the one he is remembered by when he retires, I don't think he'll be complaining.
This was a complete performance by Barca, but I've honestly seen them play much better this year. They were in about third or fourth gear for much of the game, though this probably had a lot to do with (a) Henry not being able to move, and (b) Yaya Toure being played out of position. But it doesn't matter, because they have shown themselves to be the best team in Spain, in Europe, and in the world. Lionel Messi cemented his status as Ballon D'Or frontrunner, though it's quite sad that his reign will be such a short-lived one (if Iniesta doesn't get injured next year, I see no way in which he doesn't win it). Xavi and Iniesta, bless their hearts, leave all of us in awe every time they play together. But talking about individuals cheapens and takes away from what makes Barca so successful. It is always about the team, for without the other players who make up this palette of great talents, they would all go to waste. Remember, for a triangle of passes to work, you actually need two others in the right place at the right time. That fact, more than anything, captures the essence of Barcelona's success.
And Pep? Oh dear, what about Pep? What exactly will he do for an encore? On second thought, that's an uncomfortable question for another time.
Victory is sweet. Justified and beautiful victory is sweeter. And an unmitigated victory -- not marred by bad decisions, close calls, or any cause for complaint by the vanquished -- featuring two teams going into battle and one coming out so far and away superior? Well, surely that is sweetest.
Photo credit: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
UPDATE: I wrote this post in a hurry, so neglected to mention one of the top performers of the night: the ref. Maintained control, didn't let things get out of hand, let the game flow, and made sure that the viewers only ever noticed the footballers and the football, and nothing else. Brilliant performance.
UPDATE II: Comment of the day comes from well into a Guardian thread (somewhere around the 500th comment; yes, I need to get a life or at least go to sleep) by a reader named Mortice:
What do Julius Casear and Man Utd have in common?
Both got murdered in Rome.
UPDATE IV: I don't speak either Spanish or Catalan, but I do know a drunk 21 year-old when I see one, and I have to tell you, Messi is drunker than a sixteen year-old girl with conservative parents on her prom: