Tuesday 20 March 2018

Brilliant Barcelona

Lionel Messi wheels away in celebration after scoring Barcelona's second goal in last night's Champions League final at Wembley. Photo: Jasper Juinen
Lionel Messi wheels away in celebration after scoring Barcelona's second goal in last night's Champions League final at Wembley. Photo: Jasper Juinen


One team walked out at Wembley in pursuit of greatness and one team left Wembley last night having achieved it.

There are no more questions left to ask of Barcelona or Lionel Messi. These were performances of majesty in a match that demanded it. There were moments of doubt but they came from Barcelona's inability to score with every chance. Wayne Rooney's first-half equaliser was Manchester United's only shot on target.

In the second, Messi and David Villa scored but the greatness came in how it was done. United had a mission to contain and they couldn't do it. Perhaps even that was asking too much. United will be criticised and Alex Ferguson may regret his team selection which left his side bewildered in midfield, but this is an ordinary United side that has over-achieved this season.

"They mesmerise you with their passing," Ferguson said. "We couldn't get close to Messi but a lot of teams say that."

United were over-run, just as they had been two years go, but this time Barcelona were breathtaking.

The defeat in the Rome final two years ago had scarred Ferguson so much it is said that he has never been able to talk about it.

Yet he has hardly given Oprah-style confessional interviews about the other failures in his career. He did admit on Friday that it might have been a mistake to leave Peter Schmeichel out of the United team that lost 4-0 in the Nou Camp back in 1994, before adding that it had nothing to do with that defeat.

As he recalled it, two years after Barcelona won their first European Cup at Wembley, it offered another reminder of the one great life he has lived, while his opponents were going through several.

Hristo Stoichkov tormented United that night and had been part of the Barcelona side that won at Wembley. Last night he watched from the press box, settled into a well-fed middle-age while Ferguson raged on the touchline below him.

Pep Guardiola played in 1992 and 1994 and spent the eve of yesterday's game avoiding questions about his future plans. Now that his side has achieved greatness, he might find them easier to answer.

This game might be easier for Ferguson to talk about. This was the football he went to see when he watched Real Madrid overwhelm Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960. This was the football he always believed in. "They are the best team we have ever played," he conceded afterwards.

Once Barcelona found that soft-shoe rhythm, United were helpless.

Ferguson roared on the touchline but he was like a man at the end of a runway bellowing at a 747 to stop.

Everywhere there was Xavi, always, always Xavi. Messi played his own game. Unfortunately United had to play his too. United stopped them briefly when Rooney equalised after Pedro's opener. On the bench, Ferguson seemed to cut short his celebration, as if he couldn't believe it.

United's goal seemed to anger Barcelona, which is like enraging a Bond villain: they are all soft-spoken menace and purring cats. Messi exploded, somehow missing by inches after a run of almost comic genius with United players tumbling around him.

Messi kept going, they all did. United flailed and chased while Barcelona scored and confirmed their genius and their greatness. United had no escape. Everywhere they went, Messi was waiting. He will haunt them for a generation.

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