Saturday 16 December 2017

It's mission impossible against Messi

Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1

Josep Guardiola manager of FC Barcelona is thrown in the air as Barcelona celebrate victory in UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United FC at Wembley Stadium
Josep Guardiola manager of FC Barcelona is thrown in the air as Barcelona celebrate victory in UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United FC at Wembley Stadium

There is no shame in losing to Barcelona. Not when they bring such beautiful football, such wonderful passing and such sumptuous goals to Wembley.

It is no good wrapping up the 2011 Champions League final as a hard-luck story for Manchester United. It wasn't. Sir Alex Ferguson's side were beaten 3-1. Out-thought, out-passed, out-played and out-classed.

And at the heart of a final which went another step to proving that Barcelona are the greatest club side in the history of the game was the genius that is Lionel Messi.

It was not just the fact that he scored a wonderful goal in the second half, his first goal in his eighth attempt on English soil as a Barcelona player and a strike which was a rapier thrust to United's ambitions.

It was the fact that Messi was at the heart of so many of Barcelona's thrusts on a night which only confirmed his status as the best player in the world.

The best ever? Probably, if only because his lack of ego, his work ethic, his selflessness, his desire to put team above personal glory is so much more developed than his Argentine counterpart Diego Maradona.

Time and again Messi turned and ran at United's defence, causing little detonations of mayhem, prising space, creating danger.

That is tough on the nerves, which is why at the end of a fraught night United captain and centre back Nemanja Vidic had the look of a man who had flown one mission too many.

No, United did not do themselves or English football justice. They never forged any rhythm. With Sir Bobby Charlton looking down from the smart seats at the scene of his two goals in the 1968 final no-one could say they did not try.

They shed buckets of sweat. In fact, they flew out of the traps just as they had done in 2009. Ferguson's side had lost 2-0 that time on the most dispiriting of Rome evenings. It was a defeat which was painfully embedded in the memory of Ferguson and his desire for his team to do themselves justice this time had been obvious all week.

They knew they had to press and harry, to try to prevent Barcelona settling into that metronomic passing rhythm which devours possession.

For 10 minutes it worked. Ji-Sung Park snapped at the heels of Messi and Xavi, Michael Carrick closed down, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez chased down blue shirts.

We even had the sight of Barcelona players losing possession in their own half.

The problem is that against Barcelona you have to do that for 90 minutes. Mission impossible.

Barcelona are too technically adept, too steeped in their passing tradition to be deprived for long periods and so it proved.

United barely had a touch for the next 20 minutes, by which time Pedro had been expertly played in by Xavi and had rolled the ball past Edwin van der Sar for the first goal.

United fans must have feared the worst. Ferguson was out of his seat, on the touchline, screaming instructions and fresh verve into his side.

It arrived. Not in the smooth, considered manner of so many of Barcelona attacks, but in a flurry of movement. Rooney began the move, a snaking incision across the pitch. He picked up the ball again, fed Ryan Giggs, received the return and then swept the ball past Victor Valdes. A wonderful goal.

It would be stretching it to say United deserved it, especially as there was a suspicion Giggs was offside, but you take what you can whenever you can against Barcelona.

The possession count for that first half said it all - 67% Barcelona, a measly 33% to United.

Not even a side as adept at counter-attacking as United can live off such scraps in such a crucial match. The overriding feeling was that they were always hanging on, always clinging to the edge.

It is tough to maintain concentration at such times and they duly switched off after 54 minutes, leaving Messi of all people clear and unmarked on the edge of the box. A shimmy to his left, a touch to clear the ball out of his feet and then a rasping shot which left Van der Sar flailing at fresh air. Brilliant.

David Villa's goal to seal the victory was even better, a curling right-footer sneaking inside the post and sending the Catalan hordes into a maelstrom of euphoria.

So the retiring Van der Sar says farewell to United and Ferguson, who was generous and warm in his handshakes at the end, must try again to win his third Champions League next season at the age of 70.

He is old enough and wise enough to know his team did not play well.

But there was no shame. Not against Messi and co. Simply magnificent.

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