Thursday, May 28, 2009

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 III: Well, at least Ronaldo won something.

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:


zeyd said...

Firstly, congrats to Barca and all their fans.

Ahsan, you called it: the midfield was the difference.

Carrick and Anderson were lost, Giggs had no legs, and Man U had no width. I think SAF ballsed it up a bit, though the players should take plenty of the blame for being so stagnant and uninspiring.

Speaking of inspiring, how good was Iniesta? He showed as much control, touch, and vision on the ball as Zizou used to, well, almost. He was fantastic.

As was Messi, he's rather good. Really. Kudos to Pep for playing him in the middle, it allows him so much more space and independence on the ball.

Very impressed by Barca's defensive discipline; they maintenance their line and shape for pretty much the entire game. There were no mistakes made, though I suppose Man U are to blame for not really forcing any, as Chelsea had done prior. Still, with a makeshift defense, that was impressive.

I'm glad Barca won it. Firstly, one may as well lose to the eventual champions, and secondly, I really didn't want to see Man U win - the media and fans would have been even more insufferable than the inevitable Barca wankfest. Over the course of the past 9 months or so, Barca deserved the title - they rarely faltered and when they did, they got a bit of luck, which I suppose is deserved over the course of a cup run.

And Ahsan, you touched on it, but how in the world is Pep gonna follow this up?

And enjoy it dude, you're very fortunate (as a fan) to have tasted victory twice in three years. I've never tasted that. Sweeter than a plate of gulab jamans? I imagine so.

Ahsan said...


Thanks for that. Big and gracious of you, especially given a number of Chelsea's fans are filling up the blogs and comments sections out there arguing that they didn't even deserve to be there (in the final), so it doesn't matter how well they played.

On to the substantive stuff:

1. Iniesta and Xavi have to be considered two of the world's six or seven best players. I would put Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Kaka (when fit and with a real team around him), Gerrard, Essien, and Ronaldo as the top seven, though in what order I do not know. And Iniesta, people often forget, is still ridiculously young -- 25 in fact, same as Ronaldo with more potential to grow.

2. I honestly think Pep will hang around 2-3 more years at the most, and then he'll be taking up some sort of Sporting Director/Godfather type of position. He's a very demanding guy in terms of work ethic, practice, punctuality etc. In many ways, he treats the team as a bunch of kids. This works fine when the team is hungry and hasn't won anything in 2 years, but I wonder how open the players will be to this type of management once they win and get some satisfaction and possibly big heads/egos.

3. The defense was not as makeshift as people (including me) were making it out to be in the buildup, because only Yaya played out of position, and he's played there in a number of important games in recent weeks (Chelsea second leg, Copa final) so he probably got the hang of it. Sylvinho is an excellent left-back, and Puyol probably plays better at RB than CB (indeed, started his career there). And Pique? What a beast.

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karachi khatmal said...

we saw the match at the rahat stadium, and i can't remember having so much fun at a football game ever before.

every time sir alex or rooney would be on screen, we would scream aaloo aaloo. for ronaldo, anything from roo-to to chakka. both goals were welcomed with spontaneous makrani dances. the crowd was split pretty evenly between pro-man u vs anti-man u, with some barca fans. we kept shouting that man u had shown up wearing their test match kits. someone offered that man u should have played kamran akmal, at least he could have done something. rooney began to be greeted with ramesh powar and adnan sami khan shouts.


as for five rupees, i think zeyd was only one of the several people who would go on about the premiership being infinitely better. i have a desire to be a complete asshole right now, but i will restrain myself.

however, seriously, the only way an english team can win is through chelsea tactics. that's it. by being an uptight bitch. because anything else would get them strung up, bound, stripped, flagellated and have their wounds smeared with salty onions.

that said, barca were really not BARCA as we've seen them (i think the 2-6 was BARCA) but it was a really mesmeric performance. the rahat crowd couldn't really get into the ole for each pass, but they should have. barca deserved it.

whew - i think this is the last season i would have to gush over barca. but anything to have man u's noses dragged through the muck.

once again, i apologize for my profanity.

Tan said...

I'm neither a fan of Barca or Utd (I'm a Birmingham City fan, if you must know) and I usually roll my eyes at 5Rs. posts about Barca but this one is right on the money. Utd bottled it and I think it was epitomised by Vidic pretty much bottling it and Ronaldo going missing (where was he after his four/five early chances? He must've had one chance in the rest of the game).

Well done Barca - although I was supporting anyone but Utd (well, apart from Villa, if pigs flew and they were in the Champions League final....)

Asfandyar said...

Messi's goal was just a pisstake. I just laughed (amidst the tears, naturally) at it, because he was basically showing everyone who said he couldn't head (myself included) how stupid we were.

We were outplayed, as has been said. No two ways about it. In a way, that makes the loss less unbearable, because you just have to hold your hands up and say that no team could've taken on Barca in such a mood. They were phenomenal. Their pressing from the front, as always, immense. We didn't help our cause, but the best teams take advantage of the other team's weaknesses and that's what Barca did. Too often as a United fan I've heard how teams have 'rolled over and gotten a pounding' from us. Well, last night it was us who took the pounding.

I'm not THAT upset in terms of 'SELL FERGIE SACK GIGGS!'. A lot of people out there are blaming Carrick and even Berbatov for the loss :S We were outdone in midfield, yes, but it was because Giggs was fucking nowhere and Anderson just isn't good enough to cut it against a team like Barca. We badly, badly missed Fletcher/Hargreaves. Before last night, our last loss came against Milan at the San Siro - a 3-0 drubbing. In that game, we had no Hargreaves and Fletcher wasn't good enough back then. We were outplayed. 25 unbeaten games later, we're up against the best side in Europe, again, without a good holding midfielder, and we're schooled. I know lots of people are going to look at our midfield and fair enough, but it's folly to think that our midfield could've coped easily with Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets. Carrick was left on his own so many times I feel really, really bad for him. He had to press and tackle and cover and then try to find a United player because no one was showing up near him.

The first goal just knocked the stuffing out of us. Made a great start, and then conceded a goal where Vidic just made a schoolboy mistake and VDS got beat where he shouldn't have. But that's football. You get straight up. We didn't.

IMO, only O'Shea, Rio and Ronaldo came out of that game with their heads held anywhere near 'high'. Maybe not even Rio, because he really could've stepped up better. Ronaldo looked like the only one who WANTED something. Rooney was just...:S Worst performance I've seen from him as a United player. Maybe he's fed up with sacrificing himself for the team - and about fucking time too. I hope Fergie listens to him adn plays him behind a striker next season.

Starting line-up was okay to be honest. Anderson was playing well, Giggs was playing well. It's just that Fergie made too many mistakes with his substitutions. I think in the first half we still had Barca to an extent under control. The moment Anderson went off we were just fucked. It should've been Giggs going off instead of Anderson. Tevez and Berbatov on when we were getting raped in midfield?!

Asfandyar said...

(In two parts, because apparently it was over the character limit)

I do think we could've taken Barca on football wise, because though we both play attacking football, ours is built less on pass, pass, pass. Really needed to run at Barca's defense like Ronaldo did early on. But, fucking Piquenbauer. Goddamn good looking, ball playing bastard. Him and Evans would've been so wanktastic (despite Pique's lack of pace). :(

As usual, Iniesta and Xavi. God. Even last night I had an urge to touch myself when either of them got the ball, and Iniesta's performance wasn't even his best this season! or close to it! Pasty faced asshole.

We just did not show up after the first goal. Really disappointing.

Anyway, from the season itself i'm pretty happy. Going into December I thought we'd be lucky to mount a league challenge or get into the CL final, let alone win the league! Getting an 18th title pretty much at a canter (we didn't play anywhere near our best football this season) was great. People seem to think the shine off our season has been taken off - but fucks sake! Third league title in a row!

oh and Ahsan, here's something really, really interesting for you:

Of the 5 teams that have done the treble in Europe (Ajax, Celtic, PSV, Man Utd, Barcelona), ALL of them have done so while playing marauding attacking football. ALL of them. Often we hear people saying 'yeah but your brilliant football rarely produces' - except it does when it's done right. It does in droves.

Congratulations! I wasn't able to witness our treble in '99 (boarding school - no cable tv), so I can only imagine the perma-grin etched on your face. :)

Asfandyar said...

edited to say (third comment in a row ffs):

When I said Anderson and Giggs were playing well, I meant that they were in good form going into the game.

Ali K. said...

Spot on Asfandyar. Not just this game, we missed a quality holding midfielder in the Liverpool loss as well. Man U have a problem against the sole striker if he drops deep often or a trequartista.Couldn't understand why giggs was playing up top. Was crying out for scholes to be brought on for giggs or park (not anderson) as early as the 35th minute.

And I can't agree more on Wayne playing behind the striker. His med-long range passing is so underrated. What a waste on the left even though he puts a shift in every game.

If there was a team this season I wouldn't mind losing the champions league to that much it was this Barcelona team. They have played some great football this season. Congrats Barca fans!

P.S.We will get you next season. :P

Anonymous said...

well played by defence of united, they were chasing the game only because they lost the early goal...i did not see barca troubling the united defence too much, yes they controlled the midfield with their holding play but did not create any significant chances...of course second goal was due to united throwing everyone forward...without the early goal they would have struggled to unlock united's defence...

Nabeel said...

okay,so i've already spent way way way too much time reading and writing about this match.

i don't know if fergie made a mistake - it only seems like a mistake in retrospect,because without eto'o's goal so early

on,it would have been a different game i think. that goal did to manchester what park's goal did to arsenal in the semifinal

- it caught them in the solar plexus and for a long time they were just reeling in shock.

united CAN play football with barcelona,i think they are a great team,but not with that lineup,not with that formation.

anderson,giggs,and park are not the equal of xavi,iniesta,and busquets/keita,as i pointed out in my preview


that said,i respect united all the more for not taking the coward's approach (chelsea's nou camp performance exemplifies

that) and taking the game to barcelona. if they had succeeded,i would have said fair game.

united's going off the boil was partly a result of the shock,partly a result of bad tactics (eg when tevez came on,i expected

ronaldo to be an even greater threat to puyol/silvinho,but he just disappeared!), and partly because they were just not good

enough. they COULDN'T do anything because Barcelona didn't ALLOW them to - what CAN you do when you just can't get the ball

and play with it? it's almost unfair,as someone at the Barcelona Offside ( once said - they hardly

got to string some passes together and get some rhythm going.

and yes,the triangles were the beautiful,beautiful key. it was so wonderful to watch barca cut manchester down to ribbons

with nothing more than one-twos around the pitch - a sequence at the end of the first half stands out where silvinho was in

acres of space!

Ah,yes. Unmitigated victory is the sweetest of all.

zeyd,as barca fans we got BITTER disappointment on the last day of the season in 07 and we got humiliation and misery exactly

one year ago. you're right,we are enjoying it,but it's only partly fortune. it's the result of a lot of hard work,too. yes -

thank you.

i agree with ahsan - this success is nearly impossible to repeat because it was based on a lot of hunger from the past few

years. eto'o doesn't have the temperament or quality to reproduce a season like this, puyol and henry are getting older,

teams everywhere are getting wiser to barca's tactics, and pep's somewhat authoritarian approach won't work every year like

it has now.

agree with khatmal too - the 6-2 was more true Blaugrana than this one. but this was equally sweet,because xavi and iniesta

got to show off with the world watching.

asfandyar,your reply has been typical of most other man utd fans i know,which is a good thing - gracious and accepting. and

that is probably the happiest result from this game - there are no barca haters, just more barca fans.

hargreaves was signed AFTER san siro,and he was signed specifically for games like these. a world-class player with

versatility. his cons included fragility,and that just kicked in.

usually manchester get straight up,but this was a real sucker punch. unlike tottenham,where manchester was getting outplayed

and conceded,here they couldn't have imagined conceding so early. vidic and vds were just caught off-guard i think - no one

expected eto'o to score off barca's FIRST attack!

Aamer said...

Congratulations Barca a well deserved victory!

A quick rant....

1) I just want to point out that United fans went on and on and ON... about how great the final was going to be because the two best teams were playing the final. All that talk about Chelsea having no class and playing boring football... Both the semi final games were more exciting than the despicable showing by United...

2) United were out classed, plain and simple...Fergi should be blamed because his game plan, choice for fist team and substitutions were not his best decisions.

3) United fans are complaining about not having certain players but forget that Barca was playing without some of its key players as well. To say that United could have made a game out of it if they had certain players is a ridiculous excuse...

Faisal.K said...

Its not just that Barca played Man U and the stupid legend wanna be Ronaldo off the field but the way they did it. They were passing around Man U like professionals playing with a bunch of street urchins.

Its been proven once and for all who the real team is, i think Man U fans should just piss off. Even a nearly dead Puyol was running rings around Man U's attack and to think Barca's best defence was sitting on the bench. I think when Man U won on penalities last year they took it to their head, even that was a stroke of sheer luck.

Bye Bye so called devils...time to go lick your wounds.

lala pathan said...

sorry for being late i m sure u were waiting for my comment ahsan since me and u r the only onse who caleed it from the get go :) but wat barca did even i wud hav never was megical...all hail barca :) fergis is waiting for the second leg, forget it was a final :) congrats mate