Tuesday 23 January 2018

Catalans' wizardry leaves Fergie helpless

When Pep Guardiola went over to shake Alex Ferguson's hand at the end, Manchester United's manager gave a rueful smile. Ferguson's career has been about using his power in places he shouldn't be able to, but last night at Wembley he was helpless. Barcelona's fourth European Cup was one of the most stunning accomplishments in the history of the tournament.

If anybody had any questions about Lionel Messi, who scored his 53rd goal of the season, then they were swept away in a display of conclusive majesty from him.

He was not alone. Xavi and Andres Iniesta dominated midfield but Barcelona had dominated everywhere. They provided magic in a game which is criticised for being all about the bottom line.

It was right that men like Sepp Blatter were unable to attend. Barcelona achieved many things at Wembley last night, but one of them was that they offered an alternative to Blatter's world.

There were so many men who terrified United, but Messi stood out. Xavi controlled things and Messi was involved in the two second-half goals, scoring one and setting up the other, but they were only the decorations to his acts of beautiful destruction throughout the game.

In the end, they toyed with United, sending on Carles Puyol for the final two minutes. He wore the armband at the end but the European Cup was lifted by Eric Abidal. Two months ago he had a tumour on his liver removed, but Abidal played 90 minutes of the game that will define a generation. Barcelona seem to make the impossible possible.

Puyol's absence beforehand had seemed like a blow. All of Barcelona's defeats this season came in games he missed. The defence should have been vulnerable. United's selection was daring but suddenly they had a reason to be bold.

Ferguson was gambling on Wayne Rooney and Chicharito exposing the weakness, and it was a weakness, in the Barcelona defence. His gamble was to concede the midfield to Barcelona. At the end, it was hard to work out a way you couldn't concede the midfield to them.

The opening minutes suggested there had been no sacrifice. It was Barcelona, not United, who couldn't keep the ball as England's champions closed down the space and cut out the routes to Xavi.

In those opening seconds, Barcelona were nervous. Victor Valdes and Gerard Pique nearly messed up a simple back-pass but then Rio Ferdinand had to lunge to block a David Villa shot. Suddenly Barcelona had their rhythm. Soon they were making the angles only they can and those opening minutes were nearly all that United could look back on with fondness. Pedro should have given Barcelona the lead when he got to a Xavi ball but he put it wide from six yards.

Maybe it was too ordinary; Messi was anything but. He was picking up the ball where United didn't want him. All the Barcelona players were doing their thing. Iniesta danced for a bit then played in Messi who was stopped by a bone-cruncher from Nemanja Vidic. Messi just got up and started again.

United looked shattered already and things were going to get worse -- with Barcelona, they nearly always get worse.

Xavi may have taken some time (two or three minutes) to get into the game, but now it was his. With 26 minutes gone, he wandered forward. He may as well have beckoned United players towards him, such was their obedience. When they obeyed, he flicked the ball to the right. Pedro was waiting and drilled the ball into the net.

Barcelona were in control but then for a moment they lost concentration. United won the ball from a Barcelona throw. Rooney ran into space, played the ball into Ryan Giggs, who might have been offside, and demanded it back before sweeping it past Valdes.

The goal reminded Barcelona of what they had to do. Messi should have scored just before half-time in one of the most beautiful misses the game has ever seen. From just inside the United half, he dribbled at the heart of their defence. Defenders fell, Messi kept going. He lent the ball to Pedro who delivered a return but Messi missed it by inches as Michael Carrick collapsed in exhaustion beside him.

Ferguson had a pitch-side conference before the second half began but United kept their shape and the shape allowed Barcelona to keep charging through midfield. The way they were playing, maybe no amount of United midfielders could have stopped the charge.

Every United tackle was a desperate lunge and still Barcelona cut through them. Alves should have scored at the end of some impossible passes before Edwin Van der Sar, in his last game, gifted Barca a goal.

Messi again found space 25 yards out. This time he tried a shot but it was in the centre of the goal. Van der Sar had moved too far to the right and Messi's shot was hit with such pace that he couldn't recover or reach it.

Barcelona kept going. Messi turned Ferdinand and shot, everyone turned Patrice Evra and they kept making their impossible angles possible.

The third goal wrapped it up. Messi played it back to Villa, who used Ferdinand as cover and curled the ball into the net.

The game and the cup were theirs. Barcelona played the game out. Nobody doubted that they could do that.

Sunday Indo Sport

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