Monday 22 January 2018

Barca's dizzying rhythm runs rings round United

Red Devils left chasing shadows of world's greatest club side, writes Paul Hayward

Rondo, rondo. Round, round. Two words to haunt Manchester United as Europe's elite search for an answer to the crushing problem that is Barcelona, with their relentless circulation of the football, topped off by the genius of Lionel Messi.

United soaked up all the eulogies about Barcelona and then responded the way a great club ought to: not with caution, or containment, but with a restatement of the spirit that first lifted them to the European title on this ground in 1968, when Best, Law and Charlton were in their prime. It was a battle for survival all night.

For those far-off Wembley days, read Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. To pick both strikers in the same starting line-up against opponents of such majesty advertised the message that United were not here to cringe behind a wall. Their quest to win a fourth European title (a third for Alex Ferguson) would not be shaped by deference.

A top professional would be slow to admit this, but playing against Barcelona cannot be much fun, such is the constant chasing, the anxiety, the impossibility of halting Messi when he is on one of his Velcro-booted runs.

But United were never in the brace position, however loud the screams inside. They conceded a goal to Pedro Rodriguez on 26 minutes and looked to be in line for a hiding, yet from the same store of defiance that brought them a 19th league title this season, they slogged back down the pitch and left the field for the interval on level terms, after Wayne Rooney had finished off a sweet move that featured quick passing from Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs.

Conservative five-man midfield? Not tonight, thank you. Instead Rooney started in his best position, at No 10, linking the midfield four with the buzzy, hungry Hernandez, who must have seen Javier Mascherano's name on the Barca team-sheet at centre-back and sniffed blood.

From the first whistle, United applied the only principle likely to jolt Spain's champions out of their scintillating rhythms. Ferguson's men were on the hustle, racing in to the contact areas to pester and disrupt. It took two minutes for Sergio Busquets, their chief thespian, to adopt the prone position and rub part of his head, and even Messi looked disorientated by United's macho energy.

Then normal service resumed. Barcelona have been here before, of course, and know how to survive an early provocation. Of all the great club sides, few have radiated such unshakable faith in a philosophy. Pep Guardiola's team know what when the storm drops they will impose their metronomic passing and control the pace and shape of the game.

With a quarter of an hour on the clock, Xavi was omnipresent again, popping up in every frame, working his way round midfield areas where Giggs was starting to look his age (37) and Carrick must have felt a touch lonely in the screening role. From the left, Park Ji-sung did his best to jostle and jolt but found the limits of his eagerness as Barcelona flicked and stroked the ball away from him.

The grotesquely high ticket prices must have hurt a little less as Xavi displayed his mastery and Messi arrowed his way through the middle. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, United's two centre-backs, must have felt a migraine coming on. Put simply, Barcelona were much richer in pure match-winning talent than their opponents, but United possessed enough of their own to keep them in the hunt, all the while their nerve held.

The night brought a brutal reckoning for Dimitar Berbatov, the team's leading scorer in the Premier League with 21, but unable here even to earn a place among the replacements, where Michael Owen was the back-up striker.

"It's a heartache, and to make that decision is not easy," Ferguson said, effectively consigning Berbatov's Old Trafford career to history. Ferguson loaded his bench with midfielders, saying: "That's where we think the game will be won."

Rooney, 25, and Hernandez, 22, are a partnership for the next United era. They are, though, a comparatively new combination. The task of quelling the world's best club side must have felt onerous as well as thrilling to Hernandez, with his 27 Premier League appearances and 13 goals. Rooney had Champions League final history to draw on, from Moscow three years ago and Rome two years ago, when Ferguson was also able to call on Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.

Hernandez did his best to "stretch the play" but most of the action was going on in the golden triangle formed by Messi, Iniesta and Xavi. After the interval Ferguson asked Rooney to present more of an attacking threat and work closer to Hernandez. Soon, though, we were observing an inescapable truth about this Barcelona side. You can do what you like but you will not stop Messi on one of his good days.

Eight minutes into the second period, he collected the ball on the left-hand side of United's area and began to slip inside. Patrice Evra, the United full-back, spectated, or "got on the carousel", to use Ferguson's colourful description of his team's failings in Rome. Messi lashed a left-foot shot past Edwin van der Sar then ran to the Barcelona supporters.

By now United were playing relatively characterless Premier League football against a side raised to the sublime by Messi. Rondo, rondo. But not only that. The ball went wide and through: it pierced every hole and found every gap.

Barcelona's third came on 68 minutes: a curler from David Villa, as United's ability to withstand such an onslaught crumbled. They join a long line of teams overwhelmed by Barcelona's talent and they at least went home with dignity intact.


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