Sport Soccer

Friday 23 March 2018

United's death by a thousand cuts comes as a relief

Tommy Conlon

To be fair to Manchester United, they were on top for the first ten minutes -- for as long as they live, they will always have that first ten minutes.

But as we watched Rooney and Valencia and poor old Ji-Sung Park, that faithful retainer, tear around the field like greyhounds after a hare, the obvious question arose: how long can this last?

By the time it was all over 80 minutes later, that opening charge by United was more comparable to the nervous behaviour of a gullible athlete in an Olympic 10,000m final. He takes off at the sound of the gun, wins the first lap by a distance -- and then gets lapped with 8,000m still to go.

In the 10th minute exactly last Saturday night, reality intruded. It started when the goalkeeper Valdes cleared Pique's alarming back pass; it came to Xavi Hernandez in midfield. Xavi moved the ball out to David Villa who spread it to Pedro Rodriguez on the left. Pedro played it back to Andres Iniesta and Barca's familiar old ding dong began. Iniesta to Xavi to Iniesta to Pedro to Iniesta to Messi to Iniesta to Xavi to Iniesta to Villa on the edge of the box. A mere 13 uninterrupted passes.

It was all done to a chorus of boos around Wembley stadium from United's supporters. They recognised what was unfolding before their eyes and it was already making them anxious. Barca's first passing sequence of the night was akin to that moment in an old B movie western when the white man is deep in injun territory and he suddenly hears the ominous sound of the tom tom drums. It's time to be afraid.

United's supporters were afraid. Their team had staunched the flow for all of ten minutes. Now the haemorrhaging was about to begin. In the 13th minute, Barca strung together a 12-pass sequence; in the 14th, 18 passes; in the 16th, 14 passes. The latter sequence led to their first chance of the night.

It was nothing remarkable by their standards but it serves as a good example of how their metronomic work leads to the incremental erosion of a defensive line. How defenders are lured out of position as they are drawn to the ball, snapping at the feet of the receiving player before retreating back into position; getting lured out again only to find the ball has disappeared again as soon as they arrive; then retreating back into formation. But the defensive line is all the time becoming more and more frayed as they constantly advance and retreat.

These are defenders of the highest calibre, Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra; they have pace and strength and concentration; they are used to breaking up attacks with well-timed tackles. And here were opponents who were playing ball right under their noses: Barcelona weren't passing it to team-mates in space, they were passing it to team-mates who were actually being closely marked.

In normal circumstances Vidic and company would've been devouring these passes. It's no wonder they were tempted out so often. But in fact they were being conned. Their proximity to the ball was an illusion. They were being manipulated by remote control. It's not just Barcelona's appreciation of space; it's their appreciation of the lack of space too. Their one-touch football and velvet-smooth control was not giving United's defenders a sniff; it was instead unravelling United's positional discipline and general cohesion.

Twice in that 16th minute sequence Ferdinand was lured out to Messi as the little maestro received the ball; Rio was on his back but Messi took him out of the play each time with one touch of the ball.

And with Rio getting drawn out of the centre, Patrice Evra got dragged over to plug the gap there, leaving Dani Alves unmarked out on the right. Iniesta immediately swept the ball wide to Alves and from there they orchestrated their first shot.

The tide of play towards the United goal just grew stronger as the minutes ticked by. Barca's interplay occasionally looked pointless, as it sometimes does; players with just two or three yards between them pinging it back and forth as if the habits drilled into them at their famed academy has left them all with a

nervous tic, an impulse to pass the ball that is so repetitive it is almost obsessive-compulsive.

In the 22nd, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi were yet again playing pinball. They were confronted by a line of Valencia, Carrick and Giggs, all three on red alert, poised to make decisive tackles. Seconds later they were left for dead, confounded by a ridiculously slick necklace of moves, as Barca's holy trinity broke in a wave onto United's back four. Only a magnificent tackle by Vidic kept Messi at bay.

Five minutes later, Xavi advanced again on the United penalty area; Evra's escalating panic provoked him again into abandoning his position. Xavi instantly delivered the dagger pass to the vacuum where Evra should have been; Pedro killed it with a touch and left Edwin van der Sar baffled by his rational finish.

It's easy to forget that for all their class, this Barcelona team is tough to the core. The pressure had been on them to confirm all the talk of their greatness. It was a relief that they did, and a pleasure once again to watch them doing it with such irresistible grace.

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