A Night of Soccer Magic from Barca

By Paul Gardner

The Rout of Rome. Manchester United, for sure, will want to forget this one. The 2-0 scoreline doesn't sound all that bad -- but it was, it was. Apart from a hectic first 10 minutes or so, when ManU charged energetically forward, trying frantically to be the first to score, this was all Barcelona.

Some wonderful soccer was played in Rome's Stadio Olimpico, all of it by Barcelona. It got its reward in two splendid goals, just two. But in competitive terms, it was rewarded by the almost complete disappearance of ManU as a dangerous, functioning team.

As Barcelona strung their lovely passes together, so easily, so elegantly, it became more and more apparent that ManU had no answer to this soccer blitz.

While Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Henry et al were glowing like the soccer masters that they are, Rooney, Park, Carrick, Giggs, Anderson et al, were reduced to mere runners and chasers.

One was certain that Alex Ferguson would light a fire under his team at halftime. Not a bit of it. The Barcelona domination got more insistent, the Barcelona soccer got better, more confident, more accomplished. Clearly, unarguably, the better team won this final.

Before the game, the English critics and commentators zeroed in on Victor Valdes as a weak Barcelona point. He was a "dodgy keeper." It was also agreed that the Barcelona defense, missing key players, was shaky.

Even if you accept all that, such criticism surely missed the point of Barcelona's playing style. The team's strength is in midfield and up front. Possession is part of this, but by no means all.

The final game stats showed the two teams more or less equal on that front. Which shows that there is possession ... and there is possession. ManU's possession was a sterile, straightforward affair that posed little danger. But in the Barcelona midfield there was not only mastery, there was malice too. The ability to do damage, a threat that lurked every time Xavi or Iniesta got the ball.

I've remarked before on Barcelona's liking for the ground game, and it was much in evidence yesterday. Xavi and Iniesta play the ball wondrously along the ground. It is passed with stunning precision. Yesterday, barely a ball was wasted, barely a ball given away. Both players can dribble suddenly and elusively to further complicate matters.

The beauty of all this is that the throttling spider's web of passes that it produces is not just an end in itself -- nor, strictly, can I define it as providing "service" for Henry, Eto'o and the superb Messi. It's more than service because those three join in the fun, the midfield and the attackers merge, everyone "serving" everyone else -- yesterday we even saw Carles Puyol joining in with a touch and a brio of almost unfair quality for a defender.

The passing movements were rapid staccato attacks, or they were more thoughtful, measured affairs, punctuated with teasing pauses. Always with the ball speeding along the turf -- sideways, diagonal, backward, but most often menacingly forward. After all, when your star attacker is only 5-foot-7, why would you put the ball in the air?

You would when you've so bewildered the ManU defenders that Messi can find himself in open space just six yards out of goal. That was when Xavi, having instantly assessed the situation, delivered a careful, controlled cross and Messi headed Barcelona's second, killer, goal. Messi, scoring on a header! A rare header that had the neatness and the knowingness that is stamped on everything that Messi does with the ball.

And not just Messi. To play the short-passing attacking game that Barcelona play -- and to play it with such rapidity around the ManU penalty area -- is a tricky business. Not least because of the danger that the constantly moving players will stray offside. On this one, the stats don't lie: just two offside calls against Barcelona.

The movement is like quicksilver. There is no time for a commentator (thank heavens!) to yell "He's making a run!" because the run is made and finished before the words form, short darting runs, delayed as long as possible, avoiding offside, the subtle, late movement a nightmare for defenders. And suddenly, out of a tangle of players, a Barcelona player emerges with the ball, bearing down 1-v-1 with the goalkeeper.

If there is a way that soccer "should" be played, then this surely is it. This was proof that ball skills are the key. Proof that you don't need monsters or Rottweilers in midfield, nor do you need players who can do little more than charge about and be energetic. Proof that you don't need to wallop the ball way downfield, or to "switch it" with mighty cross-field passes.

Proof that perfect soccer is not about size and strength. A year ago Xavi and Iniesta made that point during Spain's Euro 08 triumph. Yesterday they made it even more emphatically because they were helped by the genius of Messi. Three fantastic players, three mighty midgets, not one of them measuring more than 5-foot-7. Incomparable ball artists, players with all the subtlety and the instincts and the courage and the artistry that make up the true soccer brain.

It's tempting to see what happened in Rome as a changing of the guard. The 67-year-old Ferguson gave us a tired looking team playing traditional soccer. Where Pep Guardiola -- only 38 -- ushered in a younger, livelier, more modern version of the sport.

But be warned that an entirely different view of the game will come from many hard-liners. They will ridicule the idea of things like subtlety and artistry. They will take a look at another of the stats and will ask, in shocked tones -- A final with a total of only 17 fouls? Only three fouls against Messi? And from those figures, they will draw the conclusion that ManU simply didn't get "stuck in" enough, and that anyway, it should have played with the same abjectly defensive attitude that Guus Hiddink's Chelsea used in the semifinal.

All of which is worth some thought. But not right now, not in the afterglow of Rome. No, this was not a great game. It was too one-sided to be that. But it was, from one team, a great exhibition of soccer. It was a pleasure, and a privilege, to watch Barcelona at work. By which I mean -- Barcelona at play.


4 comments about "A Night of Soccer Magic from Barca".
  1. David Sirias, May 28, 2009 at 12:18 p.m.

    Good assessment, though I think Man U should be praised more for trying to attack. They were inches away from scorong a couple of times in the first 10 minutes. If they score, the outcome may have been different. And yes, Man U did not succumb to thuggery. And oh if America could give us just one Xavi or Iniesta! ........ But this won't happen until the little kids starting under 6 are taught to love the ball and keep it on the ground. And that won't happen until we get a whole new generation of coaches. Hopefully this cultural transition is under way.

  2. Trudy Wells, May 28, 2009 at 12:31 p.m.

    The night in Rome belonged to Barcelona . . . the magnificent . . . where the sounds of Andrea Bocelli added glamour and class in a packed Stadium where even the grass looked greener than ever.
    The “AIG-Shirts” lost! Lady Luck was asleep for Manchester United. Ronaldo’s yellow card showed extreme frustration.
    The cheers for Messi, the kid from Argentina, will long be heard around the world . . . the sounds of the future. Messi has a speed to burn – he simply is fast. A stunner of a goal – a header Van Der Sar could only stare at in disbelief!
    The power of one Goal changed the game – Barcelona never looked back!
    Massimo Busacca the impartial handsome Swiss official [referee] from the land of the neutral with an Italian sounding name [he is from the Italian part of Switzerland] gave the whole game a most welcome feel of fairness. And, he was truly in shape! He seemed to always be where he was close to witness the action . . . to make the right call.
    To Referees all over the world: take notice – get in better shape!
    Congratulation to Josep Guardiola – the hero - a coach with a future beyond!
    The journey is the reward!
    Soccer rules!
    Trudy Wells [Swiss born]

  3. B F, May 28, 2009 at 1:33 p.m.

    It's one thing to thrash Levante or Gijon. But when your play so sublime that you make clubs the caliber of Real Madrid (2-6 in the Bernabeu) and Manchester United look like third rate teams, that's the best evidence of all of Barca's sheer brilliance.

  4. Rod Hagwood, May 30, 2009 at 12:50 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner - brilliant blog; you write beautifully.

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