[BARCELONA-MAN. UNITED] Needing a composed, determined performance to overcome a more stylish and polished Barcelona, Manchester United instead came up well short with tactics as well as technique in a 3-1 Barca victory at Wembley in the 2011 UEFA Champions League final.
In the buildup to Europe’s grand club finale, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson cited “one or two mistakes” he believed his team had committed two years ago in losing the final to Barcelona, 2-0.
If he rectified those mistakes, as he claimed, others took their place. Rather than play to its strengths of determination, drive and cohesion, United stumbled and stuttered against a classier, more clinical foe.
Each of Barcelona’s front-line trio scored a goal, and by the time Pedro, Lionel Messi and David Villa had rippled the net behind keeper Edwin van der Sar, only questions of where this team stands among the greatest club contingents in history is left to debate.
Barcelona’s meticulous mixture of spacing and angles and tempo can embarrass even a smart, well-organized opponent, and this it did not encounter in Manchester United. The tactics and personnel chosen by Ferguson were questionable, though it must also be stated that except for the opening minutes, United’s sluggish and ponderous efforts were far inferior.
Ryan Giggs, one of the game’s best wingers in recent decades, chased shadows constantly in the middle, caught in a shell game by Barca’s triad of tricksters: Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Messi. Antonio Valencia, stationed on the right side of midfield, gave little impetus to the attack and only sporadically contributed a tackle. Javier Hernandez, deployed as a spearhead up top with Wayne Rooney ostensibly in support, rarely connected with his partner or anybody else, and killed several buildups on his own by wandering offside.
Rooney hit a spectacular equalizer in the 34th minute to match a quality finish by Pedro seven minutes earlier. Pedro, who mostly worked the left channel but occasionally played on the right, ran onto a ball from Xavi and from about 25 yards drilled it low inside van der Sar’s left-hand post. The goal followed a few narrow misses carved open by Messi’s wondrous dribbling, David Villa’s marauding runs up the rights, and the insatiable probing of Xavi and Iniesta.
United got its goal with a characteristic quick strike after forcing a turnover from a throw-in near the right touchline. Right back Fabio played it quickly to Rooney, who traded passes with Michael Carrick and pushed the ball forward to Giggs, who might have been a hair offside. When no whistle came as the ball bounced off his thigh, Giggs relayed it to Rooney for a majestic right-footed stroke from 15 yards into the top corner.
Despite the shock and suddenness of United’s reply, Barcelona resumed command, often riding the ball forward on a wave of clever touches and insidious runs through the middle. Desperate defending at the edge of its penalty area and a few strong saves by van der Sar edged United to halftime tied, 1-1, but a tendency for its players to back up into their own box had been noticed, and would soon be exploited.
Messi, dancing with the ball towards the penalty area in the 54th minute, so mesmerized a quartet of challengers none of them stepped to him. They expected a flick, chip, tap, lob or sudden burst, all of which had already tormented them; instead, his short, quick backswing yielded a sharp left-footed shot that skipped past van der Sar’s surprised, late dive.
The keeper kept his team in the game by flying sideways to parry Xavi’s belter from that same mid-range distance, but United ceded control of that area and its resilience unraveled. Fifteen minutes after Messi’s winner came the clincher, when from the dead zone outside the United penalty area Barca came alive yet again.
Substitute Nani lost the ball to Messi near the sideline, and Sergio Busquets swept it inside to Villa for a curling shot over yet another despairing lunge from van der Sar and into the top corner.
More was needed to win this final than magical Messi and his merry pranksters. Injured captain Carles Puyol played only the final few minutes; Javier Mascherano replaced him as Gerald Pique’s partner in central defense, and after a few anxious minutes of sorting spacing and assignments, they blotted out Hernandez and pushed Rooney to the left flank, from where he hit ineffective crosses repelled by Pique or snagged by Victor Valdes.
Otherwise, Valdes seldom intervened, yet once in each half he stormed off his line to clear balls about to drop for Rooney or Hernandez. He also reacted instantly to kick away a risky touch from Pique, who had steered a through ball to his keeper in tight space with Hernandez bearing down. Valdes did not post an official save. Daniel Alves, along with Villa, owned the right flank for long stretches; left back Eric Abidal relentlessly played the full 90 minutes two months after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor.
Not all of United’s players were out-gunned. Van der Sar heroically marked his final appearance for the club with nine saves. Centerback Nemanja Vidic cleared out a lot of clutter in the goalmouth. Carrick broke up plays and distributed the ball crisply before being overwhelmed by numbers and pressure, as did Park Ji Sung. And Rooney played with all the heart and guile and power that have scourged teams for more than a decade. But against a great team, half a team isn't nearly enough.
With two minutes remaining, Barca coach Pep Guardiola sent on Puyol, the warrior defender of long service and flowing tresses. Vast sections of Wembley morphed into a roiling sea of blaugrana bliss, stirring tribute to a mesmerizing way of play which also wins.
Possession: Barcelona 68-32.
Shots: Barcelona 22-4.
Shots on goal: Barcelona 12-1.