Any time the camera focused on Alex Ferguson last Wednesday night, it showed him in an unusual pose. He was sitting down quietly. He looked lost, defeated, deflated. He realised soon after Samuel E’too’s 10th minute toe poke under Edwin van Der Saar that there was no way back. A one goal margin was all there was, but it seemed insurmountable. Ferguson’s teams have never known when they are beaten, as we have seen all too often over the last 20 years. Against Sheffield Wednesday in ’93, Bayern Munich in ’99, Tottenham ’01. Certain defeats turned into glorious triumph. But this Barcelona team was not for bullying.
Wednesday night raised so many questions and debating points. Did United miss Darren Fletcher? Why wasn’t Tevez starting? How did a back four that had never played together before look so solid against the one of the most potent attacks in the world? Why was Wayne Rooney so marginalised? There are countless others. In my opinion, none of the above mattered. Barcelona’s five main contributors are all schooled in the Barcelona way. In no particular order:
Andreas Iniesta: Finally, the world stood up and took notice of this phenomenal talent. His burst from midfield and subsequent lay-off to E’too got the ball rolling for Barce. They struggled in the opening exchanges, but Iniesta looked like he was just reliving the pressure. He left Carrick and Anderson in his wake, and the game turned completely in the Catalan’s favour. Throughout the game, his football brain, intelligence, resilience, touch and vision was there for all to see and admire. His seems almost embarrassed by his outrageous ability, which is refreshing to see when players possessing 10% of this young man’s talent value themselves well above their station.
Xavi: Another player whose outstanding contribution over the years has been overshadowed by massive names like Rivaldo and Ronaldino. After shining at Euro 2008, he was Uefa’s Man of the Match in Rome. (To be fair, it could have been any one of five Barcelona players). His wonderful cross set up Messi’s gravity defining header. Of the 80 passes he attempted, 75 found a Barcelona player.
Lionel Messi: Much was expected of Messi, and he did not disappoint. He sprang to life after the opening goal, and produced some moments of magic. As usual, he was subject to much punishment from United players (whenever they managed to get near them), and his goal ended the game as a contest. His goal famine against English teams ended. Cristanio Ronaldo still hasn’t scored in 7 games against Spanish opposition.
Carles Puyol: Only included in the starting XI as there were four defenders unavailable, but produced a display of courage and strength. His pace and power kept first of all Rooney, then Park, and finally Ronaldo in check. The Portuguese forward’s last 30 minutes of the match were spent trying to wind Puyol up, rather than get his team back on track. He was almost rewarded with a goal, and his pride at lifting the European Cup was there for all to see.
Gerard Pique: Apparently, once you leave Manchester United, the only way is down. Mr. Pique will beg to differ. A year after been sold to his hometown club for a partly £4 million, he was a towering presence in the heart of the defence. It was a display that surprised many, me included. I often felt he did not use his height and size enough, but he was exceptional. Faced with a series of different challenges, from the direct running of Ronaldo, to Tevez’s busy demeanour, to Berbatov’s touch and hold-up play, he stood up each time, and perhaps now Ferguson may have second thoughts about his decision to sell him.
So the team with 7 home-grown players and a home-grown manager played the £200 million squad off the park. Sir Alex was gracious in defeat. That says it all really.